Jim Gaffigan’s fire still burns for stand-up comedy, and they keep coming back

 By Michael Venutolo-Mantovani

October 26, 2017

Jim Gaffigan is as affable a superstar as they come. During the initial moments of our interview as he thanked this no-name writer for taking the time to interview him, the good-natured charm and easy going spirit that he’s known for was evident. These qualities imbue Gaffigan’s material and have helped him become one of comedy’s biggest draws.

His draw is so big, in fact, that he is about to embark on a tour that will find him headlining some of the biggest arenas in the country. He brushes it off, however, when asked about what his ascension to such heights.

“Stand-up is very much a conversation,” he told me, “and the intimacy that the audience shares with the performer is very important…If you had asked me three years ago if I would do an arena, I would have said no. Now the technology has gotten to the point where the person in the last row of a twenty-thousand seat arena is far more engaged in the conversation than the person in the last row of a three-thousand seat theater.”

Jim Gaffigan photo by Robyn Von Swank

Though he’s finding himself in front of tens of thousands of people night after night, Gaffigan still finds his way into the hyper-intimate comedy clubs where he got his start.

“I just did an amphitheater in California. Thirteen thousand people. But tonight I’m performing at a club for a hundred. The conversation is a bit different, the pacing might change, but it’s essentially the same experience.”

Rather than approaching those nights in the small comedy clubs where he got his start as a nostalgic trip, however, Gaffigan seems to appreciate the chance to perform with such intimacy as part and parcel in the life of a comedian.

And while the preparation is the same and the jokes often similar, it is the give-and-take between comedian and audience, or as Gaffigan calls it, “the conversation,” that tends to change the most.

“(Big theaters and arenas) are a bigger bus to drive,” he said, “so when you’re turning the bus, you might have to turn a lot slower than you would on a motorcycle, if that makes sense.

“Also, in a larger room there is a smaller likelihood that the show being hijacked by a person or a small group of people.”

Jim Gaffigan photo by Robyn Von Swank

When our conversation veered toward the motivation behind touring, Gaffigan again addressed the differences between stand up and music, citing something of a philosophical discussion he’s had with friends before.

“Where a band would tour in support of a new album, with comedy there is something of an unspoken agreement with the audience that you’re coming with new material. Not to mention that the song is not different based on the room.” He continued: “Of course there are the greatest hits, and that there might be an expectation that I do the Hot Pockets joke or things that people already know. But there is a freshness with comedy that’s really important. It’s integral and it’s a lot of the reason why comedians ask people to refrain from using cell phones during performances.

“My only hope when I tour is that when they leave, the fans say, ‘I want to see him when he comes back.’”

And when he does come back, Gaffigan, who is an avowed foodie, tries his hardest to eat like a local, going so far as to ask the denizens where he should eat (I recommended The Diamond, Lupie’s and The Tipsy Burro, but you can tell him yourself at @JimGaffigan).

“I’m crazy about specialty regional cuisine so I’ll usually tweet out asking for recommendations and try something the locals suggest. So in the Southeast, I’m sure it’ll be barbecue or something like that.”

Jim Gaffigan photo by Robyn Von Swank

Beyond this fall’s megatour, Gaffigan is keeping an eye toward the spring, when his new film Chappaquiddick. is slated to arrive in theaters. The film, which examines the aftermath of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and the effect it had on the political trajectory of Ted Kennedy, eschews sensationalism in favor of a more nuanced approach to the story.

“It’s a very serious look at the events the transformed Ted Kennedy’s career,” Gaffigan, who plays Kennedy insider Paul Markham, notes. “It’s about the outside influences that can affect a life.”

Rather than an apologetic headpiece, Gaffigan sees the film as a way to posit the directions a person’s life can take and the ramifications singular events can have on the lives around them.

“Markham was this guy that could have become a Supreme Court justice,” he said. “He was so excited that he was finally in (Kennedy’s) inner circle. But it wasn’t the most ideal situation. Because of that, I see it as a film that might ask the viewer, ‘Well, what would you have done?’”

Jim Gaffigan photo by Robyn Von Swank

Whether the nice guy he actually is or the nice guy persona he’s cultivated on stage, comes across on the big screen remains to be seen. Until then, we’ll just have to trust that Jim Gaffigan, whether in massive arenas or small comedy clubs, in major films or interacting directly with fans on Twitter, is ready for the conversation.

Catch Jim Gaffigan on November 10 at Spectrum Center.

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