Jim Gaffigan on Doing Clean Comedy, Being a Serious Actor and Why He’ll Never Retire His ‘Inside Voice’
In his 2013 book Dad Is Fat, Jim Gaffigan commented on how unlikely it was that someone like him would end up being a family man. “Ten years ago, I could barely get a date,” he wrote, “and now my apartment is literally crawling with babies. … I never imagined I would get married, let alone have children. I suppose I had a romantic notion of having children someday, but, then again, I also had a romantic notion of being an astronaut, and, honestly, being an astronaut felt like a more realistic expectation.”
If you want an insight into Gaffigan’s enduring appeal, that passage is as good a place to start as any. Self-deprecating and ingratiating, the 56-year-old stand-up, actor and author has become a household name speaking in universals. It’s hard to think of a comic more purely likable, his genial observations on marriage, parenthood and food often positioning him as the butt of the joke. On stage, he readily laments how foiled he is by life — in particular, by his wife and five kids, who are sources of endless affectionate frustration. With a ready smile, he’ll insist he’s just an ordinary dumb guy, but you can tell he’s actually a pretty sharp dude. Despite his grousing, he never comes across as bitter. Even though he’s a clean comic, he’s hardly toothless.
And now, at last, he’s also finally an astronaut. Kind of.
Gaffigan has been a mainstay in film and television for more than two decades — one of his first small roles was in 1999’s Three Kings — and of late he’s carved out a nice niche as a reliable indie actor. His latest provides him with one of his biggest and best platforms: Linoleum, a movie in which he has dual roles. Principally, he’s Cameron, a suburban Midwestern pushover who hosts an unsuccessful children’s science show, Above & Beyond, that airs in the middle of the night. His wife, played by Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn, is about to divorce him, and as a father he seems like a bit of an ineffectual dud. Plus, he’s just found out that Above & Beyond is going to have a new host: a confident, slick and not-entirely-warm fellow named Kent (also Gaffigan). Even worse, Kent looks just like Cameron — except, you know, more successful and better-dressed.
In the midst of all his despair, Cameron is startled when a piece of a rocket falls from the sky, landing in his yard. Always wanting to have been an astronaut — and feeling like a perpetual disappointment to his accomplished scientist father — Cameron decides that he’ll take those rocket parts and construct a functioning spacecraft. NASA may have rejected his application, but maybe he can reach the heavens on his own. After all, what else does he have in his life?
Out now in theaters, Linoleum is a strange, moving and surprising character study. (It has a twist ending, which I won’t reveal.) The film is an ideal vehicle for Gaffigan as an actor, but it also demonstrates why audiences have loved his stand-up for years. If he’s playing a character on stage — an amusing exaggeration of the prototypical lovably mediocre family man doing his best — he leans into but also subverts that persona in Linoleum. And yet, the core of what makes Gaffigan great remains. We see ourselves in the flawed, good-hearted Cameron, and so we can’t help but root for the guy.
When I talked to Gaffigan over Zoom last week, I was interested in how this quirky sci-fi dramedy touches on many of the same things that his stand-up does — albeit from a darker, more melancholy perspective. Gaffigan may sometimes try to pretend he’s not all that bright in his comedy — he did the same thing during our conversation — but you don’t work with respected filmmakers like Michael Almereyda, David Lowery and Sam Mendes if you’re a dummy. Truth is, he takes acting seriously, and he’s thought a lot about the themes swirling around Linoleum. Gaffigan wanted to get his performance(s) right, especially focused on the fraying relationship between Cameron and his wife Erin, who are falling apart although still very much in love.
“Rhea and I were very consumed with establishing that (this marriage) was multidimensional,” he tells me. “I didn’t want it to be Married... with Children (where) these people despise each other. Even in relationships that don’t work out, there is an empathy or a fondness that still exists.” And for those who might be surprised that Gaffigan is such a good dramatic actor, well, he’s been doing fine work for a while. (If I could only choose one on-screen role, I’d pick 2015’s Experimenter, a terrific biopic about controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, in which Gaffigan has a crucial supporting role.) For him, stand-up and acting aren’t that different.
