"I know it sounds strange, coming from someone who goes on stage and tries to make strangers laugh, but I've never really sought out enormous amounts of attention," says comedian and actor Jim Gaffigan, a tall, mild-mannered, worried-looking man with a sneaky grin and a hilarious stand-up style. "I'm one of the those people who really doesn't look forward to people singing 'Happy Birthday' to me. The opportunity to do what I like and make a living at it is good enough for me. I don't aspire to be on the cover of People and Time or anything like that. The fact that I write jokes and get paid for it seems like I got a pretty good deal out of it."
Gaffigan visits Charleston this Saturday during a stop on his current national tour — a lengthy journey dubbed "Comedy Central Live Starring Jim Gaffigan: The Sexy Tour." This tour follows the successful release of the DVD of his latest Comedy Central special, Beyond the Pale, named for one of his favorite self-deprecating themes.
Known best for his supporting roles in a wide variety of films, TV shows, commercials, and late-night appearances, his profanity-free, delicately-delivered stand-up work — much of which observes the often overlooked — is one of his strongest talents.
"I guess you could say that I'm a clean comic, but I like to deal with the hard-hitting issues of today ... like bacon and beanbag chairs, and Hot Pockets," he says in his goofy tone. "I try to make the mundane funny. I enjoy the challenge, really, of taking a topic that's in all of our lives and turning it on its head and making it funny. It's not one of those things where my comedy is political or anything like that.
"I romanticize the id in all of us, I guess," he adds. "I indulge things that, socially, we shouldn't delve into — like an obsession with ketchup, or analyzing why we love hammocks so much. I write about laziness and doing nothing. I miss it. It's like the good old days! I miss the opportunity to watch TV for like six hours. People have also told me that I'm incredibly Americana with my point of view on things. But there's also part of me that's the lower point — not of mankind — but more at a ridiculous level, like what we secretly believe about errands and our daily lives ... I'm incredibly articulate, by the way."
Growing up in the small town of Chesterton in northwest Indiana (where "the closest thing to the entertainment industry was the marching band"), Gaffigan looked up to David Letterman, Bill Murray, and other sly wise guys.
Inspired but unsure of his chances in the comedy and acting world, he dabbled in improv and acting through his years at Georgetown University, and picked up doing improv "as a way to deal with a fear of public speaking" before making his first big push in the clubs of New York City in the mid-'90s. Gaffigan's first big break came in 1999, when he was booked to do a short set on Late Show with David Letterman.
"There's a little bit [in my material] from Letterman in this accessible, sarcastic, sardonic approach to life — but dealing with it in a polite way," Gaffigan says of Dave's influence. "I know Letterman has a little bit of a reputation for being a little bit mean, but he can be sarcastic and playful in a way where nobody gets hurt. He doesn't leave anyone wounded in the room. I don't want my comedy to leave anyone out. That's why I pick my topics the way I do. I don't understand why some comics pick really inside stuff, or stuff that pits people against other people."
Over time, Gaffigan landed an unusually wide variety of film and TV roles and stage gigs. He co-starred with Ellen DeGeneres on her CBS sitcom The Ellen Show. He had recurring roles both on That '70s Show and Ed. As the character "Doug," he overused the can with the door wide open in Miranda's apartment on Sex and the City. He got laughs in the cult movie Super Troopers with the "meow bit." He squirmed under pressure in a dramatic role as a crematory manager on Law and Order.
Gaffigan recently began writing and doing voice work in episodes of Pale Force, a series of animated shorts that air regularly on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
"I feel like I have so many voices in my head ... and I like doing them all," Gaffigan says. "If I solely did one of them, I don't know if it'd be beneficial. I love stand-up, but the idea of peaking at 11 o'clock at night, 52 weeks a year is not incredibly heathy. But I think being an actor is really one of the most insane ambitions. Where stand-up has a bit of the meritocracy — you know, an audience will honestly tell you if they think something's funny — in acting, you don't know."
Regardless of the situation, Gaffigan's passive, furrowed approach and understated delivery are consistently effective. He says he rarely has to adjust from venue to venue and looks forward to the Charleston show.
"The thing that's so great about [playing] theaters is that they're obviously designed for intimacy," Gaffigan says. "The focus and attention that environment brings is beneficial to my style of comedy. The fact that I'm not blue, it doesn't feel out of place to do my thing in a theater setting. It heightens the experience for the audience.
"You know, getting people to laugh is very addictive," he adds. "Getting a positive reaction from someone, as cornballish and obvious as that sounds, is something you don't find in a lot of creative fields. The immediacy of it is really amazing."