The Comedy Couch

 JIM GAFFIGAN - September 9, 2005

GUY MACPHERSON: I'm carrying my baby in my arms right
now so he doesn't cry.
JIM GAFFIGAN: It's amazing how you learn to do things
holding a baby. I type holding a baby.

GM: You're the hot comic around now it seems.
JG: I don't know if I'm hot.

GM: You are. You're like the comics' comic. I speak to
comics and they love you.
JG: Oh really? That is so flattering. I mean, I hear
that occasionally and I tell you that means a lot. You
always want to be respected by your peers.

GM: A lot of times with comics' comics, they're the
ones the crowds don't necessarily like but other
comics do. But it's not the case with you.
JG: I think there were plenty of times when the
audience didn't get me.

GM: You're hot now, but it was a long time coming,
wasn't it? You've been at it for how long?
JG: Fifteen years. There was a lot of rejection and a
lot of hard work. Standup's really, I think, amazing
because it's this level of irony that you have some
control over what you're doing yet you're crazy enough
to go in front of absolute strangers and think that
you can control it again. But unlike acting you don't
have to wait to get hired. You can go up there and try
things.

GM: How often do you try new things? You're out there
and you're being paid now as a headliner and you have
material that you know works so you can always get out
of a tricky situation.
JG: Oh yeah. Well, I'm obviously still learning a lot.

GM: Really?
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. There's this ongoing
relationship you have with the audience where they
expect, unlike a musician where you can just do your
famous songs... With an audience there's an agreement
that you're going to bring something new to the table.
They might want to hear stuff that they're familiar
with and they like, but there's definitely an
unwritten rule of "you better surprise me a little
bit."

GM: Do you ever bomb at this stage of your career?
JG: Uh... I'm sure there are times when I'm kind of
like doing fine but I feel like I'm bombing. But there
are times when I can't believe that I'm actually
getting paid to do this. Then there are times when it
feels a little bit like a job. I do a fair amount of
corporate events where it can be kind of a strange
kind of environment where these people might have had
to listen to sales figures for the past eight years
and maybe they're there out of obligation and they're
surrounded by the bosses. For corporate situations,
you feel like you're there for the money. There's
always the exception where they're great. But I would
say 90 percent of the time I find standup incredibly
rewarding, incredibly fun. But there is ten percent of
the time where I feel like it's work. It's kind of
like, "Okay, I'm going to do these jokes. You guys
want to hear these jokes?" I'm a hired monkey.

GM: But more so in a corporate setting than with a
comedy crowd, you're saying.
JG: People come to comedy clubs or come to theatre
shows in a good mood and they're ready to laugh. And
sometimes corporate settings, these are people that
are there out of obligation. They'd rather see
Gallagher. Do you know what I mean?

GM: (laughs) Well, wouldn't we all?
JG: Yeah, I think we would.

GM: Is a joke ever completely written or is there
always room for improvement?
JG: For me it's more of a topic rather than a joke.
Like, I've been doing this Hot Pocket joke for six or
seven years. I've done it on a couple different TV
shows and I've heard people say, "Why don't you do
that one joke anymore in the Hot Pocket chunk?" So
it's kinda like always evolving. But there are some
jokes that are finished and messing with them would
mess it up.

GM: How did you get your first break? You've been at
it so long and you said you faced a lot of rejection.
What's what you would consider your first really big
break?
JG: I would preface it by saying I think that's it's
always a combination of a bunch of breaks that kind of
make things happen. I would say for me things that
really had an impact: when I finally did Letterman.
I'm from Indiana, so that was a big goal for me. But
also I did Letterman, and after I did Letterman for
the first time, they offered to develop a show.

GM: After the first time!
JG: Yeah, it was surreal. This was after eight or nine
years of not getting weekend spots in New York and
somebody just finally getting it.

GM: That was a good day.
JG: Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

GM: And you did do the series, right?
JG: Yeah, yeah, it was a show called Welcome To New
York. That was a huge break. But it's interesting
because there are so many random things that can
happen. You never know what's going to have the
impact. Like, I did one scene in this movie Super
Troopers. I have no idea how old you are, but...

GM: Forty-three.
JG: Yeah, I mean I'm 39. And Super Troopers is for
people in their twenties. It's the movie that they
watch a hundred times. It's like I watched Raising
Arizona a hundred times and Airplane a hundred times.
So being in that movie kind of opened me up to people
checking out my standup. And being on Conan, like,
thirteen times has been a big break, too. It's just
connecting with a type of audience that really gets my
stuff. I think Conan's a great example of that.

