Talking with Jim Gaffigan about his dramatic career turn, the art of comedy, and his upcoming visit to hometown Chicago

This autumn is looking up and I thank Jim Gaffigan for that. He brings his “Noble Ape Tour” to the Chicago Theatre from Thursday, October 12 to Saturday, October 14 for five shows. There is also news that his remarkable career is about to become even more so with an abundance of new movie roles, several of them dramatic.

pc_-eric-levin6-1Jim will play District Attorney Paul Markham in the upcoming film Chappaquiddick. He also recently appeared in IFC Films/Showtime’s Chuck opposite Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. Jim portrayed John Stoehr, the confidante of boxer Chuck Wepner.

More Gaffigan goodness to come: he is the leading man in You Can Choose Your Family, a Ron Howard comedy, and in the animated Duck Duck Goose where he’ll head up an extraordinary comedic dream team which includes Carl Reiner and Stephen Fry.

I also thank Jim Gaffigan because I’ll be looking up this autumn in an entirely new way, namely, having a good laugh at the expense of the foliage. If you’re asking what the heck that means, you haven’t seen his latest comedy special Cinco which debuted on Netflix earlier this year. Inside that amiable everyman is one of the most brilliant and agile minds in comedy. Is there anyone else who could come up with an impeccably hilarious bit about autumn leaves?

But I’ll leave (no pun intended) that there, other than to say that you must check out Cinco if you haven’t. Jim is rightly hesitant to just list a topic out of context. When we spoke, he was reluctant to tell me what topics are on the bill for “Noble Ape” other than to say it includes material about the Gaffigans’ life this past year and the material is all brand new. He cautioned that just stating a topic alone is deceptive. “It might be about brain surgery. But it’s not about brain surgery,” he said. Truth. Jim Gaffigan’s topics are always about more than the topics. He lasers miles past the surface to lay bare our shared human absurdities.

Speaking of brain surgery and brilliance, it will be fascinating to hear his show in October. The Gaffigans’ year has been a rollercoaster. The tour, which began in early April, was to include travelling internationally with his wife Jeannie and their five children. But that month, Jeannie was diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain tumor and needed emergency surgery. Many tour dates were canceled and Jim even considered quitting comedy to care for his family full-time.

In addition to being life partners, Jim and Jeannie are writing partners. In fact, the Cinco album includes an entire bonus disc of commentary revealing how they wrote the special. Jim and Jeannie (who directed Cinco) talk about their writing, editing, and comedy decisions and it is a rare and priceless backstage pass. As Jeannie comments, “It’s like Behind the Music.” The week the album debuted, six of the top ten comedy albums on iTunes were Jim’s. If you’re looking for a profound romantic example of what a full partnership can be, look to the Gaffigans. I never need to hear about George and Amal again.

Jim kindly took time to speak with me by phone about the all new “Noble Ape Tour,” his decision to take on dramatic movie roles, Jeannie’s progress, and what he’s most looking forward to in Chicago.


Teme: How did you decide to take on more movie roles and dramatic roles?

Jim: I love acting. When the right opportunity presents itself I want to pursue what I can. I very much was thrilled with the opportunity to be in Chuck and also Chappaquiddick and then You Can’t Choose Your Family.

Teme: What makes you want to say “yes” to a project?

Jim: Well, I like the idea of an interesting character; someone who has some complexity and is different from me. There’s something about getting caught up in a different world that is fascinating.

Teme: Your character in Chappaquiddick, Paul Markham, sounds very complex. Didn’t he return to the scene of the accident with Ted Kennedy on the night it happened?

Jim: He did. He was somebody who had a rising career. The events that happened at Chappaquiddick really hindered his success. The consequences of Chappaquiddick on Ted Kennedy were enormous, but it affected a lot of people. If Chappaquiddick happened today, that person would definitely go to jail. But that was an age where things could be maneuvered to cover up something like that. It seems insane that someone died in a car crash and someone else could get away with it.

Teme: What was it like to do the scene when you go back to the accident? It sounds so wrenching.

pc_-eric-levin5Jim: Yes, it was very much. It was very upsetting to see the car jutting out of the water. To feel the gravity of that situation and the panic of being in water trying to get someone out … It’s brutal. It’s one of those things where we have all made enormous mistakes, but some people’s mistakes have different consequences.

Teme: What is your favorite story from working on your current film projects?

Jim: There’s something really interesting about working on a film. There is a unique dynamic that exists in each one. Each of them is a different job, but there’s a culture that exists in each work environment. I really enjoy each environment and the people who are nice and supportive in navigating it.

I’m not somebody who is crazy about new things, but it’s a necessity to encounter brand new environments, whether it’s working on a movie or it’s the Thursday night show at the Chicago Theatre versus the late Saturday night show at the Chicago Theatre. There are no guarantees, but hopefully I have the set of skills to deal with every situation.

Teme: How would you say comedy helps when you turn to dramatic roles?

Jim: Comedy helps with understanding a whole scene. If you’re trying to find the humor of a situation, then you have to really understand the situation.

