CAN'T KNOCK THE HUSTLE
Jim Gaffigan Uncensored: On Louis C.K.’s ‘Comeback,’ Ruling Sundance, and Popping Amazon’s Comedy Cherry
The journeyman comedian opens up to Marlow Stern about his seven (!) films out in 2019, big Amazon comedy special, the state of stand-up, and much more.
PARK CITY, Utah—“I like to think of myself as the fat Parker Posey,” says Jim Gaffigan, cradling a bottle of Sam Adams. “I’m the fat, less cute, way less adorable Parker Posey.”
At 52, the “pasty-white comedian” (his words) emerged as the unlikeliest of Sundance Film Festival darlings, with three impressive indie movies debuting at this year’s fest: Them That Follow, about a snake-handling Christian cult in Appalachia; Troop Zero, a coming-of-age comedy alongside Viola Davis; and Light from Light, a supernatural thriller on the paranormal.
But those three flicks are just the first of seven Gaffigan-starring films set for release in 2019—not to mention his highly anticipated stand-up comedy special for Amazon, the streamer’s very first, due later this year.
“It’s amazing. How many times can I say amazing?” he asks, chuckling. “God, I’m so delirious!”
We’re huddled together at a hotel bar in Park City, Utah, where Gaffigan, ecstatically exhausted, is basking in the glow of his Sundance troika. It’s been a long road for the Indiana-born comic, who first hit the stand-up circuit in the early 1990s, cutting his teeth in a variety of commercials, bit movie and sitcom parts. It was only in the 2000s that he flourished, his cheeky musings on food, fatuousness, and fatherhood catapulting him to the top of comedy mountain.
Now, he’s ready for his big screen close-up.
So the great Olivia Colman plays your wife in Them That Follow.
Olivia Colman is unbelievable. I feel like I’ve had this incredible stretch of working with amazing women: Olivia Colman, Viola Davis, Marin Ireland, Allison Janney—just these incredible people who you can learn from but they’re also solid people. There are a lot of people you could put in Them That Follow or Light from Light where–they have the talent and people like the idea of doing an indie–but then you’re in a Holiday Inn in Youngstown, Ohio, driving an hour into the mountains. Not everyone is cool in that situation.
Was your family with you in Youngstown?
No, I was popping in and out doing shows during filming. The sacrifices that my wife undertook for some of these movies was not small. On Troop Zero we shot, then drove to Mississippi and I did two shows at this casino in Mississippi—at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.—and my day had started at like 6 a.m. But it’s what I love. You really cherish those days. Now, turning to my wife and saying, “Because of Troop Zero’s schedule I have to go and do a pick-up on this other movie on my day off,” she’s a bit like, ugh. But in the grand scheme of things, when it was discovered that my wife had this brain tumor, it didn’t look good. I lived in the reality for about a week or two of, “OK, I’m going to be a single dad, I’m not going to be able to tour and do stand-up, I can’t do movies, I have five young children and can’t outsource this, I’m not even that good at being a dad, but at least I have to be present.” And so when the recovery came in and it looked like things were going to be OK, I felt when it came to these opportunities, I gotta do this.
That sounds like a lot of good news at once—your wife gets the all-clear and then all these interesting acting opportunities sprout up.
Yes! It was one of those things where… It’s a blur. It started with Them That Follow, then Troop Zero, then this film Gut Instinct that I shot up in Quebec, where I play a drug dealer who essentially frames a teenager. Like, I play a really bad dude! So I’m thinking, “How do I turn this down?” And my wife, who’s an actor, a director, and a writer, is like, “I get it.” But when it came to Light from Light, I was kind of pushing it a little bit. I told her, “OK, in August I’m going to be in Knoxville for two weeks,” and she was like, “Okayyyy!” She really is a trooper, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was going to be such a special film. I haven’t gotten opportunities to play someone who’s this quiet.
You said you were living in that mindset, and then Light from Light comes along, and you have to play a widower.
I knew what it felt like to be on the edge of losing someone. And we’ve all lost someone, and spent those two weeks in the hospital losing someone, experiencing that crippling grief. In Light from Light, there are other elements that build that character I play, but I felt that I knew this guy, and I can do this. Plus, if you get an email from [producer] Elisabeth Moss saying you should really do something, you think, “OK!” It’s not every day you get an email from someone like Elisabeth Moss saying, “You are right for this role.”
These are very different characters—a widower, a snake-handling Christian cult member, a loving father.
And I also did this movie American Dreamer, where I play this rideshare guy who eventually kidnaps a drug dealer’s baby! It’s insane to think of these opportunities but there’s also a part of me that thinks, “OK, maybe the universe could have spread this out over the 30 years I’ve been trying to get acting jobs.” But I’m so grateful for the opportunity.