GM: How many times have you done Letterman?
JG: I've done Letterman ten times.

GM: That first shot, because it had been building up
in your mind, was it a good set, were you extra
nervous? What was going through your mind then?
JG: I feel like with my first Letterman I had kind of
been getting ready for it for like five years. When I
talk about rejection, at the time I did Letterman, in
the back of my mind I kind of felt like "Well, I
should have gotten this five years ago." But that
didn't diminish my enthusiasm and my level of being
terrified of taking advantage of this opportunity.

GM: You weren't walking around with a chip on your
shoulder.
JG: No. It's weird because I started in New York and
doing Letterman or Conan was kind of like this rite of
passage. All my friends, people that I knew and didn't
know out of the business... You were a comic if you
had done Letterman or Conan. If you hadn't done
Letterman or Conan, you were a crazy person that went
on stage and talked. You know what I mean?

GM: Yeah. It gives you that credibility.
JG: Yeah, it silences critics. It's like, "Well, you
know, he definitely is a comic." So there was a great
level of relief. I felt like, "Well, now I can die.
I've done Letterman."

GM: What year was that, your first Letterman?
JG: I think it was '99. Or 2000. [It was actually 1999
- ed.]

GM: So you were about ten years into your career.
JG: Yeah. But something that big, it's kinda like when
you get married, at least for me, I was like, "I'm
ready for this. I wanna do this. I could do it in my
sleep" kind of thing. It was very exciting. It was
great. It was really kind of, like I said, "Okay, I'm
not a lunatic." I was raised in a conservative
environment where success is wearing a suit to work.
So pursuing this creative thing was not something
anyone in my family had done.

GM: Now they're on board with it?
JG: Yeah. Yeah.

GM: But they weren't before, is that what you're
saying?
JG: No, I think they were. I think they were always
kind of supportive. It was kind of like, "Well, Jim's
the crazy one."

GM: (laughs) And the third funniest, I hear.
JG: And the third funniest.

GM: How many kids in the family?
JG: I was the youngest of six kids. So there was a lot
of joking. My mom had a great laugh.

GM: I hear that with Mike Myers, that he was the least
funny in his family.
JG: Oh really? Yeah. This is kind of boring, but I
always think that I'm kind of a combination of... I
have three brothers that have distinct senses of
humour. My brother Mike is really sardonic and really
sarcastic. Every three months he'll say one line that
is really funny. And then my brother Mitch is kind of
an observational guy. Accessible, funny stuff. And
then my brother Joe's really kind of a surreal kind of
funny guy. And I just kind of think that I stole from
all of them.

GM: And they have regular jobs?
JG: Yeah. They're bankers and stock brokers. They
didn't have the balls to go for it.

GM: Were you up for Kilborne's job?
JG: I did a guest hosting spot. I was not really up
for it. I would not have turned it down. But I do
enjoy acting. It's one of those things that's really a
commitment to do that job. And I know the Worldwide
Pants people, which is Letterman's company behind it,
I think they know I want to be an actor. And the last
thing I'd want to do is be like, "Yeah, I'll do it
for two years." But to be honest, no I wasn't up for
it. I think that if I had done such an incredible job
they would have offered it to me, but I think that
they really wanted somebody that would do it for
fifteen years.

GM: Are you getting more or fewer chances at acting
with your success in standup?
JG: I don't think it really affects it as of yet. I
don't know. It's one of those things where I've done
tons of commercials in the states and I've kind of
held off doing some commercials at some point because
if you're a writer/director and you write your great
indie film and you need someone to play a priest or a
murderer, you don't necessarily want the guy from the
commercial that's shilling soda. I don't know if it
has an impact. I'm a character actor, too, so it's not
like I'm getting turned down to be a lead investigator
on CSI or anything. So I don't know if it's affecting
it. I mean, some of the travelling... My legit agent
is like, "Alright, there's this audition for this
thing that you're not going to be around for." But I'm
doing an indie movie starting next week with Tilda
Swanson [sic]and then I'm doing a day on an M. Night
Shyamalan movie next Friday. It's a balance but it's
not like I'm turning anything down. I mean, I've
turned down some stuff. One of the jokes that I tell
people is, "I'm at that unique stage of my career
where I'm turning things down and not getting
anything." So, like, people will offer me something
and everyone will say, "Don't do it!" It'll be a small
part reoccurring on some show and they'll be like, "We
don't think you should do it. You should wait until
you get your own show." And I'm like, "When am I going
to get my own show?"

