Author of The New York Times best-seller “Dad Is Fat,” Jim Gaffigan is more than a popular stand-up comic. He earned critical acclaim on Broadway in “That Championship Season.” At 47, he is the father of five children who provide fodder for the stand-up routine he writes with his wife and partner, Jeannie Noth. They live in New York City. He will be at Heinz Hall with his “White Bread Tour” for two shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday. Click here to order tickets or call 1-855-346-5611. After Pittsburgh he heads to Cleveland, Iceland, England and beyond.
You have said you had a fear of public speaking. Do you remember what it was like the very first time you took to the stage as a stand-up comic?
The first time I did it, I was very much. I had gone to like a seminar kind of thing so I knew what I was going to say. I was pretty prepared, but it was definitely memorized. Now I’m much more comfortable in the conversation that is stand-up. But yeah, it was some pretty significant anxiety. It’s funny ’cause there is a saying, “It takes 10 years to get your personality on stage.” I totally feel like that’s true. I also did not have a performance background. I had done a play in high school, but I really didn’t have exposure to it. I think I just had the kind of normal insecurities and anxieties.
Your timing and delivery is impeccable. Is it natural or did that come with practice?
I don’t know. I am sure it is something I had to work on, but there is a cadence and familiarity. I think it helps when a person knows your point of view. Like doing a theater show and everyone who is there knows your point of view. It’s kind of like someone lobbing a ball to you. As opposed to, say, a comedy club where people are showing up who have no idea who you are. So environment and familiarity. I don’t know if I’m making any sense.
I read that growing up you used to imitate your dad and make your siblings laugh, but he was the one who wanted you to get a college education. How did he react when you said you were giving up finance for comedy?
I did a very kind of cautious approach, but I kept my day job a lot longer than anyone else. I was the youngest of six kids, so for 10 years it was: “Jimmy is doing this interesting thing with stand-up.”
It was back before Comedy Central. The way we consume stand-up is completely different from how we even consumed it in the ’90s. But I had a job. I worked in advertising and I lived in New York, and everyone else was in Chicago or Indiana. So it was more that I had a strange [sideline] rather than I had given up on the security which I was raised to kind of seek out.
So you eased them into the idea.
Yeah, I mean, I would say everyone in my family thought I was crazy to do it, and when I had some level of success, they said, “We were always supportive.”
Being funny can get you in trouble, especially in school. But a good sense of humor can also save you.
Yeah, definitely. Being a father, I see my kids using humor to get things done. It’s pretty funny, and you figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s not appropriate. I meet people after shows, and sometimes I will meet a teenager who is trying to be sarcastic but just ends up being rude. But I don’t take offense to it. Do you know what I mean? And I still make mistakes in everyday life. I have been obsessing on stand-up and comedy for 20 years now, so there is some understanding of what I can do and what I can’t do. I think comedians do what they do. There’s not an elaborate scheme behind it. Like I didn’t sit there and go, “I’m going to be the clean comic.” It worked for me ,and it fits my everyday personality.
Do you get the same kind of high from doing a Broadway show as you do in stand-up?
I think stand-up is incredibly rewarding. When people talk about “Well, Seinfeld went back to stand-up” or “Bill Cosby still does stand-up,” I describe it as kind of a heroin. There is really nothing better than live performance and getting a laugh out of someone, getting this kind of involuntary reaction. That is pretty empowering.
Coming up with a new joke is one of my favorite things that I’ve experienced. I mean, obviously my kids are more important, but that’s amazing. The acting thing is very different. But it is equally rewarding. I think stand-up also spoils comedians for when they encounter acting. In acting, you have to let the scene or the moment be the hero. In stand-up, you drive the whole thing.
Being writer, director, performer of the stand-up, sometimes I think comedians find it difficult to stand back. I enjoy acting a lot. Also the confines of a script can be hard for a comedian, but I like the challenge. I had always heard actors talk about every night there is a different performance, but it is true. You can find different things, and you use your moods to kind of inform how you are going to do a performance. I love stand-up and I love acting. I think in the end my heart is that of a comedian.
You must have a certain level of confidence to basically say, “I am going to make you laugh.”
To be fair, if you do it long enough you develop a bag of tricks. You know just from the experience of doing it. There are definitely hard moments, but your experience informs how you can solve it.
So how do you maintain a sense of spontaneity when you are doing the same material night after night on tour?
That is an important element. That is the point of view, keeping that point of view on a topic. So if my point of view on fish or seafood is that I don’t enjoy it and here’s why, it’s not hard to find the integrity of that point of view. And the script is never locked, so you can try it different ways.
When it comes to a theater show, I definitely want every single person walking out of that theater saying, “That was way better than I thought it would be, and I definitely want to come back when he’s back in town.”
The Hot Pockets joke is one of those things where it is a blessing and a curse. I have to keep doing it, but also they keep introducing new ones, and Hot Pockets are in the news more than Lindsay Lohan at this point.
How long does it take you and your wife to write material for a new show?
It varies. If I’m doing something else like a play for six months, that is going to influence it, too. It depends. As a comedian you sit there and go, “OK, I had this creative burst. How can I replicate that?” What was I doing? Was I eating? Was I tired? Was I rested? I do find that I write more the more I perform. I perform around New York City doing sets pretty much every night. If you do the same material, if you are honing the same chunk over and over, there will be a fatigue built in, and that will prompt you to come up with another idea.
Does it come in bits and pieces?
Some of it, yes. You know, it’s weird. I have this chunk on weddings. It’s something I have always kind of believed since I was married, that they are kind of this superficial, over-expensive kind of thing. I have lived with that belief for a while ,and some of it is making it palatable and funny and also creating enough jokes surrounding it. It’s like finding different angles. The inside voice is good because I can take the opposite point of view on the point of view that I’ve established. If I don’t like weddings, the inside voice could have the opinion that weddings are a beautiful event.
Your inside voice reminds me a little bit of a ventriloquist.
Oh yeah, yeah, maybe.
So a lot of your jokes are about your two-bedroom place in New York City, but seriously, if you have any more children you are going to have to move.
Well, we’re moving. We’re definitely moving. We’re in the process, it’s just nothing is ever easy. Anyone who has bought an apartment or a house knows that it’s not just moving in.
Last night I was — we were — lying down with our kids, putting them to bed. It’s very crowded and uncomfortable, but I’m thinking, “You know, this is pretty nice. I don’t have to really look that hard to reach somebody. I can say ‘Jeannie’ and she can hear me. It’s not like she’s on a different floor.”
Some of it is the proximity. I think when kids are so young you want them near you, and they want to be near you. I feel like I’m always carrying my 1-year-old. I am some kind of transportation device. He sees me, and he’s like, “Oh good. This guy will carry me around.”
You are doing a second book, right?
Yes, we are writing that, my wife, and I. So we will see what happens there. That’s hard work. It’s fun but it is so much easier to just talk. I know I’m not making sense because I am so tired, but stand-up, it’s just so much easier than writing a book.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.