Plus you’re the toast of Sundance this year! So much so, in fact, that you got written up in Page Six—which must be a first for you.
I was back in my hotel room at about 11 o’clock, rolling through Google News, and I see that and think, “Did I say something?” And it’s essentially what occurred—which is nothing. It’s not like I said anything negative or like my friends are now saying, “He’s against trans rights!”
It’s definitely bizarre. Although I guess it speaks to your level of celebrity at this festival, in an odd way. And you’re the first big stand-up comedian on Amazon, which is huge. Did you get that Chappelle bag?
[Laughs] The money thing… Here’s what I was told, because I joked around about it today, and my publicist was like, “Don’t discuss the money! We don’t want people to think you didn’t get the money, we don’t want people to think you did get the money.” It’s funny because, I would talk about it in other interviews, saying, “When is Amazon gonna step up? When is Apple gonna step up?” So other comedians are like, “Do you think they read that article?” and I’m like, “No!” I’m excited to be the first, because it’s not like they said, “Oh, we want you and these 10 other people we could get.” I’m happy to be the guinea pig. And I love Netflix and love Comedy Central, but there’s a certain group of people that aren’t going to watch Netflix and almost everyone I know uses Amazon. But I’m biased, because it’s my special!
So it’s taping March 9 in Minnesota. Any idea when it’ll premiere on Amazon?
And it’s directed by my wife, who’s directed all my specials. But I don’t know when it’s going to premiere. I was talking to my manager and was like, “When are we going to find that out?” and he’s like, “Let’s take a breath—you’re at Sundance right now.” But it’s great. Amazing. Marvelous.
We’re in this fascinating golden age of stand-up—and Netflix changed everything. You can even be a not-so-talented comic and get a pretty big payday for a stand-up special. How do you feel about this bubble? Is it going to burst soon?
Not to sound too much like an expert on this but there is the stand-up that you discovered as a kid that was underground in New York—“I’m doing this and these fuckin’ idiots aren’t”—and that existed because there wasn’t an accessibility to it, whereas because of YouTube, because of satellite radio, and because of Comedy Central, which has seen greener days, people developed an appreciation for stand-up. When I started, it was combat. It wasn’t as bad as earlier generations—I’m not saying I know what’s like to go on after a stripper—but it was combat in that the audience didn’t know how to behave.
With Seinfeld, it was really interesting that for this underground occupation, he was the lead. But again, through YouTube, satellite radio, Comedy Central, and the most recent iteration, Netflix, there’s been an education. It used to be that to be the best comedian in the country—George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, obviously Pryor—what made those people unique was that they were funny to people that didn’t come from that world. Richard Pryor is probably the classic example: he’s from Peoria, he’s incredibly vulnerable, he’s telling these somewhat horrific stories, and that vulnerability transcended race, gender, and socioeconomic standing.
I don’t know when it shifted. The sheer number of comedians has grown exponentially though, and it used to be rare to do multiple specials. Chris Rock in the ’90s did a few, Eddie Murphy did two, Steven Wright didn’t do too many. But we now live in this age where there’s a huge population that wants to consume stand-up and the outlets for it. The question is, when you ask your friends, “Hey, did you watch this special?” the best evaluation is, “Yeah, I finished it.” You watched Robin Williams’ special all the way through. I hang around Seinfeld a lot and he’s always like, “Where are they going to be in five years?” And he’s talking about these people that are giants. Like, is it their passion? And I think it’s an interesting question.
Well, in the case of Louis C.K., I’m not sure where he’s going to be in five years. But my issue with Louis, aside from going after the Parkland kids—which I just thought was a little lazy—was that I don’t think he’s even personally apologized to the women he targeted, or done any work to rehabilitate himself. So there’s been a lack of contrition and self-reflection on his part, which is weird for someone who traded in that so heavily in his stand-up.
Let me say something that you might find annoying: I agree with everything you’ve said. I think Louis is a genius. I’m a comedian and am never going to be an advocate for censorship. The Parkland joke? I wouldn’t do it, but I’d never censor it. Like Ricky Gervais, I believe any topic can be funny. But watching this “comeback,” as an American, Americans love a redemption story, and he’s smart enough to figure it out—whether it’s in six months or a year. Whether he’ll return to his prior status, I don’t know. People think it’s crazy when I say this, but I think the media can’t quit Louis.
There has been pretty breathless media coverage of his “comeback” shows.
