The Hot Seat: Jim Gaffigan

The standup hits Broadway for That Championship Season.

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Illustration: Dan Park


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Bill Bradley just walked out of your rehearsal room. Is that normal?
No, it's not like we always have these world-champions-turned-senators coming in and out, but there's no typical day.

Since That Championship Season is about a group of high-school buddies, how important is it that you actually get close to the other actors—Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Chris Noth and Brian Cox?
I think it's very important—these guys in the play have known each other since childhood, right. But what's nice is that there's an absence of hierarchy here.

So you don't have to bring Chris Noth his coffee every morning?
No, no. But there are jokes about that. The reason I know that we all get along is that there is shit being given around.

A guy-bonding thing?
Yeah, every guy knows that if everyone's getting shit and you're not getting shit, that's a red flag, you know what I mean? It's how men express affection.

With profane insults?
It's well-crafted sarcasm. It's not "Your mother's a whore" or anything like that. Done in a gamesmanship kind of way.

Do you consider yourself a comedian first? Is that what it says on your passport under "Profession"?
Doing this play has made me realize how much of a comedian I am. I have so much to learn. It's like I never realized I was Midwestern until I got to New York.

In what ways are you Midwestern?
I'm slow-talking. I find myself kind of defensive when people talking about "the middle of the country" or "fly-over country." I don't think that people who live there are any different, really, from people who live on either coast. People are the same! [Pauses] And that's why I'm running for senator.

Speaking of which, in the play, your character grew up to be mayor. Where would you want to be mayor?
Gosh, I don't know. I don't know if I have the right personality for it. If you're a politician you have to be a car salesman 24/7, right? And you gotta bite your tongue a lot. There's times where I'd much rather sit and watch a Law & Order rerun than be in some social setting.

Watching a Law & Order is preferable to doing a lot of things in this world.
Right? It's a simple hour, it's done. You might recognize someone. "Hey, there's so and so!"

You ever catch yourself on a Law & Order rerun?
I try not to watch those.

Do you feel any pressure to be funny around these people, since you're the professional comedian? Not really. Everyone's kind of funny, but the task of the play is very enormous. It's not like "Hey Gaffigan, you've been hired to entertain us." [Cox, in the background: "I thought you were hired to entertain us." Noth: "I thought you were hired for your looks."]

Is it hard being the Broadway rookie?
Brian Cox won the Olivier Award twice! That's like going to the moon twice, it's that unusual. But everyone's working at it. Brian Cox saying "This is a hard one" means the world to me. Or Chris Noth expressing frustration about working on plays, it makes me feel better. They're not like, "I'm good, don't need to rehearse." It's very encouraging for someone in my position.

That's not to say that I don't feel awkward. Some days I'm not confident in my ability to walk forward. It's like my whole life has been like that: Are you going to shrink at this opportunity or rise to it?...And that's why I'm running for senator.

Do you still talk to people from high school?
Last time I did a show in Chicago, everyone from my senior class from Indiana was invited to go.

Any "look at me now" bragging?
[Laughs] No, no temptation for that. Revenge is kind of overrated. I liked everyone from my high school. Besides, I think even when I got a little bit of success, people were always most impressed with the fact that I lived in New York.

Do you ever reminisce about your glory days?
I'm very fortunate to have the success in stand-up. But if my life never had someone yelling "Hot Pockets!" at me again, it would be a good life. Being recognized in an airport is not something I crave.

You're known as the comedian who does stand-up on Hot Pockets, cake and bacon. That's quite the diet of a champion.
It comes in useful at a restaurant, since chefs know me. They have so much prep time that they listen to comedy. If you're talking about food, it's a natural communication with the foodies.

The foodies who enjoy Hot Pockets?
Exactly.

In the press materials for your movie that just screened at Sundance, Salvation Boulevard, your character is described as the "doughy henchman." Is that how the role was pitched to you?
"Character actor" is code for ugly, right? There's a certain kind of reality in stand-up. You find out a lot about yourself. It can be cruel, but there's a kind of redeeming quality to awareness and knowledge.

In stand-up you find out these things. I'm under no illusion that I'm in great shape. I'm under no illusion that I have a normal-size head. I'm under no illusion that I have the ideal pigmentation level.

Are you ever surprised at how people perceive you?
People assume that I'm a lot more outgoing than I am. Not to say that I'm never like that—at the very least, I'm polite. But there's this cliche that comedians are on 24/7.

How Midwestern is that, "At least I'm polite"?
Yeah. But some of the most polite people I know are from New Jersey and Long Island. It really doesn't matter where you're from! ...And that's why I'm running for senator.

Okay, last question. What's the one word you hope is applied to your performance when the play is reviewed?
Bravery.

Do you feel brave?
Yeah. I definitely feel brave. This process—there's a concentration and a bravery that I underestimated. It's really exciting because it's really appealing.

So you'll wrap up with "bravery," huh? Very inspiring.
And that's why I'm running for senator.

That Championship Season is on Broadway now.

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