"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."
– Jim Gaffigan
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.
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 ninebyears of not getting weekend spots in New York andbsomebody 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...
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.
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.