Few men have turned being fat and lazy into a burgeoning career with as much skill as Jim Gaffigan. The acclaimed comic has produced eight albums and a series of viral videos, each probing the depths of his sloth, from the joys of riding escalators to, most famously, his hunger for Hot Pockets.
Gaffigan's latest album, "Mr. Universe," explores similar, hard-hitting materialfrom his favorite machine at the gym (the vending machine) to what to do with the remaining sock after you lose its brotherall while doing something quite serious: raising funds for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The comedian is selling his new album through his website as a $5 download, a dollar of which goes to the foundation, assisting wounded soldiers and their families.
Gaffigan spoke with me about why he's reaching out to military families, why becoming famous has been both a blessing and a curse, and why his stand-up doesn't need swear words to hit home. The comic began our conversation with a scowl of aggravation. A father of four young children, including an eight-month-old son, he was running on no sleep. And just before we met, he watched a clip of my reporting, exposing how military doctors are purposely misdiagnosing wounded soldiers with a phony pre-existing condition in order to deny them medical care and disability benefits.
Gaffigan: This pre-existing condition stuff, "personality disorder," it's absurd. You have these individuals who are going over there to Afghanistan, men and women who are far braver than I am, and when they get home they're essentially getting fed. What surprises me is that I hadn't seen anything on this.
Kors: Most people I talk with don't know anything about it. Most people, I think, don't much about what's going on with our soldiers in general.
Gaffigan: That's true. It's because it's not sexy. It's not what the tastemakers want to talk about. You know, I was on my way to CNN's Showbiz Tonight to talk about my download and the Woodruff Foundation, and I got the list of questions from them. All of the questions had to do with Brad Pitt and the Kardashians. I told my manager, "No. That's it. Turn the car around. I'm not going to participate in this." What's happening to our soldiers should be enough for the media.
Kors: I've noticed a weird double standard when it comes to soldier stories. First, media outlets ask, "Has this story been done before?" If any part of it has, then "Sorry, we're out." But no TV channel saw Anderson Cooper with water up to his knees in New Orleans and said, "Oh well, never mind: somebody else is already covering that." Here thousands of wounded soldiers and their families are being devastated, and very few in the media are stepping forward. But the opposite is true too: if everybody is covering something, well then, "We have to cover it too, or we'll be left out." Why did everybody cover the Koran-burning pastor in Florida, but nobody covered a soldier getting tortured by our own military?
Gaffigan: Because the Koran burning fits right in to this political narrative, our "culture war." That's why I love the Woodruff Foundation. It's completely non-political. There's no fancy ploy. It's just one fact: that as a nation, we agree to take care of our veterans.
Kors: And their families.
Gaffigan: Exactly. You can't do three tours, have kids at home and expect it to be a cakewalk for the spouse either. To extend a hand to those families, it's simple human decency, isn't it? It's something Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck can both agree on. ... I did a piece recently for Entertainment Weekly, "Eight Reasons to Not Buy My Download." The funniest one was: "If you don't support the troops and their families because a dollar of this is going to help them."
Kors: In your comedy, though, you never mention the military. Your shows are completely non-political.
Gaffigan: That's right. I like that. I like that in my audiences, there's a lesbian couple sitting next to a Mormon family. ... My comedy is romanticized laziness. And we can all identify with that, right? We all relish times when we can be more lazy, when we get the chance to overeat.
Kors: Food is one thing we all share.
Gaffigan: Yes. And an interest in helping injured soldiers should be another, especially when they're not getting the care they need. But I guess there's a natural fatigue to that story.
Kors: I don't know about that. I think we'd all have the same reaction to hearing that wounded soldiers are being cheated out of their benefits, but there's a large segment of our country that doesn't know what's happening to them. So if you don't know, how can you help?
Gaffigan: That's right. That's why I feel such a connection to Lee and Bob [Woodruff]. They're out to do the right thing. When I performed at their fundraiser, with all the soldiers in the audience, you could see the impact their foundation was having. That's not the case with a lot of fundraisers I've been to. Plus, I knew what kind of need there was out there. I'd been to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center].
Kors: Tell me about that.