GM: These aren't just comedies you're doing, either.
JG: Those are both straight dramas.

GM: You're getting the parts that Philip Seymour
Hoffman turns down?
JG: It's weird, also, because I'm sure you know this:
You do these indies and the script's good, the
directing's good and it's a decent film, and it just
never goes anywhere. You'll go to a premiere or you'll
go to some festival and you'll be like, "Oh, this is
definitely... at minimum it'll be on HBO!" And it
never goes anywhere. And it kind of breaks your heart.

GM: I wonder what the percentage is of made films to
shown films.
JG: Yeah. I've been in many films that have played
only in the director's living room.

GM: Did you say that the better you get at life, the
better you get at standup?
JG: God, I don't know if I said that. Did I say that?

GM: Well, then, what do you think about it? Is it
true?
JG: It's weird, because I'm sitting here and I'm
probably 20 pounds overweight than I'd like to be. And
I think you'd probably understand it. When you got a
kid, your priorities shift dramatically. It's like,
"Well, I could do that or I could play with my kid."
Standup, for me, is such a creative outlet that I feel
like it's kinda like this secret that a lot of
creative people could avoid a lot of neuroses and a
lot of cases of meth-amphetamine addiction if people
could just have this outlet.

GM: But a lot of them just aren't any good at that
kind of thing.
JG: Yeah. But even writing. When you get done with the
piece, there's a sense of accomplishment. You're doing
something that's a piece of substance. There's tons of
people that don't get to do what they want. I'm just
really grateful that I get to do what I want. I could
do without the travelling.

GM: I saw you were in China with your kid.
JG: Yeah.

GM: That's scary because they steal babies over there!
JG: Well, you know, I tell you, I saw that article
that they stole a baby, but I do love travelling
internationally. There's just opportunities where...
You gotta go to China if you get the opportunity, you
know what I mean? Like, I've performed in England a
bunch of times and it's never really creatively
fulfilling. I have kind of Americana references that
are lost on the Brits, but you gotta go to London.

GM: And you gotta go to Vancouver.
JG: You gotta go to Vancouver.

GM: Does that count as international?
JG: I did the Mike Bullard show a bunch of times. And
I've done Montreal a couple times. There is something
that is really familiar. And I'd say about a third of
the comedians I'm friends with are Canadian. So
there's something very kind of familiar between us.
I'm sure when you guys go to London, it's a little bit
of like, "Oh, you guys say 'way out'? We say 'exit'."

GM: We're close enough that we get all your
references.
JG: There you go.

GM: Have you ever played here before?
JG: Vancouver? I don't think I have. I know geography.
It's probably two hours, but I'd say Seattle's one of
my favourite places to perform. No, I wanted to do the
[Vancouver] festival last year, and some of it is a
balancing act of travelling and trying to make money.
The festivals are hard because you want to do them
because you get to perform and hang out with your
peers, but then again they're not moneymaking
opportunities.

GM: You work primarily clean, don't you?
JG: Yeah. I've gotten to the point where I'm virtually
totally clean.

GM: Is that just who you are or is that because you
want to be adaptable to TV situations or appeal to a
wider audience?
JG: It's not like a censorship issue at all. I've
always felt like when I have cursed in the past that
it's been kind of cheating. Whether it's an f-bomb,
I've always been kinda trying to balance - this is
going to sound ridiculous, but - what's really funny
and what's really irreverent. I feel like there are
some jokes where, "Is that funny or is that shocking?"
And I feel like half the time when I do curse... I'm
preparing for this Comedy Central hour special so I
want it to be all clean.

GM: Yeah, because they beep. You don't want that.
JG: Yeah, I don't want that. I don't know, it's just
kinda like where I am. I just want to work clean and
who knows, maybe in five years I'll want to be dirty.
But there is the benefit of people that want to listen
to the cd with their kids or something like that. They
don't want their 12-year-old to hear a curse word that
the kid hears on HBO anyway.

