The nicest man in comedy has filmed Netflix standup specials in Minneapolis, Ontario, and Columbus, just to name a few locations. But despite constant appearances in Tampa Bay over the years, Jim Gaffigan—who says that he actually lived in town for a year after college—has never filmed in the Sunshine State. “[Tampa] has this great combo of city and also like, suburbs,” he told Creative Loafing Tampa during a phone call while his kids were getting haircuts.
It’s doubtful that he’ll personally tackle both styles of comedy upon his arrival, but considering the amount of topics to, err, observe, in Florida—especially everything new that has come about since his last visit here in 2019—it’s really anyone’s guess how much wrath Tampa will be given. We might hear a thing or two about Tom Brady, but don’t expect any remarks that even loosely relate to Florida’s scarlet conservatism.
For years, Gaffigan’s public persona was staunchly anti-political. But in a series of tweets that emerged right after the 2020 Republican National Convention, he let out five years of anger by absolutely skewering Donald Trump—describing him as “a crook and a con man”—and condemning the usage of the word “socialist” to describe Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Based on that and everything else he would tweet, it would surprise close to no one if he felt the way about Gov. Ron DeSantis as he does about El Trumpo. Nonetheless, he still manages to avoid bringing politics into his sets, but not for reasons relating to stirring the pot.
“I think that we are in this politically charged era, whether it's political correctness, or even political divisiveness,” Gaffigan began, having been asked the hardest part about being a comedian in the 2020s. “So for me, I think my biggest problem is self-assignment, and also doing new stuff in a more challenging way.”
He takes a lot of pride in the fact that his material is one thing that people on both sides of the political aisle can agree on, which is what keeps him on the topic of certain aspects of his personal life, especially his family. “You want all the jokes to be as ripe as they can be. But you know, with five kids and just the chaos of life, every special has kind of been a unique challenge,” he explained.
One of his five children, Jack—his eldest son and second-born child—has actually tested the waters of stand-up, and opened for his father when he was on spring break last year.
“I want him to get good grades and all that. Stand-up is not the real world,” his father declared. “I want him to know that with stand-up, you peak at night. Stand-up, and the entertainment industry in general, is so weird. You have to have the appetite for rejection, so I don't want to only show him the pretty sides of the industry.”
Speaking of industries with a pretty heavy dark side, Gaffigan—being the food comedian he is—is a huge fan of our local food scene, going back to when he lived here as a young adult.
“There was this place on the causeway connecting Tampa to Clearwater that was this Mexican fajitas place. It was unbelievable,” he recalled, unable to remember the name. “It was probably gone before you were even born.”
Gaffigan doesn’t go out after a show and reward himself by getting blackout hammered like some of his peers surely do, or did. "I'll go to a restaurant. And if the timing is right, it’s usually ideal, but I'm not like a fine dining guy,” he explained, later proving his point by recalling the existence of Shells, a local seafood spot with four locations across Tampa Bay. Not that he likes seafood or anything, though.
Outside of his stand-up specials, Gaffigan is also no stranger to film crews. Just before COVID-19 vaccines came out, he was in Vancouver filming “Peter Pan & Wendy” for Disney+, which is set to release later this year. Even portraying the role of Mr. Smee—opposite Jude Law’s Captain Hook—humbled Gaffigan.
“When you're on some Disney classic story like that, it's pretty cool,” he said. “There's not a person in the English speaking world that doesn't matter who Peter Pan is.”
And of course, there was his short-lived, eponymous TV show that came to an end solely due to him wanting to spend more time with his kids. He described the show as a bit “irresponsible” to do with so many kids around. “But there's also the element of how it's one thing to be autobiographical in a show, but if you're doing an autobiographical thing about your relationship—meaning a husband and wife, or people with boyfriends and girlfriends—it gets a little complicated,” he explained.
And once they get a little older, he would at the very least contemplate doing a third season.
But that’s generally not really his style when it comes to proper film. “There are so many moving parts, and I really do love doing indie movies,” he admitted. “Stand-up really gives me such a fulfilling experience on the comedy end, that when it comes to acting, I usually prefer to do something a little bit more dramatic, or maybe with a little deeper substance.”