Yeah—exactly. The other issue is, Louis was already one of the best comedians in New York when I started—he and Dave Attell. It was beyond a doubt. Every comedian knew. But the thing about Louis is, there are other things going on. And it’s commerce, and people are obsessed. I see it in my Google News feed every time he does a set: “Louis did a set.” And there’s something fascinating about that.
It really is a time to also step back a bit and listen to what women are saying. I think that’s a big issue with Louis’s “comeback”: he didn’t listen. And I don’t want to speak for women comics, but I imagine it’d be pretty uncomfortable to be on a bill with Louis.
It’s such a minefield, so my mindset is just to sit back and learn. I look at my material and, while it’s not constructed on irreverence and isn’t “bro-ish,” I don’t really have to worry about it. Let me also say something: I’m a comedian, I don’t believe in censorship, but everyone censors themselves. This fucking charade of, “No one can tell me what comes out of my mouth!” Come on. You’re censoring yourself all the time. We live in an editing world—and comedians are the best editors.
This is the most prolific you’ve ever been, at 52 years of age. You’ve been working a long time to reach these heights.
You know, it’s weird because I’m grateful that you’re saying that, but there’s nothing sexy about anything that I do!
Page Six disagrees!
[Laughs] Page Six disagrees! And I’m very edgy, dealing with the gender issues of today. But I don’t pedal in irreverence. Like look, I don’t like Trump but it would be inauthentic for all my tweets to be criticizing him. Sometimes I think, if I could articulate some of that on social media maybe I’d have a million more followers, but I’m also old enough to know that I’m not seeking fame, I’m seeking opportunities. So I’m excited for people to see Light from Light, Troop Zero and Them That Follow primarily so that they can believe that I’m a good actor, so that when there’s discussion of a movie, they don’t go, “Oh, the comedian?” and go “Oh, that guy’s a comedian but I saw him in this thing, and he can act.” That’s the main motivation surrounding it.
Did you always want to act?
Yes. Always. It was something I always did simultaneously with stand-up, but not with any success. When my first comedy special Beyond the Pale was released, there was a USA Today blurb that read, “Sitcom actor Jim Gaffigan tries stand-up.” I’d been doing stand-up for 10 years, but the perception was, oh, this guy from That ’70s Show is trying stand-up. So you don’t have control over the perception of it. I’ve always wanted to get some of these roles, though. I did this movie called The Great New Wonderful, which was a great movie, it was at Tribeca, and I thought, “Here we go! People are gonna know that I can act!” Nothing. Then I did a play on Broadway and thought, “People are gonna know! They’re gonna know I can act now!” Nothing. Some of that is bad luck, some of it is that I live in New York and not L.A., but there are more people now who believe I’m an actor.
Have you been tempted to start a podcast? A lot of comedians have ’em these days.
You know, I have a different belief on that. I think it’s great for my friends who have podcasts and it helps some of them come up with material, but I think some of the mystery gets lost. If they hear you talking for an hour-and-a-half once or twice a week, why would they need to see you do stand-up? They know your point of view on everything.
I think a lot of those people have an almost Bill Maher-esque relationship with their fans where I’m not sure if they’re going to the stand-up show to see jokes so much as see their ideas be reinforced. Maher’s stand-up is very similar to his HBO show, and it’s just a lot of woo-wooing from the audience as their beliefs are reinforced.
Yes. It’s interesting—you always write about Bill Maher. You have a thing with Bill Maher. And I have friends who have a similarly conflicted viewpoint on Bill Maher.
Yeah, I grew up watching Politically Incorrect with my family and enjoyed the format and conversation, but there’s a point where the anti-PC crowd sometimes crosses a line and aligns themselves with terrible people, and I think he often crosses that line—because there are good faith anti-PC people—those who genuinely champion the First Amendment—and bad faith ones who just wish to say repugnant shit without any reprisals.
I’m not criticizing you, I’m fascinated by it. And obviously you’re the type of person who wouldn’t give a shit either.
That’s true. So, this is the worst transition ever but I have to ask: those snakes you handle in Them That Follow, were those real?
Oh yeah. Those were non-poisonous snakes, though. But walking around Times Square in New York City, there’s always some crazy guy just wearing a snake. Like, that’s just his thing. That’s his bit. I’m the snake guy. [Laughs]
It’s almost a rite of passage. With all this stuff you’ve got going on, do you ever sit back and think about where you were 30 years ago and where you are now?
I remember it wasn’t too long ago that my wife was recovering from having this brain tumor removed, and then my comedy special came out. And I’m on the phone with someone from AV Club and they were like, “Why are we doing this?” and I was like, “I don’t know why we’re doing this.” Because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Thirty years ago, I was very angry and impatient because I thought my anger would help change things. But it doesn’t.