Jim Gaffigan spends most of his stand-up special “Beyond the Pale” talking about food: Cinnabon, “spray cheese,” and a crowd-pleasing bit about Hot Pockets. Then, near the end of the amiable hour-long set, he launches into what should be more uncomfortable territory. “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus,” he says. “You could say that to the pope: ‘I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.’ He’d be like, ‘Easy, freak. I keep work at work.’ ” The crowd goes wild.
Gaffigan is best known for those self-mocking food jokes and for his gentle observations about parenting, the basis of his successful memoirs Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story. But the pale, portly father of five is also a practicing Catholic who speaks about his faith with unusual openness for a guy whose business is jokes. In his stand-up, he incorporates and often subverts the tropes and traditions of the often painful genre of “Christian comedy.” And through his TV Land sitcom, which made its debut this summer, it’s fair to say Gaffigan has cemented his status as America’s top Christian comedian.
The main competitor for that title is probably Stephen Colbert, another practicing Catholic who is publicly frank about his faith. Colbert recently gave a remarkably sincere interview to GQ in which he laid out a theology of suffering, and told interviewer that the “context for my existence” is “that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism.”
But Colbert is tainted in the eyes of many conservative Christians by his Comedy Central show’s progressive politics. It’s true that he is routinely praised when he speaks out about his faith, but it’s also hard for political conservatives to become full-on fans of a guy who became a superstar by mocking blowhard right-wingers. It will be interesting to see if this changes when Colbert’s version of The Late Show makes its debut Tuesday night. This will be a less politically charged setting, and Colbert will be dropping the O’Reilly-esque shtick in favor of his “real” personality. For now, however, Colbert is a troublesome figure for Christians who share his God but not his politics.
That leaves ... well, not many other mainstream contenders. (Sherri Shepherd, perhaps?) Then there’s overtly “Christian comedy,” which is its own bustling industry but rarely produces stars who break through to secular success. In part, that’s because it relies on inside jokes about a shared culture. But it’s also because the jokes can seem by turns tame—the better-known “clean comedy” is a related subgenre—and paradoxically humorless, as when a politically conservative comedian like Brad Stine rants against animal rights and political correctness.
So for now, that leaves Gaffigan on top. In contrast to Colbert or to overtly conservative Christian comedians, he takes pains to be basically apolitical. If anything, he flirts with mild cultural progressivism even if the broader themes of his comedy (kids drive you crazy, bacon is delicious) are totally conventional. In his sitcom, when a chain of pizza restaurants offers him seven figures for an ad campaign because the CEO thinks Gaffigan’s character supports values like “the repudiation of homosexuality,” he swiftly turns him down. But the dilemma is more about how he’s perceived than any kind of crusading commitment to LGBT rights. Onstage and in interviews, Gaffigan is as self-deprecating about his faith as he is about his diet, disarming both believers and his legions of secular fans.
More importantly for Gaffigan’s success, he’s a Christian comedian whom committed believers don’t feel like they have to be embarrassed about enjoying in front of either their secular or religious friends. Christian culture has long served up painfully lame, late imitations of products that the mainstream has already done better (Christian Fashion Week, Christian rock, Christian movies). Culturally sophisticated believers dutifully roll their eyes at the knockoffs, but it’s perfectly reasonable for them to want to see themselves reflected in pop culture. Christians are a lot like Canadians: When a native makes it big in the mainstream, they can’t stop pointing out that so-and-so just happens to be one of their own.
So it’s crucial for Gaffigan’s popularity that he has a reputation in all the right secular settings, too, appearing on the late-night talk shows and Marc Maron’s WTF podcast; he’ll even be at this year’s New Yorker Festival. His show features cameos from Chris Rock and Hannibal Buress, and Michael Ian Black has a recurring role as his wife’s gay best friend. In a seemingly endless montage in the episode airing Wednesday, he ropes in Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough, and other talking heads to winkingly excoriate his character. The message is clear: He’s in with the cool crowd.
But The Jim Gaffigan Show, which is co-produced by his wife, Jeannie, also revolves to an unusual degree around its characters’ religious lives. In the show, as in life, Gaffigan is a father of five, married to a woman he frequently describes as a “Shiite Catholic”—by which he seems to mean fanatical, uncomfortably. The character and his wife go to Mass, and have their priest over for dinner.
By now Gaffigan has been praised in religious publications including U.S. Catholic magazine, the website of the Gospel Coalition, and Christ and Pop Culture, which called him “a comedian who’s also a Christian, rather than a Christian who happens to be a comedian.” (The ecumenical nature of this gushing is another hint of the increasing closeness between Catholics and evangelicals.) Writing a couple of years ago for the online publication OnFaith, Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein wondered half-seriously whether Gaffigan, who “symbolizes life at the intersection of tradition and hipsterdom,” might be employed as a stealth evangelizer by the Catholic Church.
On his TV show, Gaffigan’s character is a somewhat reluctant believer. “The Bible Story,” the episode airing Wednesday, is the sharpest version yet of his savvy self-presentation. In it, Jim is photographed at a comedy club carrying an oversize, gilt-edged Bible, and the photo ends up on the Huffington Post. “I’ve been outed as a Christian!” he laments. “I don’t want people to think I believe in God.” When his wife points out that he does, in fact, believe in God, he retorts, “Yeah, but that’s my private business. Besides, the perception is that people who believe in God are stupid.” It’s not so much a punch line as a protective measure, and a statement about a kind of tension that many believers experience in their own lives. “Religion’s iffy,” Jim continues. “Once you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself to ridicule." Sure. But you also open yourself up to praise.