There’s always something a little insulting about the qualifications, implied or stated, that follow around Jim Gaffigan’s work. Praise of his schlub-with-a-heart material tends to be coupled with semi-apologies for how unchallenging it is. How can someone be this clean and funny and still have come from the same artistic tradition as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin? It boggles the mind…provided you’re an idiot.
Along with Brian Regan and a handful of others, Gaffigan has been able to pull off a type of humor that’s rarely practiced these days, and the general consensus is that his success is all the more impressive for it. Of course, the no-profanity, no-politics school of family-friendly belly laughs recalls Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart more than Bruce or Carlin, but Gaffigan probably isn’t poring over his copy of Cosby’s Those of You With or Without Children, You’ll Understand before hitting stage.
Or is he? Gaffigan begins his latest special, Mr. Universe, with a bit about becoming a new father (for the fourth time). The toll it’s taken on him has apparently turned him from a muy guapo Puerto Rican stallion to the pasty, balding lump seen on stage. It’s classic Gaffigan: self-effacing, gently desperate and vocally massaged in all the right places. But Gaffigan’s appeal isn’t just his quirky delivery or lack of F-bombs. It’s also his ability to trick out seemingly mundane subjects with deeply sarcastic details, and his knack for inhabiting a bewildering array of characters with a voice that essentially has two settings. If stand-up comedy is all about voice, literally and figuratively, then Gaffigan is also showing how to use it to its fullest. That much is clear from his relatively calm stage presence. Other than a few well-timed head turns and hand motions, his body language is almost nonexistent.
For some comics, that strips away the need for a filmed special, but Gaffigan’s command of incredulous expressions, which typically involve a furrowed brow and “Are you serious?” glare, usually enhance the material. Taped in February at Washington D.C.’s Warner Theatre, Mr. Universe is being sold for $5 direct from Gaffigan’s website. Call it the Louis C.K. model if you want, although with Aziz Ansari selling his latest, Dangerously Delicious, in the same way and for the same price, it’s quickly becoming everyone’s model. (Incidentally, Delicious was also taped at the Warner). The time of DRM-free, digitally distributed specials has clearly come, and nothing can withstand their force, provided the comedian has a big enough audience and no need for the usual marketing machinery.
Ironically, Gaffigan feels as prone to censorship as much as any dirty comic, but it’s the corporate kind. He spends a good deal of time railing against brand names – in the case of Mr. Universe, McDonald’s, Dominos and Subway – but since he’s not using profanity, it’s much trickier to block out the “offensive” passages because the names are deeply woven into the material. This, according to a recent Gaffigan interview with TechCrunch, is another reason why he’s selling this special on his own.
So is it worth the $5? It is if you’ve liked anything Gaffigan has done before. Mr. Universe is Gaffigan at his most conversational, although it’s hard to fathom how this man has eked out so many new jokes from the same small patch of soil. If you’ve heard a dozen or so punchlines about his pasty looks, put-upon fatherhood, food guilt, or love/hatred of sea creatures, you’ve heard them all, right? Nope. Gaffigan has a seemingly endless supply, and they work because he manages to locate strange new dimensions to his First-World suffering, even while pointing out how lazy and entitled Americans are. When he talks about Disney World, he doesn’t just bitch about the crowds and high prices. He adds a thick smear of absurdity that threatens to turn irredeemably bleak: “At Disney it’s like a desperation. You see it on the faces of parents. They’re like, ‘Uhhhhh, this was an enormous mistake. I hope you’re having fun. It was either this or send you to college.’”
A lot of his material is, at heart, a plain-language critique of consumerism swaddled in funny voices, but it succeeds because it’s sympathetic. He hates the fact that we take pictures of our dessert at restaurants then tweet about it, but he probably does it himself. “It’s all McDonald’s,” he says, referring to Western junk culture – right after enumerating on the many pleasures of McDonald’s fries.
The special’s title comes from a joke about freakish body builders, but it might as well be Mr. Universal. Despite the stray reference to drugs or porn, Gaffigan has proven once again that a clearly articulated idea doesn’t need to be controversial to be powerful.