He champions a near-radical notion: that comedy should be funny.
Lenny Bruce ruined stand-up comedy. Jim Gaffigan, the self-described "laziest man on earth," is single-handedly saving it.
Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But the comedian has been a quiet revolutionary, restoring a vital element to standup that Bruce had taken away—the indispensable, but apparently forgotten idea that comedians have no obligation to be provocative, topical, socially conscious, or anything else but funny.
There's no question that Bruce did for comedy what Elvis did for popular music. Leading a wave of innovative standups that included Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, Bruce infused comedy with rock-and-roll values. Injecting the genre with a previously unknown sense of danger and rebellion, Bruce turned what was a hackneyed slice of Borscht Belt culture into vibrant art form at the vanguard of 1960's counterculture.
In the '70s, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, among others, elevated comedy to high art. George Carlin, carrying Bruce's mantle of comic-as-angry-prophet, also used profanity as a form of protest—most famously with the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."
In the 1980s, though, with the rise of comedy clubs and especially cable TV, things changed. By decade's end, comics not only could say those seven words on television—they were almost required to. Comedians, it seemed, no longer could just tell jokes. They were expected to be edgy, experimental, controversial or confrontational, and for every performer like Eddie Murphy or Bill Hicks with an outsized talent to match their outrageous material, there were dozens of hacks who just used swear words in place of real punchlines.
Then, in 1990, 24-year-old Jim Gaffigan decided to save comedy from itself.
Oh, okay. Not really. But that was when the Indiana native moved to New York City, got a job in advertising, and started his comedy career.
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Gaffigan spoke about that period of his life last month. He was sitting backstage at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, following a pair of sold-out shows, on tour to promote his latest comedy album, Mr. Universe. He remembered being surprised at the ad agency to hear the streams of four-letter words coming from co-workers
"First," Gaffigan said in his thoughtful Midwest twang, "I'm from the Midwest. So that just kind of made me uncomfortable. But also they didn't sound very creative."
He scuffled around New York's comedy clubs, "trying a lot of different things," to build an on-stage persona. It took nine years before he landed a spot on Late Show with David Letterman. The host took a liking to his fellow Hoosier, and in 2000 Jim was cast in Welcome to New York, a sitcom for Letterman's production company that was canceled shortly into its run.
Gaffigan kept acting—building a none-too-shabby list of screen credits. He also kept honing his standup routine, touring, making comedy albums and multiple appearances on Letterman, Leno and the Craigs. Gaffigan built a particularly good rapport with Conan O'Brien,. Together they made Pale Force. A series of animated shorts spoofing Super Friends that ran from 2005 to 2008, Pale Force depicted Jim and Conan as a superhero-and-sidekick team with superpowers that come from the blinding whiteness of their own skin—a very unsubtle metaphor for the pair's immense nerdiness.