“Comedians are a serious bunch,” he says. “They’re much more philosophical and introspective — and maybe it’s narcissism.” He laughs sheepishly, once again being self-deprecating. “But they’re more thoughtful than one would imagine.”
Gaffigan was particularly thoughtful during our time together, whether it was talking about writing with his wife, raising kids who don’t think he’s funny or how it felt to do something very out-of-character when he blasted Donald Trump on Twitter in 2020.
When you got the screenplay for Linoleum, did writer-director Colin West warn you about the surprises at the end? Did you have any idea where the story would ultimately go?
Colin sent a nice letter with the script, and he talked about some of the overarching themes about the movie. But even when I get nice letters like that, you have to evaluate the script on its own. And I did see it as pretty ambitious (for) what was (being) attempted in an indie and its sci-fi elements. I figured, if we could hit five of the 10 themes (he was attempting), then it would be a good movie. I feel he hit all of them.
But when I read the script, the ending of the movie… I’ve seen the movie six times, I didn’t have the expectation of it being as moving as it was or to have that impact. But that might just be me being an idiot. (Laughs)
Even people who love the movie come out of it saying, “I’m not sure if I understood everything that happens at the end.” The ending is really emotional, but there’s also a lot going on there. It’s almost like you need to see Linoleum twice for it all to fully click.
I don’t think you necessarily have to watch it more than once, but I do think that it’s the type of movie that you want to watch and share with someone. You want to have a conversation afterwards — and not necessarily because you’re confused, but because the movie presents questions rather than answers. It makes you contemplate what you consider your priorities.
I think Americans, we’re so consumed with working on our résumé rather than our eulogy. Those (professional) credits, we know that they’re not that fulfilling — the whole person is really what’s important. I’ve been reading this book, David Brooks’ The Road to Character — I didn’t come up with that (insight). (Laughs) But I think that it’s a very American thing — getting the credits, getting this or that. And it’s reflected in the time we live in. Not to get political, but there was a quote where Trump was like, “I don’t care about my legacy — I care about winning.” And that’s a very American thing.
Yeah, the movie focuses on a character, Cameron, who’s thinking about his legacy — whether he’s made the right choices in his life. You say this résumé fixation is very American, but I also think it’s a product of being young and feeling you have to achieve to prove yourself. When would you say you started realizing that life is about more than “What are all the things I’ve accomplished”?
I would say it’s ongoing. For me, I’m always relearning basic truths — it’s almost embarrassing. I remember a big goal of mine was to appear on Late Night With David Letterman — I wanted to do that, then everything would be solved. So then, I remember after performing (on Late Show), it was great — but I was like, “All right, well, what do I do now?” And I realized, “Well, I’m not in a (romantic) relationship.” I shared it with friends and family and stuff like that, and that was great, but it was this moment of realization: “What’s the important thing?”
Another aspect of this film is that it’s really not cynical. As corny as it may sound, we always hear these quotes — like It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man’s a failure who has friends.” It’s a great quote to live by, but the practicality behind it? The most fantastic, important things in our lives are (our) relationships, but those relationships are hard — and there’s not a fairy-tale ending to things.
In Linoleum, you have dual roles. If people only know your stand-up, they’d probably recognize Cameron, who’s more like your onstage persona. But Kent is different: He’s colder, more distant than what we associate with you. I’m curious where Kent comes from within you.
Playing two characters was really cool — any actor will tell you that it’s an amazing opportunity. But to your point, I do think that there are different versions of us — there is the version that the public knows of me, but then there’s the version that my children know of me. I’m not saying my children are like, “Oh my God, he is Kent!” (Laughs) But when I’m taking their screens away, I’m probably more Kent. And by the way, we should also say that Kent is a pretty charming, confident guy, but it’s not the first time somebody has been well-liked but has a dark underbelly.
That’s what’s so fun about acting: You read a character, and without judgment you start the process of finding that person in yourself. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes… As weak as Cameron may be, I’m not that weak. (Laughs) Every comedian, their stage persona is an exaggeration — people are like, “Is he funny all the time?” But that’s what I find really rewarding about acting: Instead of relieving the tension, you sit in it and become this facilitator for the audience to sit in the tension. Which, in some ways, isn’t that different from stand-up: I have friends, it seems like their goal of stand-up is just to make people feel uncomfortable. (Laughs)
When I watched the movie, I thought, “This is almost like the other side of the coin of what Jim Gaffigan does on stage.” As a stand-up, you often talk about the challenges of family and marriage, but it’s usually in a lighthearted way. Is Linoleum a way for you to explore the darker side of those observations?
