Jim Gaffigan’s New Special Reveals A Darker Shade of Pale Comedy

Jim Gaffigan’s New Special Reveals A Darker Shade of Pale Comedy

After a few years of pandemics and other tragedies, we’ve finally reached the point where we just don’t care, observes Jim Gaffigan in his new Prime comedy special, Dark Pale. We used to be horrified by life’s catastrophes. “Now we’re like, “Hundreds of people have died today. Let’s go to a comedy show.’”

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Gaffigan is perhaps our most consistent comic, cranking out comedy specials that always deliver, at a minimum, a solid hour of laughs. But after years of riffing on parenting, his alabaster complexion, and Hot Pockets, his stand-up has increasingly embraced a fatalistic point of view. He’s still his own Greek chorus, high-pitched voices commenting on the idiocy of his own jokes, but now those voices are sadder (and dying from Covid). 

The pasty comic has touched on dark subjects, such as his wife’s brain tumor diagnosis and recovery, in earlier specials. But he’s leaning into the shadows now, opening his latest with pandemic deaths and the story of a plane that nose-dived for three full minutes before crashing.

“Is that too dark?” he asks the gasping audience. “It’s going to get worse.”

He keeps his promise, rumbling about the absurdities of funerals and the inherent sadness of burying the ones we love. He pitches new reality shows like Pimp My Corpse and Dead or Cake? For God’s sake, protests his falsetto alter-ego, when is he going to do the food jokes? “Dead or Cake is a food joke!”

Even more traditional Gaffigan bits, like one finding the inherent foolishness in a Starbucks visit — are tinged with darkness. When the barista insists upon a name to write on his cup, the comic sighs and mutters, “Satan.” The entire establishment is “an upscale unemployment office,” but not as bad as Dunkin’ Donuts, which Gaffigan compares to a crime scene. His advice for people standing in line to purchase a new sneaker? “Oh, you should probably kill yourself.” Like most of us, he feels the creeping dread around climate change — does warm weather mean a flood is coming? “In Biblical times, these would have been messages from God.”

It’s not just the comic who’s changing but his audience as well. Gaffigan knows he’s not immune to the polarized crud infecting comedy audiences. After a series of jokes about the invention of the bell — hey, it’s still Gaffigan — he imagines the audience members ready to storm the stage. “I came to hear comedy, not some anti-bell tirade!” 

Like Jerry Seinfeld, with whom Gaffigan will tour this fall, his main trick of the trade remains observations about the mundane. When his daughters want to go on a hot-air balloon ride, he revels in the insanity. It’s transportation that has the advantage of being slower than walking, he says, “a dumb idea that was pitched to a moron.” He marvels at the wicker basket that’s supposed to support his weight — a similar container at home can’t contain the family laundry. He mines every last laugh from “the most expensive, ineffective form of travel.”

Dark Pale feels like essential Gaffigan but also a subversive step forward, one that Seinfeld himself seems unwilling to take even though it should be the natural evolution of the observational comic. Everyday life is full of insanity just waiting to be ridiculed, but if you keep looking long enough, you can’t help but see the darkness hiding just beneath the pale.

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