Gaffigan: It's unbelievable. I went to Walter Reed a couple timesthis was a few years agoand it's almost hard to describe. You go room to room, speaking with people who are severely damaged. One soldier, part of his head was missing. They're sitting there with their mom or wife or their brother. I remember one mom saying to me, "This is my Marine." Her son was sitting there. His head was swollen. ... One mother told me that her husband had died in Vietnam, and she had raised her son all by herself. After 9/11, the son announced he was going into the military. She was hesitant but supportive. Now there she was at Walter Reed, sitting next to the son she would have to take care of for the rest of her life.
Kors: That's awful. Did the families know who you were?
Gaffigan: Some of the soldiers did. The parents didn't. But it wasn't even that. It was just that you feel like you're interrupting a family moment. Everyone was very gracious, very appreciative. But you feel so powerless, so silly compared to the enormity of what they've done. Here's someone making a profound sacrifice for our country, and here you are, this guy who tells diarrhea jokes.
Gaffigan: I remember running into Conan [O'Brien] on Amtrak, as he was on his way there. He said, "I'm going to Walter Reed with Bob Woodruff." And I was like, "Oh, I've done that. Do you drink?" He said, "Well, occasionally." And I told him, "Well, you're going to get drunk tonight." Because there is nothing that can prepare you for digesting those emotions. ... I was on Conan's show last week, and we were talking during the commercial break, and he was like, "You were right. I got back on Amtrak, and I just drank wine for the entire time from D.C. to New York."
Kors: Your last few albums have sold well. Your videos are going viral. Do you feel famous?
Gaffigan: Well, a lot of people know who I am. But fame is very segmented now. My manager always says I'm the most famous unfamous person in the world. If I was on an airplane, the people in coach would know who I am. But no one in first class would know.
Kors: You think that's true?
Gaffigan: And the industry hot shots in L.A. and New York, they have no idea. Maybe their kids would know.
Kors: Is this the time to mention that I fly coach?
Gaffigan: Well, there you go. ... To be honest with you, there was a time when I wanted that spotlight. I wanted to be on [Saturday Night Live]. That sounds like a nightmare to me now. I have four kids, and I just feel lucky to be doing what I love.
Kors: I told my friend Mike that I'd be talking with you, and without missing a beat he starts singing into the phone, "Hot Pocket!"
Gaffigan: Yeah. Yeah. ... Believe me, the Hot Pocket thing, it's a blessing and a curse. It provided me some visibility, proved that I'm funny. But I don't want to be known as "the Hot Pocket Guy." I walk down the street, and people will shout, "Hot Pocket!" or "Bacon!" or even "Hey Manatee!" If I died today, in the newspaper, the Hot Pocket thing would go at the top of my obituary, above my other accomplishments.
Kors: I think you struck a chord. People identify with that bit.
Gaffigan: They do. And I am grateful for that. ... You know, with the attention that bit has brought me, sometimes I find myself in a real moment of vanity. A woman approached me on the street the other day, and I was thinking, "Oh boy, another person wants another photograph."
Kors: Maybe she wanted you to sign a Hot Pocket.
Gaffigan: And then she says to me, "Where's Broadway and Houston?"
Kors: I just finished Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up. He talks about the beginning of his career when he was literally performing to an audience of zero. At showtime, with no one in the audience, they told him to go on anyway because someone might look through the window, see a performer and come in. He mentions another time where he went through the first 35 minutes of his set without receiving a single laugh. So he challenged himself to finish the set without getting any laughter.
Gaffigan: Oh, that's funny.
Kors: Meanwhile your latest album, every line is just snap, snap, snap. The audience is with you. You're firing on all cylinders. The jokes are obviously well-tested. But at the beginning of your career you must have had shows like Martin's.
Gaffigan: Oh yeah, definitely. I started in New York, and it took a long time for people to forget how bad I was. I'd go to this nightclub, the Village Gate, and I would just bomb. The comedy I was doing then, it was a mix of a lot of different approaches.
Kors: I wondered about that. Was there a moment when you thought, "Hey, wait a minute: these fat and lazy jokes are working. Maybe I can construct a persona around that and let the other bits fall by the wayside?"
Gaffigan: Not really. I don't think comedians make an active decision to be a certain "persona." Comedians write the way they're going to write. Lewis Black and Chris Rock, their comedy comes from them. If you know Lewis, if you know Chris, they're very similar to their stand-up.
Kors: But not you, right?
Gaffigan: Oh, I think very much so. Of course, not right now. I'm not in a very good mood.