With stand-up, essentially I’m complaining about my family, right? (Laughs) But there is this understanding — and I talked about this in Dad Is Fat — that if people are complaining about being a parent, that means they’re participating. If they’re not complaining, either they’re the most well-adjusted Buddhist in the world or… If you’re not affected by this experience of being a parent, then you’re not involved enough.
Some of the things I say (about being a dad), they’re not earth-shattering — the reason they work is because they’re universal, and it’s a dismantling of a myth surrounding parenting. And I guess behind it there’s the whole curmudgeon thing: W.C. Fields wasn’t (really) going to eat kids, but it was pretty funny that he was like, “They should be cooked.”
Linoleum is also a portrait of fathers and sons. You’ve talked about your dad in your comedy. How funny was he?
I feel guilty saying this: My dad, he was very engaging, people really liked him, but he wasn’t incredibly funny. He was a good hang, but he was more unintentionally funny. And I should also say: That’s from a son’s perspective. My children don’t think I’m funny — well, I think they think I’m funny, but “Could he make a career at this? Certainly not.” My father, he had this joke: “Why does Jimmy Carter carry around a turkey? For spare parts.” That was the joke that my dad would tell, and you’re like, “Are you kidding me?”
I think that I got my comedy from my siblings or the environment. I was the youngest of six, and my mom had a great laugh. Being funny helped me with my siblings, and it was also gaining approval of my mother. My three older brothers have very distinctive, different types of sense of humor. My oldest brother Mike is really dark, a true misanthrope. And then my brother Mitch is silly, but (he has) everyman observations. In my family, I’m considered third-funniest. And then my brother Joe was more of an absurdist.
You’re incredibly successful, but does being considered only the third-funniest in your family still drive you?
It’s so funny, because I’ll meet people who know my brother Joe or know my brother Mitch, and Joe and Mitch will tell these people that they’re funnier than me. And so (these people will) be like, “Yeah, I know your brother — he says he’s funnier than you.” It’s so random — it’ll (happen at) some corporate event in Las Vegas. So it’s this ongoing thing.
My joke was always, “I have more comedy specials than them.” But it’s interesting, because I really tried to get my brother Joe to do stand-up comedy, and I bought him a class for Second City, because he lives in Chicago. They could have been successful comedians, I’m sure. But it’s also like, “Are you insane enough to pursue it?”
Something you mentioned: Your kids don’t think you’re funny. I feel like comedians always say this. Explain this to me.
It’s different with each of my kids. Some of it is, I think around 12, 13, your parents become this toxic thing where you’re like, “Can you just drop me off a block away?” Some of it is finding independence. I remember I heard my 13-year-old daughter describing me to a friend of hers — she was like, “He’s like old-person comedy for old people.” (Laughs) Because there’s youthful comedy, I guess, and then there’s old-people comedy.
So some of it’s generational, but they’re not aware that there’s different styles (of comedy), and you might be more into shock and irreverence. My son, who’s 17 and is very funny himself, when I do these CBS Sunday commentaries, he’s like, “You’ve got to come at it more hard!” And I’m like, “It’s a Sunday morning show.” And he goes, “Yeah, come at it harder. You’ve got to shock people.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not necessary. People are drinking coffee and I’m talking about an observation about receipts. I don’t need to shock them.” So some of it is age and where they are (in their lives).
Starting out, you probably had to deal with a lot of grief for being a clean comic. It’s funny to me that, now, you’re getting that abuse from your own kids to be edgier.
Well, the great irony is that, of course, I curse in everyday life when I’m dealing with my children, but I don’t on stage. But anyone who’s a parent knows that. When you’re at work, you’re not sitting there cursing — but if you’re trying to deal with a 12-year-old who refuses to wear her winter coat, you can get frustrated.
