Apologies for the lateness of this piece…I spent a long weekend back in Chicago with family. So returning to my New York apartment and DVR to find the latest episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show was about Jim’s Midwestern family felt a little like kismet. No matter how funny, an episode about a visit from Jim’s Chicago brother didn’t really help the stress I came home with. And Gaffigan’s unique brand of cringeworthily humor didn’t exactly calm those nerves either.
But one thing that made me far less anxious about diving into this week’s episode was seeing Andy Richter as this week’s guest star. Personally, I don’t think he’s ever been a comic actor who’s received true credit for how funny he can be. Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Andy Barker, P.I. were both very funny shows that let him show off a little. And despite the number of times he lets Conan dominate an entire episode, he has that ability to throw out killer zingers on his side couch. There are few moments on Conan which are funnier than when he just won’t take any of Conan’s crap.
But being that sidekick character might actually be part of the reason this week’s episode worked so well for Richter the actor. He appeared as Mitch, the Chicago brother who’s come for a surprise visit. In flashbacks, we see something of the brotherly dynamic which transpired between Jim and Mitch when they were suburban youngsters from that big, Catholic family. Mitch was the showboat, the family entertainer; Jim stayed quiet, eating in the corner while observing Mitch shine. The image of a little Jim perpetually eating crackers is one of the most pathetic from the show…he clearly felt overshadowed by Mitch. And Mitch’s showboating qualities even resulted in the capture of some of his friends, which infuriated their screaming mother (also played by Ashley Williams who plays Jeannie).
Now it seems Mitch wants to enjoy some of the spotlight Jim’s been enjoying in New York for the past few years. A banker with a wife (who loves to guilt-trip Jeannie for not calling), Mitch wants to enjoy some of that stand-up glamour Jim enjoys in Manhattan. Well, Mitch really wants to try Louis CK’s life on, including taking a bit of a food-tour of Louis’ hangouts. If I didn’t know when they wrote these episodes, I would have thought it was in reference to that Jim Gaffigan Show map that New York Vito created.
So Jim agrees to be encouraging in that Midwestern nice, passive aggressive way, and gets Mitch an open mic night to prove how much work needs to be put into a stand-up career. And Mitch goes out and steals Jim’s act. Oddly, this might be the one area of the episode that left me a little confused. I think the joke of Mitch simply doing Jim’s routine in funny…but they layered in an early idea that Mitch had some of those ideas as a youngster; and they do have similar sensibilities, so why have him doing line for line Jim’s routine when he could have done something similar in Jim’s style? Or make the fact that he did a line for line retelling a bigger part of the story. It’s a small issue, but it’s the one area I felt the show stumbled.
Really, this episode isn’t about Jim’s professional competition or how Mitch’s arrival as a stand-up impacts Jim’s career (we don’t even see him performing this episode). Mitch’s reemergence is more about the personal, family life. Mitch is more personable than Jim and seems to make friends with Jim’s comedy friends surprisingly fast, especially Dave, and without much needing any assistance. We can all understand the frustration Jim feels about the situation, especially if you’ve ever been a bit of an introvert in a family of extroverts. But the family aspect makes Jim’s dilemma all the sadder.
He clearly loves his brother, but childhood stress has forever clouded how he sees him. Even his memory of an argument of him quitting football in high school (while eating a sandwich of course) wasn’t as accurate as he originally remembered (connecting to last week’s two sides of the story episode). His brother didn’t support him quitting…initially. But in the end he supported his decision just the way he supported his move to New York to be a comic…and just the way Jim should have supported Mitch’s desire to be like Louis CK.
In a strange way, Mitch’s hero-worship of Louis shows the difference between older brother Mitch and younger brother Jim. Jim lived in Mitch’s massive shadow until he escaped that big Midwest family; but always had them as a safety net. Mitch might have hogged the spotlight, but if he hadn’t, who would have? He had to make his own path because Jim wasn’t going to do it for him…and still won’t. Louis is the big shadow Mitch was to Jim…that big, annoying shadow deep down we kind of like the safety of.