Whatever that deeper substance is, you’ll have to wait a little longer to witness Jim take it on. But in the meantime, if you catch him at Morsani Hall at the Straz Center between Thursday and Saturday nights, maybe bring some sliders from Hooch and Hive up the road to the stage door for him to try after the show.
Read our full Q&A below. Obviously, the word on the street is that you're filming your next Netflix special right here in Tampa. Big news for us, but what made you pick Tampa of all places?
Well, I guess even before the pandemic, I had always done a couple of shows in Tampa, and had a great time, but I also lived there for a year right out of college. I wanted to do a new city that I hadn't taped in, and I've always had such a great time in Tampa. And so, it has this great combo of city and also like, suburbs, you know what I mean?
I remember the last time you were here was a few years back for a New Year's gig over at the Yuengling Center. Now, I get that this time around, the setting needs to be a bit more formal since you’ll be taping, but do you prefer doing stand-up in arenas, or are you partial to proper theaters?
I think that the technology has advanced so much that arenas are not a bad experience, but a smaller venue, and a theater setting, I think is ideal. Because comedy clubs are great, but at a theater, you're not disrupted by waiter service or anything like that. There's a focus. The environment kind of makes people behave better. But yeah, so I would say that theaters are probably the ideal thing. That's why whenever I take a special, I always do it in a theater setting.
I want to go back a little bit. I know you kind of fell in love with stand-up almost by accident, but who would you cite as some of your influences in that field, other than David Letterman?
Gosh, you know, since I started, it has changed so dramatically. But I would definitely say that [Jerry] Seinfeld and Brian Regan were influences once I started. But I think that growing up listening to George Carlin was a big thing. But it's ever evolving. I've been doing it over 30 years, so what inspired me before? I’ve gotten to this very much self-assignment thing. So like, I really loved observational comedy when I started, but now, I'm very much into storytelling. I also want to deal with different topics in an interesting way. It's a very strange thing, because after you do stand-up for so long, it's really this evolution of this relationship you have with your audience. Like the big advantage is that they know your sensibility. But then, it's like any good friendship: The conversation has to evolve. We'd like to think we have the same conversation with our friends, but we really don't. It's always kind of evolving, and that's what makes some of our friendships so interesting. So, some of it is delivering the show, but also challenging myself, and not just being repetitive with the type of comedy I'm doing, if that makes sense.
And I definitely wanted to ask you about your sense of spontaneity, because that's something that you really take a lot of pride in. And I know you and your wife collaborate on writing a lot of your material. Do you guys do that while you're on the road?
Well, working towards the special, you’re refining it. It’s kinda like you’re harvesting the crops, right? You want all the jokes to be as ripe as they can be. But you know, the writing process, and I definitely did an awful lot of writing with my wife, but with five kids and just the chaos of life, every special has kind of been a unique challenge. So, even coming out of the pandemic, there is, collectively, a little bit of a cynicism that has evolved in the audience, and just our country, you know what I mean? Like, people want a little bit more sarcasm. But I don't know—hopefully, that answers your question.
Yeah, definitely. Speaking of cynicism—and Jerry Seinfeld, from earlier—I gotta know: Have you ever worked with Larry David?
I have never worked with Larry David.
I think that would definitely be an interesting collaboration. *laughs*
Ha, thanks. I mean, I'm obviously a fan, but some of it is that I’m living in New York, and he's in L.A., and I think I’ve auditioned for his show, and there was a time where I couldn't do it because of some other reason. Mainly traveling and the commitment.
Your eldest son opened for you on your last tour. How did that go? Is he still doing comedy?
Yes, yes, he is. He is doing it. But he's a junior in high school, so when the opportunity arises, he definitely opens for me, but it's also one of those things where, you know, I want him to get good grades and all that. Stand-up is not the real world. I want him to know that with stand-up, you peak at night. I want him to find the path, because stand-up, and the entertainment industry in general, is so weird. You have to have the appetite for the rejection, you know what I mean? I don't want to just only show him the pretty sides of the industry.