My journey to being — or, I think, understanding — that I’m a clean comedian, it was a journey. I tried a lot of different types of comedy. Some of my favorite comedy is filthy or irreverent or shock-based, but it has to be authentic. I’m from a small town in Indiana, and where I’m from, if you stubbed your toe, you could curse — people would understand that. But if you’re talking about Burger King, why are you cursing? It just seems like, “Is everything okay with this person (that he’s cursing so much)?”
I think people don’t realize that in the Northeast, where I’ve lived for 30 years, people curse rather than raising their voice — they’ll just start cursing — (but) it just seems rather uncreative. When I first moved to New York and I was working in advertising, I was so shocked when people were cursing. I was like, “Aren’t we supposed to be using adjectives and being creative?” It’s just a different cultural thing.
For years in your stand-up, you’ve incorporated this great secondary “voice,” which expresses the perspective of someone independent of you commenting on your comedy. In interviews, you’ve said that voice came about from hanging out with your friends as a kid. But when did it start? Is there an original story for the voice?
I don’t know the exact origin of it, and there’s different examples of (when I used it). It was a good way to disarm people if you were late — you speak for them — so it wasn’t used for humor there. It was used for articulating that you understand how they feel.
But (in terms of) stand-up, I’m a 1990s New York City comedian, which was combative — not physical combat, but verbal combat. The audience, there wasn’t an assumption that you would make it through the set without someone saying something. And so there was this need to keep moving — there was also this need to communicate a toughness, which doesn’t really resonate for me, I guess. (Laughs) The facilitation of the “inside voice” was necessary so that, instead of being heckled, I was heckling myself — but it served a purpose as a 1990s New York City comedian in not leaving air in the set.
I think it went to a completely different level when I started performing longer sets, usually middle sets at the DC Improv — that’s when it became this creative tool of presenting different opinions in the audience and attaching a different point-of-view on the topic. Point-of-view is so important: If your point-of-view is “I love bacon,” if you have this other voice, you could embody and vocalize a completely different opinion. Working at the DC Improv, that’s where it became part of this element of a larger show.
Can you ever imagine a time when you’d think, “I’m going to stop doing the voice”?
It’s a little bit of an element of who my stand-up point-of-view is. With “Dark Pale,” which is this most recent hour, what usually happens is when I’m creating the hour and I’m fumbling around through material, I use the inside voice to comment on the material. With every hour, you’re trying to push and challenge the premise of what you’re talking about and challenge your audience. In other words, you can’t just talk about food: Like any good conversation with good friends, you can’t have the exact same conversation, it has to evolve.
And so, (in) the development of the new material, the inside voice is very important for saving me when things aren’t working, and then it disappears a little bit in the process as I’m fine-tuning and I’m changing orders and stuff like that. And then, at the end when I’m polishing the material, it’s woven throughout as an additional layer. It’s weird, because there has been times when there is no inside voice, but it usually is a part of the process of creating the material. As any writer (knows), there’s times when things come out whole, and then there’s times where you have to work really hard. And then, (when you get to) a final draft, that’s what the inside voice adds to — it’s a playful, additional point-of-view that I think helps.
In 2020, you did something kinda out of character by angrily tweeting about the Republican National Convention, calling Donald Trump a fascist. You tend not to be too political, which made it so notable: It was like, “If Jim Gaffigan is getting this mad, that’s how bad things have gotten with Trump.” Did you regret putting yourself out there in that way?
There was definitely not regret, but I didn’t want to appear like it was calculated. There were a lot of interview requests that came in afterwards, and I turned them all down, because I’m like, “I don’t want this to be a publicity tool.” Anyone that pays attention, occasionally there’ll be some political (commentary) that will occur, and then you’re like, “That’s weird (that that person said that) — oh, they have a movie coming out.” I wanted it to be sincere.
I knew that I was going to burn some bridges, but I thought it was way more important to be honest about some of this stuff because I understood that it wasn’t really going to change anyone’s mind. We all know politicians are bullshitters, but I wanted my statements to be this reminder: “Yeah, that’s right.”
With stand-up comedy, there was a moment when I started headlining where, before the show, I would be in the (backstage area) watching the show and people would just be looking past me — they didn’t even know I was headlining. And then after the show (when they saw me), they’d be like, “Oh my gosh!” And I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting how people treat you differently.” But they’re impressed by the show — it’s not me. I was the guy on stage that was saying some funny things with the microphone — it’s not me. But eventually I started thinking, “Well, that was me.”
