It’s common wisdom that some of the best comedians are outsiders, standing at the fringe of society lobbing critiques inward. But it’s also common wisdom that white, tall, blond, Catholics are not outsiders, at least not in America, at least for another year or two. In fact they’re pretty much the norm. But Jim Gaffigan, the platonic ideal of whiteness itself, has made a career out of proving just how outside the inside can be. I spoke with him after a show Saturday night in Jerusalem’s accurately named “Comedy Basement.”
Gaffigan came up in the New York comedy scene, so performing for an audience made up of 99 percent Jews isn’t really new for him, but performing in the birthplace of monotheistic religion is a bit different, especially for Gaffigan who covers a range of biblical stories in his stand-up, and was here with his family on religious pilgrimage.
Being on vacation, the show was laid back, and his already characteristic glottal fry (that swallowing your own voice syndrome that your grandmother may have chided you for in seventh grade was kicked into overdrive. He also eschewed his inside voice conceit almost entirely (perhaps because the Midwesterner it usually refers to wasn’t in this audience?), but he still brought his full attention to the crowd, with some classic material, some new material and a range of jokes and segues specific to the Middle East.
Gaffigan’s appreciation for the setting was evident right from the start, as he began with a rousing “Thank you, thank you, wow it’s like my bar mitzvah! it’s gonna be weird doing this not in Hebrew. Chag Sameach,” but his self-described geo-political dorkiness really shone through over the next few minutes as he rattled off a string of Israel-centric jokes, talking about the Israeli breakfast (“there is no meat, but to make up for it we will offer every other food possible”), his heritage (“as you can tell by looking at me, I’m an Ethiopian Jew”) and Israeli demographics (Eilat is like the Jersey Shore of Israel”).
In an interaction with a pale blond audience member he got a big laugh just by saying “so you must be Sephardic,” adding, “I never thought I would be able to use any of this information.” For those of you without the context to judge, I swear that all these jokes are dead on, and with Saturday’s audience they hit hard.
It wasn’t all local jokes though, he did a tight five on the weirdness of indoor pools, laid into seafood with his usual gusto, and did at least ten minutes on whales, which served as a spiritual successor to his classic manatee bit. You start to wonder, just what does Gaffigan have against water? I’d like to imagine that his heart was once broken by a marine biologist and he’s out to get revenge.
Not to be deterred by a potentially touchy setting, Gaffigan brought out some of his classic religious bits, including “Circumcision” and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” heard on King Baby, and “Holidays” heard on Beyond The Pale. When asked if he felt uncomfortable doing religious material in Jerusalem, Gaffigan said “As long as you show some knowledge and respect, then you can pretty much do whatever you want. Like ‘Oh he said Chag Sameach, he’s trying.'”
Eventually, and I thought a bit reluctantly, Gaffigan admitted to being religious. His hesitance is understandable, Comedy is an industry known for its vocal atheists; even though he is in the majority of America as a whole, when it comes to the people he works with on a regular basis, he is coming from the outside, “If you admit that you believe in God, there’s this presumed idiocy,” he said, adding “it’s a personal thing…”
Gaffigan has said in the past that his goal is to write in such a way, ” as Dave Attell put it, that ‘the joke is undeniable'”, so that even if people don’t agree with or don’t love you, they love what you’re doing. His wide appeal came up here as well, “I like that the goth girl and jock guy are both in the crowd at my show having a good time.”
Gaffigan is an interesting figure in comedy. He is loved by both comedy snobs and the unwashed masses, conservatives and liberals alike. He is a theist who walks the fine line between joking about religious topics and joking about religion, and in NY he is, in his own words “Hitler’s wet dream”, a towering white flag surrounded by ethnic Jews. In an interview on aspecialthing.com he said that “Attell used to always be like So when’d you go to your first clan meeting, when you were twelve?”
He talks authentically about how lazy he is and at the same time with seven albums in the past nine years, he produces an unquestionably huge amount of material. He’s said in a previous interview that “Comedians have conflicting identities”, but he’s one of the first comics to incorporate his nagging inside voice on-stage as a core part of his act, literally invoking a kind of dualism (and at times dueling) as a structural keystone of his act.
Coming from the small town of Chesterton, Indiana, Gaffigan looks like the quintessential average American, the kind of guy that George Bush could really have a beer with. But then the minute he opens his mouth he sounds like a hilarious, non-threatening serial killer. He traces his roots back to David Letterman and Bill Murray, people who are both cynical and yet not downers; just the opposite, they are oddly positive about how terrible things are, a kind of sunny-side-up nihilism.
That, combined with the thoroughness of George Carlin, the joke efficiency of Attell, the buffoonery of Brian Regan, the everyday subjects of Demetri Martin, and a kind of lopsided freshness of perspective reminiscent of Mitch Hedberg and you start to get a sense of the disparate threads from which Gaffigan’s comedy kaleidoscope is hewn.
Israel too is very contradictory. A country born out of an attempt to achieve peace after the worst violence the world has ever known, it has been in a perpetual state of war since its inception, the prototypical example of Aristotle’s famous quote, “We make war that we may live in peace”. The Jewish people have always been outsiders wherever they have gone, but now their state is home to legions of Palestinians and Arab Israelis who, in the eyes of the law (though not necessarily the citizenry) are considered second class citizens. There’s probably no place in the Western World home to so much spirituality and so much tension. It is, in some senses as foreign as a land can be, and yet it’s also a very welcoming place for American to travel abroad.
Gaffigan told me he felt it was actually easier to perform in Israel as an American than most other countries, “Maybe because of how many American Israelis there are, or because of the Israeli experience, Israel might be the only country where, as an American you go on and you aren’t greeted with any sneer… In London, when they find out you’re American they’re like ‘oh…’ [disapproving face].”
Gaffigan’s experiences as an American traveling abroad may have mirrored his experiences as a Midwesterner moving to New York. To this day, he says, he is still presumed by cab drivers to be an easy mark, a giant rube. And in Israel, speaking in an American accent pretty much guarantees a 50 percent mark-up on taxis and everything else in the shuk (outdoor markets; not to say this is hostile, they are plenty welcoming to you and your American money). After the show one of the Israeli comics was busy teaching Jeannie, Gaffigan’s wife and co-writer how to say “Ani lo fryer”, or in Hebrew, “I’m no sucker.”
Whether or not Gaffigan got cheated on the small things, he seems to have gotten his money’s worth in the big picture, in talking about the sheer variety of cultural experience, walking the Via Dolorosa, traveling through the Galilee, his fascination was palpable. “Oh we’re definitely coming back,” said Jeannie, and I got the sense that at that moment she was speaking for both Jim’s inside and his outside voice. Dualism lies at the center of Gaffigan’s act, and seems close to the surface of his mind.”This is a city of contradiction,” he said, “You’re in this place where they’re like ‘this is where the Virgin Mary appeared,’ and then somebody elbows you in the gut. It’s an amazing combination of spirituality and humanity.”
Oh and for this show, the Hot Pocket was inside a Pita.