BY CARL KOZLOWSKI
Growing up as the youngest of six kids in a Catholic family in Indiana, Jim Gaffigan found out early on that being funny was one sure way to get some attention in a boisterous household. And when he eventually became one of America’s top standup comics, he found that his faith not only provided plenty of good-natured joke material, but also a source of strength amid some of the hardest moments of his life.
Through it all, he has built his tremendous success as a comic – with sold-out shows in front of thousands, and multi-night stands in cities such as Minneapolis and Washington, DC – on a reputation for comedy that’s clean as well as clever. He’s also become a frequent presence as an actor in TV, film and commercials, having starred in his own sitcom “Welcome to New York” on CBS and a currently hot string of appearances as the creator of “Pale Force” cartoons that are frequently shown on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” – depicting himself and O’Brien as pale-white superheroes who have to stumble into victory each time.
Most impressive in a field where comedic elder statesman George Carlin has morphed his career into a seemingly never-ending diatribe against the Catholic Church, Gaffigan wears his faith so proudly that his Myspace profile even lists Pope John Paul II as his top personal hero. Speaking with OSV by phone from his New York City home, the father of ___________ shared the ways in which being Catholic has been just as important as being comical to him.
“As a comedian, you’re looking at the things that make you who you are. I’ve been pursuing it 18 years and what makes me are my Midwestern upbringing, being Catholic and my obsession with food and my desire to do as little work as possible,” explains Gaffigan. “I find that Catholics have a sense of humor about the Catholic experience, but I never go superdark or heavy. My style of comedy is the lazy guy’s perspective and it works from the perspective of a lazy Catholic. I am practicing, but a lot of that is a greater function of being married to a woman who is what I call Shiite Catholic.”
Gaffigan is just joking about the differences between his own personal practice and the highly devout practice of his wife, but the small divide parallels that of the differences he sees among audiences in different parts of the country.
“In secular places like New York City or Los Angeles there’s definitely a little ‘Is this guy a religious freak?’ or in places down South there’s sensitivity about ‘Is he making fun of Jesus?’ And the answer is I’m not, I’m making fun of human beings and how they respond to religion,” says Gaffigan, whose dream project is to star and produce a comedy script he wrote about the Catholic American experience. “It’s interesting being Catholic because I’ve gone through the rebellious experience and now I’m defensive of it.”
Indeed, that Catholic pride shines through in his appreciation for Pope John Paul II, whom he almost named his son Jack after. He saw the late pontiff not only as a great Catholic leader, but as a historic figure who was a “citizen of the world.” Most importantly, Gaffigan related to him because of John Paul’s own background as a performer in his early adulthood, and he’s used that fact to draw inspiration for his own career.
“I feel being a comedian is not that different from communicating what a priest might do at a Mass, in that it is kind of putting things in perspective. There is a performing thing to being a priest and a little theater in Mass, you gotta get people’s attention,” says Gaffigan. “I think God has a sense of humor and it’s an interesting day and age we live in in which we live in such a secular world. It’s kind of fun to walk that line, because if you do a joke that makes both religious people and secularists laugh I think it’s kind of exciting.”
Gaffigan is quick to note, however, that as a Catholic he’s not as big an anomaly as one might expect amid the TV and movie industry. He notes that “there’s tons of people who are Catholic in Hollywood,” and points out that he sees Brooke Shields at his parish in New York City, and that he’s run into Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert when Colbert taught Sunday school there.
Yet he recalls the many lonely times in his initial move to New York City during the ‘90s, when he came from Indiana and its slower-paced life and found himself overwhelmed by his new metropolis. It was his faith and prayer that carried him through to the success he is today.
“I aspire to be a better Catholic and I think my material is helping me find my way through it. I’m definitely an oddball observational guy and people will bring 15 year olds to my show because it is clean,” says Gaffigan. “I’m clean because it’s an artistic thing. Most comedians will throw in occasional curse words to get more mileage out of the joke, but I made an effort to throw that out seven years ago. But the topics I talk about - escalators, Hot Pockets and bacon – don’t require language. I love the challenge of making ketchup funny and dealing with issues like camping and having a fresh angle on that.
“I do love the fact that at my show the goth kids are next to the youth ministers, I really get a kick out of that,” he says.
To learn more about Jim Gaffigan and his work, visit www.jimgaffigan.com.