Film biographer and journalist Lesley Coffin took a look at Season Two of the Jim Gaffigan Show so far. She’ll be adding weekly reviews of the new episodes as they air, starting tomorrow morning.
There is a joke in Sunday’s new episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show, “You’re my grandpa’s favorite comedian.” which hits precisely on why the second season of the show is working so well. Jim Gaffigan can’t be described as a cool or trendy comedian; in fact, he probably never was. But he is successful…and successful in both ways we can define it. He’s one of the most financially successful comedians working today, routinely selling out theaters across the country. And he is doing it by performing exactly the type of comedy he likes. There are jokes in the series where all he does is talk about his preoccupation with food (including taunting from Carrot Top over that infamous “Hot Pocket” routine). But considering he’s the same comic that spent more than half his hour-long comedy special discussing his thoughts on fast food…the jokes are more about this realization about how people see him than a desire to change. In fact, he still loves to talk about food…he just likes to talk about other things too.
And in this second season of his sitcom, Gaffigan focuses not only on the fact that he wouldn’t be described as cool, but that he is one of the most successful comedians in the business who would still be called out of step among his peers. In Sunday’s episode, “The List,” Gaffigan is left off a comedy site’s list of the “Hottest New York Comedians” not because he’s unfunny…but because no one considers him a New Yorker. He isn’t edgy or alternative like most working night clubs, and certainly doesn’t talk about the things most comics focus on. Instead of doing crowd work, he literally has his own version of a heckler, a whispery voice he does on stage. He still talks about being from the Midwest although New Yorkers still can’t tell the difference between Indiana and Illinois. And he’s almost never “offensive.” The edgiest material he includes in his act would arguably be his comments on his family’s open practice of their Catholic faith. And that is considered edgy because he and especially his wife (co-creator Jeannie) are upfront with being practitioners (including having a big family).
Jim himself doesn’t use the show to teach or preach about his faith…in fact his fictional character might be described as an apathetic believer. And even while he identifies as Catholic, he seems to question that stance, questioning why his hunky, ex-athlete, business school graduate priest would “throw everything away” to be a priest in a religion that isn’t very popular at the moment. Gaffigan addresses his faith similarly to the way the main characters on Broad City comment on their Jewish faith; they are two women who speak openly about this part of their lives, but also dissect it for comedy. He just doesn’t include the nudity and sex talk; not because it would be inappropriate…but because those are subjects that just don’t fit his style of comedy. And that is part of the reason Gaffigan’s show works so well in the modern age…it is at once shockingly traditional while still happily commenting on those sitcom traditions modern audiences call tired.
It’s part of the reason the show even airing on TV Land is so strangely perfect. The channel seems like it was created to curate the history of the traditional sitcoms…something of a lost art. Not just the classics sitcom, but some of the last contemporary comedies like Golden Girls, King of Queens, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Gaffigan spiritual predecessor, Everybody Loves Raymond. But The Jim Gaffigan Show is the most traditional of the more modern, single camera original comedies airing on the channel right now. Younger and Impastor would be called edgier shows (surprisingly edgy for TV Land), something Gaffigan aggressively isn’t…at least on the surface.
Like Bob Newhart, Gaffigan’s sense of being displaced in the modern world is why the show works; it is essentially a perpetual comedy of displacement. Even in the episode “The Calling”, Gaffigan is compared to Newhart in a fantastical sequence featuring Jerry Seinfeld (another clear influence). But unlike so many comics who speak of feeling displaced, he isn’t frustrated in the new world. Gaffigan sees it as a larger example of how the entire world around him is in a period of massive change and adjustment. He isn’t a terrible person for feeling displaced or confused in this strange new world…but he is asking simply for an opportunity to catch up and adjust…and even make mistakes as he tries.
In one of the best episodes of TV of the year, Gaffigan took on the debate that erupted around him when he put up what he thought was an innocuous joke. On Twitter, he wrote “Ladies, I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices“…and apparently the internet exploded…at least in Gaffigan’s world. At the very least the Twitter universe responded and his comment went viral with claims that he’s a sexist and misogynist (something he was never accused of before). In response, Gaffigan issues a “sort of apology” with the “if I offended anyone” comment. But he ultimately used the event as inspiration for one of the cleverest pieces of surreal comedy on TV, the episode The Trail.
The title isn’t just a fairly literal description, but also clearly makes reference to the Kafka story, in which a man is brought to trial uncertain of what the charges are against him…or his own guilt. Proving Kafka is ripe for comedic interpretations, he creates the “court of public opinion” in which a jury is armed with social media, and he desperately tries to defend this single action against claims that this single “mistake” proves he is an inherently sexist person; guilty of being a dumb, white, man. And to Gaffigan’s credit, he doesn’t use his platform to attack the women who responded with outrage or chastise PC culture. He doesn’t claim the message was justified, smart, or even funny (his friend on the stand even calls him guilty of lowbrow humor). But he does stand up for himself with the message that one mistake on social media (yes, he knows he’s in the public eye) doesn’t speak for his entire personality and personal history. And in a moment of comedic sincerity, asks the public why we’re are so happy to be “outraged” in this new world. He understands he is a straight, white, male who has experienced privilege, but he isn’t guilty of happening to be in that demographic either.
If there is one big change to the show this year, it seems to be the decreased focus we see on Gaffigan’s domestic life. The first season Gaffigan made an effort not to focus considerably on his career as a comedian because that isn’t the source of his comedy…his life is. But this season, perhaps because he’s stepped away from stand-up for the series, he has put considerably more focus on this aspect of his career. The first four episodes all focus on different aspects of his career, including one episode that looks at his acting career as a typecast character actor who lands “ugly” roles (which surprisingly nails the current debate in casting). That decision to change the focus, however, has also decreased some of the screen time for the fictional version of his wife Jeannie (played on the show by Ashley Williams). While the home life dynamic arguably gave the show the most traditional sitcom sensibility, Jeannie thankfully remains unlike a lot of sitcom wives. She isn’t shrill or just the foil for Jim (who is both the dumb dad and realizes that’s an issue). She has her own personality and moral center which has nothing to do with her husband. The episode about his defined as “ugly” also had a funny B-plot about her response to a cat call. Tonight’s episode has a funny example of her overacting to a slight which calls back to one of the funniest episodes of the previous season when she was left out of an article on Jim. If the show could improve in one area, however, allowing Jeannie to be a slightly more self-deprecating or flawed character would allow her to occasionally take center stage.
The fascinating thing about a show like The Jim Gaffigan Show, along with network series like Mom and The Carmichael Show, is they’re exactly the types of shows which can change perspectives. Today we have a collection of shows which are either inoffensive fluff or edgy and aimed at the younger PC culture chastising older audiences. But these three shows are aimed at slightly older audiences who were usually seen as set in their ways by these critics. Like these other shows, Gaffigan wants to provoke a dialogue with these audiences that have been misjudged as dinosaurs and incapable of change, and perhaps even challenge the misconceptions they may or may not. The Jim Gaffigan Show takes the opportunity to ask this audience where there might be room for self-reflection and improvement, by asking Jim Gaffigan to do the same.
The Gaffigan Show Airs Sundays at 10pm et/pt.