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.
Pale Force proved prophetic. Jim's unrelenting white Midwestern male normality would prove the source of his greatest power.
Defying the Lenny Bruce tradition, Jim has innovated—and carved out a huge following—precisely by avoiding anything that hints at being edgy, mean or preachy. He is scrupulously normal. His humor is strictly observational and character-driven. His delivery is a slow, easy, conversational tenor, like a weirdly bemused museum tour guide. He revels in the mechanics of comedy—in the simple, timeless rhythms of setup and punchline.
The subject matter is mundane, deliberately so. There are routines about bowling balls and the Easter Bunny. Jim's own monumental laziness is a frequent topic. But the overwhelming majority of Gaffigan's act—and a huge part of his appeal—comes from his all-consuming (pun intended) passion for anything edible. He has staked his claim as the comic voice of Foodie America. He is national spokesperson for the bacon-obsessed and Cinnabon-addicted, and he's become as closely associated with the dubious gastronomical pleasures of Hot Pockets as Cheech & Chong are with smoking weed.
One Jim routine dwells on how another favorite, cake, is so markedly superior to pie.
"Put candles in a cake," Jim says, "and it's now a birthday cake. Put candles in a pie, and that just means somebody is drunk in the kitchen."
And he doesn't merely avoid on-stage profanity. He pointedly shuns it, almost as if in rebuke to those uncreative hacks that rely on f-bombs to get laughs. With his real-life qualms about swearing, Catholic guilt firmly in place, in a weird way Gaffigan has become a kind of Bizzaro-world George Carlin. Carlin tried to show that a comic could be successful using swear words on TV. Gaffigan, on the other hand, shows that a comic can be successful without them.
Beyond his pallid skin, slothfulness, and gluttony, Jim is best known for using "The Voice"—a stream of stage-whispered asides that offer a running, hypercritical commentary on his show in the prissy voice of a very easily offended old woman. Like everything else about Jim's comedy, The Voice is sneakily radical, altering the seemingly unalterable math of standup by turning the dialogue between comedian and audience into a three-way conversation.
"Comedy audiences are so intelligent now," he said. "When we were growing up, it was almost kind of a rare thing to see a comedian. You'd be like 'Letterman has a comedian on tonight" But now it's just everywhere. People are so smart about it. You have to be inventive."
He has been that. Most especially for championing—almost alone among his peers—the seemingly revolutionary notion that comedy doesn't have to be provocative to be funny.
Lenny Bruce certainly deserves a lot of credit for reinventing comedy. He helped transform standup from a mere form of entertainment into a vibrant, relevant, socially conscious, often wildly provocative art. Bruce made it possible for comedians to be more than just funny. But Jim Gaffigan's success is a reminder that the funny part always matters most.