Jim Gaffigan: The King of Clean

America’s funniest dad, Jim Gaffigan, discusses faith, family and work-life balance

For 30 years, Jim Gaffigan has stood onstage before audiences laughing at his jokes as if he were the funny relative at a dinner table.

His humor is clean by stand-up comedy standards and “normie” (of the mainstream). His observations, which have the feel of an introspective child standing in a corner, are delivered with the cutting confidence of a middle-aged man who’s lived a hearty life — because that’s precisely what Gaffigan is.

Since 2001, he has released eight comedy albums commenting on pedestrian topics like being overweight and food. One of his most famous riffs is about Hot Pockets.

But after becoming a father — five times over — and supporting his wife through treatment for a brain tumor in 2017, his material turned toward parenthood, faith and family in his last five specials. Some comics may have retreated from the industry, but Jim did what comedians do best — find humor in life’s greatest challenges. 

During the pandemic, Gaffigan promised to upload a new video to his YouTube channel every day “until the world ends.” In July, he kicked off his latest tour, The Fun Tour, which will take him to 27 cities by the end of this year.

Here’s what he’s learned through it all.

On being a clean comic: I grew up in a small Midwestern town where you might curse if you stubbed your toe, but people would think, “Can’t you think of another adjective?” For some comics, it’s stylistically authentic to how they perform — it’d be weird if Chris Rock or Lewis Black didn’t curse. But it’s not like I don’t curse in everyday life, and audiences respond to authenticity. People look at me and think, “He could be from my town. I could hang out with that guy.”

On his relationship with Utah: I feel a connection with Utah. I think it’s because we share similar family culture. I find Mormons fascinating — even just their fry sauce, you know? I’ve had people bring me the Book of Mormon like a dozen times. They’re like, “You should be on this team.” My comedy is kind of self-effacing and the Mormons have a good sense of humor about themselves. I have a ton of material about Utah.

Photograph by Robyn Von Swank

On juggling a career and five children: It’s pretty insane. Every three months I evaluate and readjust my schedule to find a balance between being involved in my kids’ lives and maintaining my independence through work and projects. Independence makes you a better parent. I bring my kids on the road with me when it makes sense. Every school break, they’re usually with me doing stand-up. They’ll come with me on bus tours and sometimes to international shows. Before my tour started this year, my family and I were in Hawaii on vacation.

On what his kids think of his comedy: We have fun, but I’m their dad, so I’m the bad guy taking the iPad away. I don’t go out of my way to expose them to my comedy; I’m not like, “Sit down and watch my stand-up!” All my kids, ages 8, 10, 12, 15 and 17, probably view me depending on their age. For example, they were all super excited that I was in the new movie “Luca.” My 15-year-old was impressed because it’s from Pixar, my 17-year-old was impressed because of the storyline, and the rest were for different reasons. I didn’t grow up with a parent in entertainment, so I don’t know what to compare it to — my dad worked at a small bank — but it’s funny being a parent and a comedian. I was in a parent-teacher conference and the teacher was like, “Your kids are funny,” as if that’s what I would care about. I want them to learn! I’m not caught up in if they’re going to follow the same path as me.

On being in the spotlight: I don’t mind if someone approaches me when I’m by myself, but when I’m with my family, it’s a little bit like, “Respect the family.” My older kids might find it annoying, or they’ll make fun of me. My eight-year-old will introduce himself like, “You probably want to meet me, too.” I want to be polite and not rude, but there is no universal approach from fans. I once had someone demand I go over to her friend’s table at dinner and perform for her birthday. I didn’t do that.

On parenthood: My general approach is, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying my best.” I’ve found this makes parenting feel less overwhelming. When you feel like you know what you’re doing, that’s when you get frustrated, but if you’re like, for example, “I don’t know how to put together this table,” then there is less pressure on you. Another thing — there’s nothing official about parenting! My wife and I are constantly checking in and devising a strategy so we’re not caught off guard. Becoming a parent is also a normalizing force. The entertainment industry can be icky, but when you’re dealing with a baby you don’t have time to obsess on unimportant, self-centered things; you have to make sure this baby is fed. That’s the hidden gem of parenting. It keeps you grounded.

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On the role of religion in his life: As a comedian, I never thought I would be religious. I lived across from a Catholic church for 15 years and never went in, then I met a woman in a bodega down the block, got married in that same church and had all our kids baptized there. The most rebellious thing I can do in the entertainment industry is be Catholic. I’m kidding, but the stand-up world is completely agnostic. I was raised Catholic, but never got into it until about 15 years ago. It sounds corny, but I wanted to believe in the notion of mercy, that you could be so imperfect and still embrace faith. If I were writing a joke, I’d blame it all on my wife.

On being a fish-out-of-water comedian: All comedians are fish out of water. We’re all in the anti-social social club, whatever that means. As society goes on, we’re just going to discover that all comedians are on the autism spectrum because we’re like this hyperfocused breed. Writers are, too. We find and embrace different points of view.

On finding inspiration: Mark Twain called it “the nub” (the point or punch line of a story), and it’s something that bumps into you whether it’s embarrassing, shame-ridden or ridiculous. Sometimes it sits in you, and you have to figure out how to say it, but sometimes it comes right out. I have this notepad on my phone, which we all have, where I’ll jot things down. Here’s a recent one: “They should bundle all streaming services and call it cable TV.” Someone’s probably thought of that before though. The more unique something is to you, the better.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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