Definitely. So, as you said, you lived in Tampa for a year after college. When you're on the road, especially in Tampa, do you ever check out what the local food scene has in store?
Oh, definitely! I mean, that's a big thing. For me, this was 30 years ago when I was in Tampa. And so like, there was a fajita place on the causeway. I can't remember the name of it. And I'm sure that this place, Shells, is probably still there, which was like a pasta and seafood place. But yeah, I definitely make a point of checking it out, after a show. That’s my big reward: Usually after a show, I don't really go out partying or anything, but I'll go to a restaurant. And if the timing is right, it’s usually ideal, but I'm not like a fine dining guy. I’m not into whatever the local specialty is.
Right. And Shells is still open in Tampa. In fact, my parents had their first date there like, 25 years ago.
Isn’t that crazy?
I wonder…there was this place on the causeway connecting Tampa to Clearwater that was this Mexican fajitas place. It was unbelievable, but I can't remember the name of it. It was probably gone before you were even born.
Hmm…on the causeway?
Doesn’t ring any bells, unfortunately.
Your parents might know.
I’ll ask them. (They didn’t know what place Jim was talking about.)
So, moving on from food, another thing that you did was obviously “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” but that ended because you wanted to spend more time with your kids. Once your kids get older, could you see yourself doing a third season, or maybe a TV special?
I mean, maybe. The whole thing is that I wrote “The Jim Gaffigan Show'' with my wife. She was the showrunner, and the problem with that was that we had five kids that were really young, so it was kind of irresponsible. But there's also the element of how it's one thing to be autobiographical in a show, but if you're doing an autobiographical thing about your relationship—meaning a husband and wife, or people with boyfriends and girlfriends—it gets a little complicated. And so, we were playing characters with our names, so that kind of complicated it, in that you’re playing yourself and the woman playing your wife kind of put a restriction on how ridiculous the show can get, if that makes sense. Like if you kinda paint yourself in a corner. But I would contemplate it. It's just also that there are so many moving parts, and I really do love doing indie movies. So stand-up really gives me such a fulfilling experience on the comedy end, that when it comes to acting, I usually prefer to do something a little bit more dramatic, or maybe with a little deeper substance.
Exactly. Speaking of acting, I heard that you're portraying Mr. Smee in Disney’s “Peter Pan and Wendy” pretty soon. Can you tell us anything about that?
Well, I play Smee, Jude Law plays Captain Hook, and there's a bunch of kids playing Wendy and all the gang, and yeah. We shot that in, I want to say…it’s all a blur with the pandemic. But I was in Vancouver pre-vaccine. I was in Vancouver for three months, and couldn't really leave. So it was a really absurd moment in my life. But I'm really excited. I mean, David Lowery, who did “The Green Knight” and “Pete’s Dragon” is the director, so it was truly an amazing experience. And when you're in some Disney classic story like that, it's pretty cool. There's not a person in the English speaking world that doesn't matter who Peter Pan is.
Amen. So, I know that you're mostly a clean comedian, but what would you say the biggest challenge about being a comedian in 2022 is?
Well, I think that the pandemic did have an impact on people. And I think that we are in this politically-charged era, whether it's political correctness, or even political divisiveness. So like, for me, I think my biggest problem is self-assignment, and also doing new stuff in a more challenging way. My currency is not in shock, but stand-up is very much constructive around surprise. So I would say that I still take pride in the fact that my audience is filled with people of diverse backgrounds, and also different opinions politically and stuff like that. But yeah, I think it's all kind of self-assignment. I think that with creative people—and you being a writer, you know this—you have to push yourself. So, I'm not really affected by what's happening. I'm aware of it, but I don't have to worry. I mean, I also have an 18 year old daughter, so if I was getting to anything that would be considered toxic, she would probably give me a heads-up.
Haha, definitely. So I have one more question for you, and it's kind of ridiculous, but what the heck?
In one of your specials, you mentioned that the sound of bacon frying sounds uncannily like applause. When you get nervous on stage, do you ever imagine that your crowd is just sizzling bacon?
No, but it is amazing how there are jokes that just resonate like that. And there is something about how applause can really sound like your favorite food, and for me, everything can be tied back to it.
Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.