Some Thoughts on The Jim Gaffigan Show

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I have been a fan of Jim Gaffigan’s stand up for quite a while; of all the comics that I saw during Comics Come Home last year, I think I was most excited to see him live. At first glance, Gaffigan doesn’t have a ton in common with the comics that I generally favor – he works clean and his material is far from edgy in that he draws his inspiration from everyday life and his tendency to overindulge when eating. But funny is funny and ever since I heard his routine about Hot Pockets I was sold and have sought him and his comedy ever since. His involvement was part of the reason that I started watching the TBS comedy My Boys, a show that I am convinced that I may very well have been the only person watching. Gaffigan just seems like a great guy, so I was really excited for him when I heard that he was pitching a sitcom.

I was less excited for him when I heard that CBS had passed on the pilot and that the show had landed at TV Land.

TV Land is a fine channel for a retrospective tour of “classic” TV –I’m all about the Roseanne and Golden Girls repeats, but you kind of lose me with The King of Queens, Reba and Gilligan’s Island – but their original programming has not been great. TV Land is where TV actors go to die; the strategy for original programming was to throw together a bunch of actors that you know from other shows and write the most dated and sitcom-y jokes possible. Exhibit A: Hot in Cleveland, starring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendy Malick and Betty White. Exhibit B: The Exes, with Kristen Johnson, Donald Faison and Wayne Knight. I like a lot of the people involved with these shows so I gave them both a look, but for me they were borderline unwatchable. That style of comedy may have worked for me in the 80s, but comic sensibility has changed quite a lot since then. I don’t begrudge anyone getting a paycheck, but when I think of shows on TV Land, that’s all I think about – that these people have to be doing this just for the money. I’m sure these shows appeal to a wide variety of people, but I wanted better for Gaffigan than a hokey sit-com that relies on faux nostalgia and generic laughs. I’ll admit it – I am a TOTAL TV snob. I wasn’t particularly thrilled when the show was being developed for CBS, either, but I felt even worse about TV Land. So I had a little moment of silence for Jim Gaffigan’s successful TV dream and wished that things had tuned out differently. Maybe next time, I thought. I had zero intensions of watching the show; I figured that it would only make me sad.

However, Gaffigan’s website made an episode available to watch last month (well before the premiere) and since there was nothing much going on I decided to see how bad the show really was. I love a good preview more than anything, so I settled in expecting to see a shadow of the comedy that I’ve come to love from Gaffigan – and that’s if I was lucky.

Believe me, no one was more surprised than me when I actually really enjoyed the episode. Though there were some markings of the classic sit com that we all grew up with, The Jim Gaffigan Show felt like a much more updated version. It didn’t feel stale or clichéd; instead the show seemed to breathe some fresh life into a dying breed of comedies. The show may not be as complex or dark as the comedies that I generally tend to enjoy – think most comedies on FX – but it made me smile and laugh without having to try all that hard. I’ve now seen three episodes and while the first one that I saw was still the best of the bunch (not the pilot), it wasn’t an aberration either. I’m actually enjoying some original programming on TV Land. Who knew?

The Jim Gaffigan Show is a fictionalized version of Jim’s real life – he lives in a two bedroom apartment in New York City with his wife Jeannie (Ashley Williams) and their five (!!) small children. The show follow their chaotic life of parenting so many kids in such a small space in the city as well as Jim’s life as a stand-up comic. Michael Ian Black co-stars as Jeannie’s friend Daniel and Adam Goldberg rounds out the cast as Jim’s scummy friend Dave. In some ways, The Jim Gaffigan Show is a G-rated version of Louie, without some of the more absurdist and esoteric elements. Though Jim is a stand-up comic on the show, they don’t dedicate much time to him doing traditional stand-up material. Instead, the show is more focused on his home life and what happens off the stage. There’s still plenty of laughs and Jim’s food obsession is front and center on more than one episode so fans of Gaffigan’s stand-up will not be disappointed. His humor is still apparent throughout, just delivered in a different way.

What really helps the show tremendously is Jim Gaffigan’s inherent likability; he just seems like a really great guy that you’d want to be friends with, so you automatically enjoy spending 22 minutes a week with him. I don’t know if I would enjoy this show nearly as much if he wasn’t the star. The rest of the cast is great – both Michael Ian Black and Adam Goldberg are playing the type of character that they do best (snarky for the former and a lech for the latter) and Ashley Williams is great in her scenes with Gaffigan. The stakes are generally pretty low – one recent episode revolved around Jim trying to not eat red velvet cake – but they are very relatable (I, too, have a weakness for anything red velvet). But most importantly, of course, is that the show is just funny. None of these other elements would matter if the jokes don’t land and the show doesn’t make you laugh. Thankfully that isn’t an issue with The Jim Gaffigan Show; his comedic voice shines through the more traditional sit com format.

