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Jake MartinSeptember 01, 2023
Jim Gaffigan delivering a standup routinePhoto: Amazon Studios

Six minutes into his latest stand-up comedy special, “Dark Pale,” Jim Gaffigan, having just transported his audience into the interior of a commercial aircraft in its final moments as it hurtles to the earth, punctuates the bit with the warning/promise: “Is that too dark? It’s going to get worse.”

Indeed, the aptly titled, “Dark Pale,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime, presents a decidedly darker, dirtier Gaffigan. This persona is not completely divorced from the innocuous, albeit hilarious, dad/schlub character that rose to fame in large part due to his family-friendly musings on American culinary phenomena like Popeye’s fried chicken, Hot Pockets and Cinnabon. Indeed, Gaffigan’s trademark musings on the unending and absurd manifestations of Americans’ unquenchable need to consume any and all things permeate his new hour-long special.

“Dark Pale,” released on July 25, anticipated Gaffigan’s series of live shows, titled the “Barely Alive” tour, that debuted on Aug. 25 in Las Vegas. The tour includes several shows with his fellow “clean and light” comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Gaffigan’s co-headlining with the iconic Seinfeld speaks to his growing reputation as one of the fundamental voices of American humor in this century. It also calls forth a question as to what Gaffigan’s prominence says about contemporary American culture.

Gaffigan’s aforementioned persona, overt Catholicism and whiter-than-white appearance serve as a diversionary tactic to the larger thematic agenda of his comedy. Gaffigan serves as a unifying figure between white, working-class conservative Christians, whom he cosmetically resembles, and the “liberal elite” secular community, whose point of view continually seeps in as he comically takes on anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers. Somehow, in this day and age of ideological polarization, Gaffigan has managed to avoid either pandering to or alienating either audience.

The special includes Gaffigan’s trademark musings on Americans’ unquenchable need to consume any and all things. 

It could be argued that Gaffigan’s schtick is so innocuous as to prove unthreatening to either side of the ideological or political spectrum. Yet that sells his comedy short, particularly as it relates to “Dark Pale.” This is a decidedly a post-Covid spectacle, as throughout he acknowledges the way American culture has changed in the wake of the pandemic. And this is where his stage persona offers him an assist, as he can diffuse the tension of any given hot topic through his own All-American absurdity, which in turn lays bare the absurd elements of both poles’ stances.

At the beginning of his set (recorded live in the less than politically neutral confines of Tampa, Fla.), Gaffigan comes onstage wearing that all-purpose totem of the pandemic’s ideological warfare, the face mask. After implying he was going to take the mask off, he simulates a striptease. When he finally removes the mask, he states matter-of-factly: “The only reason I was wearing this is because I have Covid,” whereupon he proceeds to cough all over the front rows of the audience. This whole sequence speaks to the absurd behavior of both sides of the ideological spectrum during the pandemic in terms of the enforcement and the dissent against enforcement of mask wearing, as well as the public behavior it incited.

He can diffuse the tension of any given hot topic through his own All-American absurdity.

Gaffigan then goes into a long segment on the question of mortality, which was brought to the forefront of popular discourse during the pandemic. That death and dying was constantly on everyone’s mind was due in no small part to TV news, which he says, “for two years was like the death lottery. We sat at home watching it like it was Powerball.”

Perhaps his strongest bit from this segment comes from his description of his own lived experience as a Catholic. He says, “At Catholic funerals you’re supposed to kneel next to the casket and say a prayer. That prayer goes like this: One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. (He looks at his watch) That’s got to be long enough.” Only you, dear reader, know how funny, callous and/or accurate you find that joke, but judging by the reception of his audience in Tampa, it seems to be a shared experience by many people of faith.

TV news during the pandemic 'was like the death lottery. We sat at home watching it like it was Powerball.'

After Gaffigan’s inquiry into the murky caverns of human mortality, he makes an unexpected and, as it turns out, unnecessary digression into the realm of toilet humor. The less said about it the better. It proves to be the most feeble moment of an otherwise exceptionally well-constructed comedic set. Perhaps Gaffigan felt his foray into the (for him) uncharted territory of death and dying comedy needed to be buffered by adolescent jokes about Montezuma’s revenge. Whatever the case, it brings the set’s comedic momentum to a screeching halt and is not at all helped by his own calling out of his own poor taste, which only further underlines the fact that he should have known better.

Fortunately for Gaffigan and the audience, the last half of “Dark Pale” brings him back to his comedic sweet spots: consumerism, religion and family. He goes on a lengthy tangent on all things Starbucks, which he claims is not only a coffee shop but also “an upscale unemployment office.” This is followed by an analysis of the biblical nature of the fires, floods and pandemics of recent years from the perspective of an increasingly frustrated deity. He then goes into one of the mainstays of his comedy, his children: “Sometimes when people find out I have five kids, they think I’m good at parenting. Which is kind of like assuming that people with lots of cats are not crazy.”

He calls Starbucks 'an upscale unemployment office.'

Gaffigan, like Seinfeld, is at his best when deconstructing the mundanity and minutiae of everyday American life. Unlike John Mulaney, that other (nominally) Catholic stand-up comic, Gaffigan never presents as the smartest guy in the room. Mulaney’s stand-up specials are elaborately constructed spectacles of wit and creativity which frequently leave audience members shaking their heads at the intelligence and creativity of such a masterful comedic technician. Gaffigan’s stand-up comes from a different place. He occupies the lower strata of the intellectual spectrum and seems to revel in that, as he ambles and stumbles from joke to joke, segment to segment.

But do not be deceived; Jim Gaffigan’s comedy is just as artful and constructed in its way as Mulaney’s. However, his agenda is not about being smarter and funnier than the audience, but rather about being one with the audience. Gaffigan actually is the smartest guy in the room; but that can be alienating to some, and he knows it. His comedic affinity is for bringing people together in a shared understanding of the absurdity of contemporary American culture.

Gaffigan is not about being the smarter than the audience, but about being one with the audience.

Gaffigan does not hide his faith, nor does he weaponize it. He presents himself as a flawed, albeit rational Christian in a society and media landscape that seem uninterested in putting sane, sensible Christians in the foreground. Gaffigan’s comedic stylings are not for everyone. But at the same time, in his low-status, schlubby take on the American experience, there is, in fact, something for everyone.

[In his new special, John Mulaney is a modern day Prodigal Son with a message about mercy]

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