The thing about the RNC, it’s a convention to convince the country of these ideals. And I was just like, “No, I’m not going to just (sit here and say nothing).” During the pandemic we were witnessing a lot of people getting down. And look, I love comedians — there is a conspiratorial tendency among comedians, even myself. But there’s a difference between (thinking), “I don’t trust the Man,” (and) “I believe in a demagogue.”
What’s that conspiratorial tendency about? Is it that comedians base so much of their humor on having distinct takes on the world?
It’s interesting: It’s not something that I really was aware of. But I think it’s point-of-view driven. Comedians train their brains to see things a little differently. So often when people enjoy a comedian’s take on things, they’re like, “God, I thought that! Why didn’t I just say that?”
I remember I was developing the show Welcome to New York, and I met with a writer. I had this material about Mexican food — how it’s all the same thing, it’s just renamed. And he was like, “You have that conspiracy thing about Mexican food.” And I’m like, “Conspiracy thing?” But really, on the surface, it is a conspiratorial belief that this guy, Chimichanga, is like, “Why don’t we take all these things and we’ll just call them different names?” (Laughs) And so it is this unique comedic point-of-view, which is so important for comedy.
In the same wheelhouse as conspiracy stuff, comedians are also much more suspicious and, I think, less of joiners. There’s things that comedians should dismantle, like award shows and stuff like that — but we’ve got egos. Even the concept of walking the red carpet — most comedians, they’re like, “That’s absurd,” but you’ve got to do it because it’s part of the business. So it’s weird.
You and your wife Jeannie write a lot together, whether it’s on something like The Jim Gaffigan Show or your stand-up specials. How does that collaboration work?
What’s so amazing is how it’s changed over the years — (especially) with the presence of our children and the age of the children. I’ve done 10 (one-hour-long comedy specials), and I’d say that maybe for six of them, the collaboration of Jeannie being at shows and us talking about material, it varies. Sometimes, it’s true writing together, and sometimes it’s more of an editorial (role), and sometimes it’s coming up with a line or just presenting a question. So there is nothing standard about the process.
Once she had a brain tumor (in 2017) — and once the notion of us being on a tour bus with our five kids was just overwhelming — it was not practical (writing together). But The Jim Gaffigan Show, it would’ve been weird if we weren’t collaborating because there was a character named Jim Gaffigan and a character named Jeannie Gaffigan.
But it’s always shifting: Whatever the level of our partnership right now is, it doesn’t mean for the next three specials it’ll be at this stage. Some of it is, my wife had a brain tumor, she wrote her own book, we’re trying to get a teenager into college. And there reaches a point where these children do not go to bed. (Laughs) So that special time — that sweet time of 10 p.m. to midnight, or 10 to 1, which used to be the time for us to connect and write and have a glass of wine — that just disappeared. We’re trying to wrestle a screen out of someone’s hand or just trying to get a kid asleep. So (writing) is this moving target.
Before we go, I have to ask: It’s Lent — as a Catholic, are you giving anything up?
I’m not giving anything up. But as a true Catholic (would say), “It’s not about giving something up, it’s about sacrificing…” (Laughs) But that’s not to say that I haven’t done that.
The Catholic thing is so interesting. This morning, I was writing material — as a writer, you’re like, “All right, this could be something.” My parents were lapsed Catholics. My wife is pretty devout, but even as a lapsed Catholic, there’s so much information that you absorb and it influences your life. These topics keep coming up in my comedy, I think they’re Christian ideas or Christian stories — it’s just so interesting how I’m sitting there at six in the morning trying to write something about how Abraham almost sacrificing his son is the cornerstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And then it becomes fascinating because “All right, I’m going to get credit for tying all them in, but I’m really talking about child murder.” (Laughs)
I’ve messed around on stage with (that bit) — it’s one of those things that I think people that are Christians or people that grew up in a Christian household would appreciate. But also that’s near the line — you know, “Don’t even touch that.” So I don’t know — you’re like, “Am I wasting my time (developing this)?” I don’t know.