Jim Gaffigan – Mr. Universe
Jim Gaffigan wants you to think he’s a disgusting, contemptible failure. It furthers his thesis for the audience to laugh at this very rich representation of human frailty. How absurd, his act insists, that a graceless man in his middle age might eat too much junk food and find the demands of his untethered children tiresome. The character Gaffigan plays onstage is only saved by the exasperated wisdom of his Madonna figure wife, a creature he seems to have come fully formed with, like the fictional fat husband from a sitcom pitch at a sunny Los Angeles lunch.
There is no conviction in Gaffigan’s failure. There is no self-loathing in his powerful stance and faux-bewildered expression. The audience receives only his well tested material and they recognise this caricature that holds a warped, vague-enough mirror to their own middle class family experience, getting to feel distance from their own foibles by this extreme example, reporting from the brink.
The most well-known and overused staple of Jim Gaffigan’s act is his slightly higher pitched impersonation of an offended and confused audience, which allows him to comment on his own routines like a hateful Greek chorus of idiot strawmen. If there’s any topic or aside that feels like it might threaten being slightly distasteful, Gaffigan slips into the voice, a gaping mouth and furrowed forehead anticipating and diffusing the reaction of a crowd he must dislike if he believes they think along those lines.
Gaffigan, for all of his wealth and power, is an ultimately harmless figure. There’s a minstrel quality to him and his jokes that work. He is funny and has good timing, though in Mr Universe, he seems to have trouble reaching for new subjects to talk about and falls back on well worn avenues that his fans will find charmingly familiar. There is no problem with a monomaniacal specificness of subject matter when you believe in what you’re saying. The mirror image of Gaffigan’s act is the authentic self-hate of Rodney Dangerfield.
Where Jim Gaffigan’s pale simulacrum of Hollywood-approved weirdo charisma (akin to the acceptably unacceptable style of Zach Gallifinakis in the Hangover films, the outsider repackaged and cleaned up suitably for the in-crowd to laugh and pat them on their heads) drips away under a cheerful hour’s scrutiny, the unpredictable self sabotage of Dangerfield was written in the lines of his excess rounded face. Side by side, in this comparison that’s unfair to both and flattering to neither, Jim Gaffigan looks tediously safe in all his choices.
Onstage, Rodney was habitually besuited, self consciously reminiscent of old school backroom showbusiness, where tiny theatres whispered about illegitimate business, exploitative men, and impossibly endless links to Jack Ruby. There was a cultivated shadow of the outlaw cast over him, but his material made it clear that the only person he targeted was himself. That material came in bursts of set-up, punchline, set up, pausing only to intermittently flatter the audience. “I love this crowd!” Because that’s what professionals like Henny Youngman did and because the crowd loved him back for it.
In the hands of anybody else, Rodney’s jokes would bomb all night. Those jokes were deceptively simple and they seemed like they could be about a generic EveryLoser, but as often as Dangerfield reached for those hurt feelings the audience knew that they ran more deeply in him than he could express in any other medium. Rodney Dangerfield’s act was an exercise and exorcism of his depression and had if his sweating underdog charisma been a shade less than arena sized, he would have done as badly as he always seemed to suspect that he would.
I don’t laugh out loud at Rodney’s self-hating haikus very often. But even as I find him less funny to listen to, as I anticipate the twist in the joke that’ll put the knife in to himself, I always want to hear what he has to say. Jim Gaffigan is a hard enough worker to be able to be conistently funny over a series of specials. But I’ve very little interest in hearing him talk.