GM: And not cursing can be just as funny, is what
you're saying.
JG: I think so. And I think that's the challenge.
That's not to say that dirty jokes aren't funny. It's
just that I feel like it's a bigger mountain to climb.

GM: You weren't in The Aristocrats, were you?
JG: I was not.

GM: Would you have done that joke?
JG: Yeah, I would have done that.

GM: What is your favourite type of comedy to watch?
JG: It changes. I would talk about comics that I
really like to watch. By the way, I never watch comedy
(laughs), but some of these people I like but I don't
watch because I don't have an opportunity or I don't
want them to influence my style. But I think Brian
Regan's probably the best comic working today that is
completely underrated. I don't know why he doesn't
have an HBO special every year. But on the same note,
I think Chris Rock is a great comic, too. And I
haven't seen him in forever, but Dave Attell's an
amazing comic. When I started, the first five years I
did standup, really the only credit I had was that
Dave Attell thought I was funny. He definitely
influenced me in that his writing is so efficient and
kinda making a joke undeniable and stuff like that.
Who else do I like to watch? There's a Canadian guy
that I'm friends with, Ian Bagg, who's kind of a crowd
work guy, who's just really, really funny and silly.
He was in China with me. He's one of those guys that's
really hard to follow. He's so engaging. There's no
fourth wall at all. And I kind of work in a way where
I talk for the audience. And Ian is just so off the
cuff and just so confident and vulnerable at the same
time. And he's kind of a big, towering guy so it's not
like one of those things where guys would take
advantage of his vulnerability.

GM: Which is more important for you: writing or
performing?
JG: I feel like the writing's really important.
Performing is - and please don't make me sound as
corny as I think I'm sounding - performing is in a way
your relationship with the audience. It's like style
versus substance. And if your style is not something
people respond to, the substance - being the material
- can be something that can stand on its own. I think
I kinda learned that from Attell. People might not
like Attell but they'll like his jokes. So the
material is really important. I always try to keep it
organic. And I think Hedberg was a great example of
somebody who really had a good balance between those
two. His style and his performance were kind of
anti-style, but the jokes were so good they could
stand on their own. It's always good if you can have
jokes that really can only be delivered in your comic
voice, if that makes sense.

GM: You won't have people stealing them then.
JG: And I think Jake Johannsen really has a unique
style and good writing, too. He's really balanced
that.

GM: I was going to ask you your opinion on him because
you're sharing the bill with him in Vancouver.
JG: He's got that storyteller quality that is really
kind of rare. It's rare that people can pull that off
and keep the attention and keep it funny through a
story. He's very likable.

GM: What about Eddie Brill, who's also on this bill?
JG: I think Eddie is a classic in a lot of ways. His
comedy is so accessible. He's having fun up there,
too. And I think that is really contagious to the
audience. It's no mistake why Letterman has him warm
up the audiences. He doesn't have that comic kind of
cynicism about him.

GM: And you don't, either.
JG: I'm sure I have a little bit of that after I've
been on four planes in four days. And if I'm trying to
steal a nap and somebody's banging on a door in the
next room, I'm a little bit cynical. But definitely my
persona is much more playful than who I am in everyday
life.

GM: How does your family, your marriage and child,
affect your work? Is that one reason why you work
clean because you have this gorgeous little baby?
JG: I would say that my wife and I are really kind of
a true partnership down to writing. I mean, everything
I write she has her hands in and she influences. She's
a very funny person and she's an actress and she's
done a lot of sketch comedy. And she understands my
comic voice so we write a lot together. So that
definitely influences the act. But I don't know if
that influences the cleanliness stuff. I mean, I've
always been like, I wouldn't to do a joke that would
embarrass my mom. Like there are Def Comics that are
talking about eating pussy, then they're like, "I love
you, Mom!" There's this ironic twist there. But I
don't really lead a typical, traditional family life.
But it's weird because if I were to do a [TV] show, it
would probably be like like this guy who's trying to
have a traditional family and balancing a career.

GM: What's not traditional? Just because you're on the
road so often?
JG: Because I'm travelling and because I work at
night. There's not many situations where, you know, my
wife's pregnant and we have a baby and then I'll just
announce, "I gotta take a nap." Try saying that to a
pregnant woman. It doesn't make sense. It's just a
weird balance. You can nap during the day, but outside
of the entertainment world it doesn't make sense. But
if you peak at ten o'clock at night, it does make sense.


 
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