Kors: Sorry about that.
Gaffigan: Yeah, your YouTube clip kind of infuriated me. ... That was another lesson I learned over the years: Angry Jim as a stand-up isn't very appealing. Neither is political comedy from a guy who looks like Hitler's wet dream.
Kors: I'm not sure you look like anyone's wet dream.
Gaffigan: Yeah. Thank you.
Kors: You come from a big family. Six children. Were you a joke teller as a kid?
Gaffigan: I was. I was the youngest of the six kids, and to make my older siblings laugh, that was very important. I did a great impression of our dad that made them all laugh, so that gave me a lot of power within the family. ... My brothers are funny too. Mike is sardonic; Joe is very silly; Mitch makes really funny observations. I think my humor is a combination of all of theirs.
Kors: Do your kids find you funny?
Gaffigan: I think so.
Kors: You get good laughs at home?
Gaffigan: Yeah, we have some very good laughs at home.
Kors: I wondered about that because on stage you come across as a very normal, very happy family man. All these other comics, they sound like they have dark demons. Christopher Titus talks about his mom shooting her husband and committing suicide. Sarah Silverman tells that joke about how she was raped by her doctor, "which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." You look at you and think, where did your comedy come from?
Gaffigan: Well, I'm just as weird as the comics you mentioned. I mean, the whole idea of comedy, there is nothing normal about going up on stage to make strangers laugh. But I'm also not an exhibitionist like other comics. I'm not up there talking about masturbating.
Kors: Or sexting.
Gaffigan: Right. And even if I was sexting, that's nobody else's business. The exhibitionism in the entertainment industry today, in comedy and especially in reality TVit's like, I don't think we need to know this much about anybody.
Gaffigan: I'm there to make people laugh. I'm not trying to come across as sexy.
Kors: Maybe I should have you ghostwrite my Match.com profile. I'm not coming across as sexy either.
Kors: You ever seen [Bob] Saget do stand-up?
Kors: His new special is so vulgar, it's insane, isn't it? You're sort of like ... the original Saget doing stand-up.
Gaffigan: No. No, I'm not. And you know, I take that as a fing insult.
Gaffigan: Like his work on Full House? Saget's a funny guy, but Full House was absolute garbage. And we both know it was garbage. Why does my comedy have to fit some mold: either I'm dirty or I'm like Full House.
Kors: No, I was just saying, the people who love Full House probably also love your comedy.
Gaffigan: Yeah, that's an insult.
Kors: I bet you it's true.
Gaffigan: Listen, I sell more tickets in New York City than I do in Middle America. I mean, what's wrong with comedy that a 15-year-old can watch with his mom?
Kors: No, nothing's wrong with that.
Gaffigan: Comedians get way too much credit and way too much criticism for not cursing in their acts. What, am I supposed to throw in an f-bomb when I'm talking about bacon? ... At the same time, David Cross shouldn't get credit or criticism for swearing in his act. It's just his style of comedy. It fits his personality.
Kors: Yeah, but I tried to get my mom to watch Daniel Tosh's Completely Serious, and she turned it off after three minutes. She said, "Oh, he was swearing too much."
Gaffigan: Right. And I don't want to create comedy that makes your mother uncomfortable. What's the point of that?
Kors: There's a second half to that joke that's even funnier. I asked her, "What did your boyfriend think of Daniel Tosh?" "Oh," she said, "he fell asleep."
Gaffigan: That's funny. ... Look, let me put it this way: there are people that bring light into this world and people that bring darkness. I want my comedy to bring something positive. I'm not saying I'm curing AIDS or cancer. But I do believe I can use my comedy for some good purposes.
Kors: Like helping veterans.
Gaffigan: Yeah. People go to my site, they take a look at my special, and see that a dollar goes to the Woodruff Foundation. Maybe for a second they'll think, "Oh yeah, we're at war. And these soldiers who are fighting on behalf of this country, they need our help."
Kors: I just realized something: you and Michelle Obama have the same two pet causes.
Gaffigan: We do?
Kors: Obesity and helping soldiers.
Gaffigan: We do! Isn't that funny? And we both went to Princeton. ... No, I didn't go to Princeton. But that is pretty funny.
Follow Joshua Kors on Facebook: www.facebook.com/joshua.kors