The episode that I saw first (scheduled to air August 5th) and which I think is the strongest of the series deals with Jim and religion. The show doesn’t shy away from the Gaffigan’s faith on the show – their priest is a recurring character – but it is presented in such a way to not be an issue for non-believers or people of other beliefs. The episode in question plays with Jim’s fears about being perceived as religious; it’s an interesting spin on the issue, where Jim is somewhat comfortable in his position as a believer, but not comfortable with some of the baggage that comes with such a label. It’s bar far the edgiest of the episodes that I’ve seen – and it’s not really all that edgy except for dealing with an issue that can be controversial. It was handled so well and was so funny that it is what sold me on the series.

So I learned an important lesson with The Jim Gaffigan Show – you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, a series by its network). You never know when a channel is going to go in a completely different direction with their programming or offer up something that is a little off-brand. Granted, that is less likely to happen for a major network that is doing well than a small cable outlet – CBS probably isn’t changing their stripes anytime soon – but it is still important to actually give a show a chance before summarily dismissing it. The Jim Gaffigan Show isn’t reinventing the wheel, but its voice and viewpoint are just different enough to make it a fun way to spend a half hour. I don’t know if it would find a consistent spot on my DVR lineup in the fall, when the TV offerings are vast and plentiful, but it is a perfectly acceptable alternative in the summer. I’m glad that Gaffigan got a real shot at a TV comedy. Success really couldn’t happen to a nicer or more deserving guy. He deserves all the red velvet cake that he wants.

The Jim Gaffigan Show airs Wednesdays at 10 pm (ET) on TV Land.

Comics Come Home – TD Garden (Boston, MA), 11/8/14

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Using stand-up comedy to raise money for charity has a long and proud tradition. While the Comic Relief events are perhaps the most famous on the national level, comedians make a habit of donating their time to fundraisers of all sizes all across the country. While stand-ups are often generalized to be damaged and unhappy people, it seems to me that they have the biggest hearts and freely give of their talents to help others. As a fan of comedy, it’s always nice when I can laugh for a good cause. Somehow, Comics Come Home had flown under my radar up until this year; I may have vaguely heard about it over the years after it happened, but now that I have started going to more events in Boston regularly, I am more keyed into what’s going on in Beantown. And once I heard Jimmy Fallon was involved, it was a no-brainer that I’d have to check the event out; I think I am contractually obligated to attend anything that Fallon is a part of.

Comics Come Home, celebrating its twentieth year, is a fundraiser for the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care that is organized by actor/comic Denis Leary. Neely is a retired hockey player who played for the Boston Bruins and now serves as the team’s President; he has also apparently appeared in Dumb and Dumber according to my guy friends, who are horrified that I have never seen that movie. Many, but not all, of the comedians that participate in Comics Come Home have a connection to the Boston area; they either grew up there or started their careers there. Some of the comics on the bill have a personal connection to the foundation; others just think it is a worthy cause. Over the years, many great comedians have donated their time to the fundraiser and this year was no different – in addition to Leary and Fallon, the 2014 lineup included Bill Burr, Marc Maron, Jim Gaffigan, Lenny Clarke and others. While I’ve seen many of the gentlemen perform before, I was particularly excited to finally get the chance to see Gaffigan, who I’ve been looking forward to seeing but always seem to miss when he’s out on tour. As cancer has recently affected me in a personal way, I was more than happy to help this worthwhile cause while selfishly getting a great night of comedy out of it. I was a little skeptical of the location of the event, as I generally think that comedy is better in a more intimate setting, but if hosting it in the TD Garden meant more money was raised, it would be worth it.

The night kicked off with numerous video messages from comics that were not able to participate this year but that wanted to send their well-wishes. Conan O’Brien wondered why, as a guy that grew up in Boston, they only asked him to send a video every year instead of inviting him to perform. Larry David, in typical Larry David fashion, commended the altruism of the participants and said that he probably wouldn’t participate next year either because “nice thoughts occur to be but I generally don’t act on them.” Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and David Letterman all sent video messages as well.

Denis Leary served as the master of ceremonies and host for the event and he got the live show going with a Boston-centric parody of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I can’t say that I got all the references, but the crowd loved it; my “outside” status as a New Yorker would be reinforced a few times during the evening. Leary then warmed the crowd up with some rants about how at his age he just doesn’t care anymore (that’s a cleaned up version) and how he hates anyone under 30. Leary would pop in and out for the duration of the show to do a little stand-up and then introduce the next comic.

 

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Denis Leary

Comedians Tony V and Joe Yannetty got things going and while they may have been among the lesser well known comics on the bill, they both brought their A game to their sets. Yannetty’s set was perhaps the most appropriate to the theme of the night as he had just received a clean bill of health after his battle with cancer. You wouldn’t think cancer in and of itself is funny, but Yannetty was able to mine his experiences for comedy gold. On being dismayed at the number of people who shared sad stories with him of people who had cancer after his diagnosis, he joked that he only wanted to hear triumphant stories from here on out. “Tell me about a woman who had ovarian cancer that is now f*cking her way across Europe!” That punchline got a huge laugh and particularly tickled Leary, who kept coming back to it the rest of the night. Both Tony V and Joe Yannetty were solid and the night was already off to a strong start.