In some ways, finding the humor of a situation in comedy is easier than just letting it be, which is important in a dramatic situation. In a dramatic situation, you are sitting with the awkwardness or creating awkwardness rather than alleviating it with humor. They are two different sides to the coin. The awkwardness of a dramatic moment is very uncomfortable. In comedy, we laugh at uncomfortable moments, but the discomfort and honesty in both comedy and drama are very similar.

Teme: Who are some of the actors you admire and what are some of your favorite dramatic performances?

Jim: I love Robert Duvall. Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman in The French Connection or Robert Duvall in The Apostle; these flawed kind of everyman that are victims of themselves. Those are the ones that really stick out to me. The capturing-the-humanity of it. Robert Duvall is somebody that plays “tough,” but you can see the vulnerability below it.

I keep thinking of how the entire cast of The Wire was pretty amazing. It’s about letting the dialogue and then the story come through the work. As an actor, hopefully, you’re not getting in the way of it.

Teme: How did you decide to call your current tour the “Noble Ape Tour”?

Jim: Well, it came from this idea that I am somebody who is essentially an animal. I have this compulsive behavior, whether it be eating or whatever, but I aspire to not be this beast. I aspire to be contributing light rather than darkness. You can either be a noble ape or you can just be an ape.

Teme: That’s so true. It’s a daily fight against impulses for me. Have you recently witnessed anything that’s an example of human beings’ best noble attributes?

Jim: Oh, yes. We live in a day and age of pretty insane times where I think there are more examples of humans being narcissists or selfish than kind or noble. But yes, my wife recently had surgery and the outpouring of support and kindness from friends and family and people on social media was really inspiring.

Teme: I hope I’m not intruding, but is it okay if I ask how she’s doing?

Jim: Oh, yes. She’s doing good. She’s up and about, and right now she’s at the vet with our dog that we just got. She’s not 100%, but she’s pretty close to it.

Teme: Oh, I’m so glad. I wish her a full and fast recovery as soon as possible.

Jim: Thank you.

Teme: What kind of dog did you get?

Jim: It’s a rescue, so we’re not sure exactly. We think it’s half-terrier and half-chihuahua maybe. It’s a really sweet dog. My brother-in-law came with us and they adopted at the same time, but we’re kind of sharing both of them. It’s very complex. I just go with the flow. We definitely have one dog. We might have two dogs.

Teme: I love how you find every diamond of comedy in every topic. Your material about foliage on the Cinco album is one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard. If you were to teach comedy, to the extent it can be taught, how would you advise people on writing like that?

Jim: Stand-up is very much point of view. Some of it is just looking at things from a different angle or being suspicious. We got this dog and it’s a “rescue,” but it wasn’t like the dog was drowning. I just went into a building and gave them money and they gave me the dog. That’s how I “rescued” it. And then after that, I rescued a pizza.

In other words, for me, it’s that something doesn’t fit right. Obviously, rescuing a dog is something that’s very good and we want people to do that, but I also have a little suspicion of the language around it. Human beings are relatively weird creatures. So questioning things we take for granted is some of the comedian’s task and that’s where we end up laughing at ourselves.


Teme: What are you looking forward to most when you get to Chicago in October?

Jim: I have family there, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was the food. I love all the food that people consider the tourist food. I love deep dish. I love Italian beef. I love the hotdogs. But I also love Chicago because that’s the city I grew up outside of. Chicago is beautiful. You want to be there in October. You don’t want to be there in February.

Teme: So true! What is your favorite deep dish pizza?

Jim: I’ve lived in New York for 25 years, so I’m no expert, but what I am an expert on is that I love deep dish. I love sausage. I like the sausage all the way across. I’ll be in Chicago for three days. I’ll probably have one deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s, one from Giordano’s … For my birthday, my sister-in-law sent me pizzas from Chicago. That’s how much I really like it.

Teme: The Chicago Theatre is a magical place as an audience member. What is it like to be on stage there?

Jim: It’s amazing. Every city has their special venue. But what’s so unique about the Chicago Theatre is that even the marquee is uniquely Chicago. As a performer, you know that everyone coming there bears an expectation that it’s a night out. There’s value just in going there. I love the fact that it puts people in a mood. I’ve performed at different places in Chicago. I love The Vic. I love Zanies. I’ve performed at various places in Chicago, but the Chicago Theatre has a prestige that informs the audience and the performer.

Teme: I love the commentary track that you and Jeannie did for Cinco. Do you think you’ll do it again for future albums?

Jim: Well, yeah! I really enjoyed doing that with Jeannie. It gives some background, which I think people are curious about.

Teme: It’s so much fun to listen to. I felt invited into the writing room with you and Jeannie and it was a privilege and really fun.

Jim: Oh, thank you so much.

Teme: What else would you like your Chicago fans to know?

Jim: That I’m excited to be there.


Jim Gaffigan will be at The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. from Thursday, October 12 through Saturday, October 14, 2017. Tickets and all show times here.

You can stream Cinco on Netflix or listen to the album by streaming it on iTunes or Amazon where the beautiful double CD is also available.

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