Jim Gaffigan considers his January 29th through 31st standup comedy stint at the Chicago Theatre a very, very big deal. “It’s like playing at Wrigley Field,” says the Chesterton, Indiana, native. For the uninitiated, Gaffigan’s humor falls midway between sweet and sarcastic, wholesome and devious, self-effacing and strange. And he’s better than ever: Last year’s highlights included sold-out gigs, a DVD (King Baby, which came out in March), and a spot in the Sam Mendes film Away We Go.
How has the Midwest shaped you?
There’s just something about being from Chicago and northwest Indiana. When I started 19 years ago, white-bread as I am, New Yorkers had me driving to school on a tractor, hanging out with John Boy. I’ve joked about it—even Chicagoans think my part of Indiana’s just the road to Michigan. But the region has influenced me. I’m closer to Bob Newhart than Rodney Dangerfield. Or even someone like Jonathan Winters—there’s a civility and sweetness there.
So what was it like starting out?
No one goes into standup to make money. The frustration and rejection are just too much. I mean there’s nothing normal about it. There’s no fourth wall. It’s a conversation. But it’s fun. And there’s a sense of accomplishment even when it’s not ideal. There’s just something powerful about ‘turning a table.’ When people look and decide they have nothing in common with me—I’m 43, balding, blond, whatever—there’s something absolutely invigorating about winning them over. Even if it’s eight people from Sweden who don’t understand what I’m talking about.
Why did you decide not to cuss onstage?
It’s not a morality issue. I cuss offstage. It was more a personal challenge. I realized I’d underwritten most of the jokes with curse words in them. It’s funny, but I used to do meet-and-greets and get goth kids, then a Mormon family, then a lesbian couple. I’m an eccentric, silly, observational guy, but I’m not gonna frighten off social conservatives.
You first hit pay dirt with a riff about Hot Pockets. Do you still like performing that material?
Look, we wouldn’t be on the phone right now without that bit. Do I need drunk people running out of bars yelling “Hot Pockets” at me? No. But it’s not the end of the world to do it as an encore. And it’s always expanding, so as long as I can add new bits to keep it fresh for me, I’m happy.
What do you think of Chicago’s comedy scene right now?
There’s definitely a standup resurgence right now out of Chicago, and it’s one of my favorite places to perform. Great comedians come from great audiences. Hannibal Buress is going to be a gigantic star, for example. Because if your audiences have a certain expectation and desire to embrace creativity, then original acts can flourish.
What can we expect from your Chicago Theatre shows?
I want people to walk away with their expectations exceeded, having seen mostly new stuff but some old favorites, too. I’ve been writing a lot lately with my wife, and I’m roughly at an hour of strong new stuff.
Are you ever surprised at how far you’ve come?
The fact that I get to do this at all is amazing. I’m still figuring it out. I don’t want to sound like an authority. What I like about standup is that I can get better.
Photograph: © Seth Olenick/Corbis Outline