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Marc Maron

Marc Maron then came out to do a set about his anger issues, kale and the Ebola scare. I always enjoy Maron – I watch his IFC show and listen to his podcast – and appreciate his point of view. I thought his bit about the Ebola scare being a boon time for self-involved people was particularly funny, as well as his observation that kale seemingly came out of nowhere to suddenly be the most important food ever. Maron isn’t necessarily a guy where there are big punchlines or belly laughs in his delivery – he’s more a conversational story-teller than a joke machine – but he was consistently funny throughout his set.

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Lenny Bruce

 

 

He was followed by Lenny Clarke, who is probably best known from his role on Leary’s FX show Rescue Me. A sizeable portion of his set was about the Hilltop Steakhouse, a former Boston institution. Despite the fact that I had no reference point for his jokes, he was still very funny – while his early observations were about the Hilltop specifically, his later jokes were more relatable to even a Yankee like me. And his Boston-specific humor went over very big with the audience.

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Jimmy Fallon

Next, it was finally time for my pal and yours, Jimmy Fallon, to finally take the stage. I was curious what exactly he was going to do; Jimmy may do monologues on his show, but even before he was on Saturday Night Live I don’t know that he was really known for his stand-up. So I wasn’t sure how he was going to entertain the masses. Leary made a point of introducing Fallon as a Yankee and Knicks fan, which earned jeers from the audience – though I bravely cheered – and Fallon rebutted by kicking off his set by pointing out that Leary hadn’t lived in Boston for nearly 25 years and that while Fallon starred in a film about the Red Sox, Leary started in a TV show set in New York City. Fallon then did a bit that he does on the Tonight Show where he awards superlatives to athletes, with the focus on Boston area players. Leary came out to do equal time with New York area athletes; my favorite was the one about Derek Jeter:

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It’s funny because it’s true.

 

Fallon and Leary then did a rendition of “Dirty Water” and Fallon came out into the audience to do his best James Brown impression. His set was capped with an audience sing-a-long of “Sweet Caroline,” which was especially delightful to me since that was my sorority song in college. So the song has special significance to me and the chance to sing it with Fallon and one of my sorority sisters was icing on the cake. The crowd loved Fallon and he gave the event a nice jolt of energy.

Bobby Kelly followed that spectacle and joked that he was in a tough position of being “the fat, bald, nobody comic.” Kelly looked very familiar to me but I couldn’t place where I knew him from; after the fact I realized that he’s appeared on Louie numerous times. When he came out, I turned to my friend Laura and said “hey – it’s THAT guy!” Well, “That guy” wound up stealing the whole entire show from his better known counterparts. Kelly had the audience laughing so hard that I could hear the people around me gasping for a breath. He came out of the gates fast and furious with some hilarious observations about how men in the past could open jars and men of today have “Facebook fingers” that are only adept at using a smart phone. It was then non-stop laughs as he discussed become a father for the first time and the creation and birth of his child. I can’t even begin to do his jokes justice, but his quip that seeing his wife give birth was like seeing someone sneaking a peek out of speakeasy pretty much brought the entire Garden down. He was no longer “That guy” – he was now “Bobby Kelly – the best comic at Comics Come Home.” He was fantastic and I’m still laughing at his set two days later. He was a most pleasant surprise and I’d see him again in a heartbeat.

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Bobby Kelly

Jim Gaffigan and Bill Burr took the stage last and Gaffigan was as fun as I hoped he would be. He did some funny material on bringing doughnuts through airport security and Jesus’ ability to create bread being key to his ability to recruit followers. He was affable and made me chuckle quite a bit. I’ll definitely want to see him perform his full set and I may get around to finally reading his books while I’m traveling the next few weekends. Burr is a much angrier comedian and he seemed even crankier after following Gaffigan. His more misogynist jokes didn’t work for everyone – the women behind me certainly weren’t fans – and he was probably my least favorite of the comedians. He was still pretty funny, but something about his vibe and material just didn’t connect with me this time around; I saw him a few months ago and enjoyed him more then.

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Jim Gaffigan

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Bill Burr

None of the comedians were on stage more than 15-20 minutes and all of them left us wanting more. Leary came out again to close out the evening with a rendition of his song “Asshole,” which was unfortunately hard to hear over the band. The big finale was all the comedians coming out on stage and being joined by the Boston Bruins. I unfortunately don’t follow hockey, so I was less impressed by this than most people in attendance. Regardless, my friend Laura and I had a great time and have decided to make this an annual tradition; we may have missed the first 19 years of Comics Come Home, but we’re on board for the next 19. It was a great evening with great comics for a great cause. It doesn’t get much better than that.

All the comics joined by the Boston Bruins

All the comics joined by the Boston Bruins