Jim Gaffigan is a joke writer’s joke writer, carefully crafting his material with his co-writer–wife Jeannie until the funny is maximized. It made him an ideal guest for the first episode of Vulture’s new podcast Good One: A Podcast About Jokes. In the conversation, Gaffigan and I discuss a joke from his fifth stand-up special, Cinco, about cable news. Specifically, the joke touches on how Gaffigan thinks newscasters are both like gossips and too good-looking. Gaffigan opens up about the intricacies of his process — from what it’s like writing with your wife to ending a sentence with “but.” He also explains how he uses shock and voices.
There are a lot of jokes in the special, as in all your specials, why did this one stand out to you?
There are a couple observations in there but it was something about the observation of newscasters being gossips that I’ve always found fascinating. And that the superficiality of our culture makes it so we need people to be attractive. I know the commonly held belief is the blond women on Fox but MSNBC has beautiful women too. I don’t know if Chris Matthews is good-looking, but otherwise it’s just weird that we want information but we also want it pleasantly delivered.
If you’ve had that observation for a while, what then moves it to a thing that’s on the top burner of areas to do something about?
I was doing a larger chunk on television. Binge-watching is something that everyone does, but it was specifically from my point of view. And I’ve always had jokes on newscasters that I could never really place.
Like there was a whole chunk that I didn’t include which is about the local news and New York 1, specifically. As New Yorkers, we love New York 1, but it’s a little bit like watching a friend in a play. It’s like, “Good for you, good for you, pretending to be a newscaster.”
But the larger idea was news is gossip. It also goes back to what we’ve been discussing as a culture: How can people be objective in how they deliver news? Like we look at Fox News and we’re like, “They’re lying, these people are lying.” But to me it’s impossible for anyone to deliver the news without their spin. I love Rachel Maddow but Rachel talks like she’s talking to a friend. She’s like, “You’re not going to believe what happened today.” That’s part of it being gossip too. Rachel’s attractive too. There are no morbidly obese newscasters and there are some pretty smart morbidly obese people. George R.R. Martin is not a newscaster for a very good reason. I love the Greek sailor cap but there’s a reason why he’s writing books and not hosting a movie-review show.
It’s not an explicitly political bit, but it’s about cable news, and the way you use the word “sad” reminded me of Donald Trump. You’re not a political comedian, so was this like, Oh, let me see if I can dip my toe in that vicinity?
Yeah, I think so. Trump is, I wish it was an 800-pound gorilla, but it’s like an 8,000-pound gorilla. There’s something about it and it’s not just Fox News, it’s not just MSNBC — it’s local news. There is an emotional manipulation that’s occurring. Some of it’s not conscious but it’s like local news going, “Hey, you know there’s a murderer on the loose?” There’s something about the whole process that doesn’t feel constructive. It’s entertainment moving into information, which we all agree is not good. It’s not good.
Even as you’re talking about it, you’re not saying someone’s right or wrong. There is a certain sort of lack of bias to argument about others’ bias.
It’s funny because I’ll do a tweet on a topic and people will be like, “Don’t be political. Stick to Hot Pockets, ,blah, blah, blah.” We’re entering a very dangerous time where people are like, “Don’t talk about that,” but on the other side of that, there is a responsibility that you’re supposed to make everyone laugh. I am a New York comedian in the vein of like Dave Attell and Kevin Brennan, where they’re supposed laugh at your jokes and not like you. I do believe that. You see it in Bill Burr. This isn’t a campaign rally.
“You’re not like me but we’re going to indulge this thinking.” “I’m gonna give you a safe space to listen to this idea.”
Yeah, so part of me has that. But also I’m not trying to make half the people in the room laugh; I’m trying to make everyone laugh. I do want the lesbian couple and the Mormon family to laugh. I’m not trying to get everyone, but you should be able to get the pipe fitter and the Vulture reporter to laugh. Though, from a career standpoint, it might be more important to get the Vulture reporter.
There are a lot more pipe fitters than there are Vulture reporters. When you write a joke, your goal is that everyone laughs but ultimately is it, What makes me laugh? Let me figure out how to translate that so that everyone understands it?
I would say it’s more about finding a universal truth behind an idea. It’s point-of-view driven, universal. Us and them comedy is really easy. It’s like, “Look at that guy’s shirt.” Put-down comedy. That’s eighth grade. If a laugh is coming at the expense of someone else is that a funny joke? I think Joan Rivers is very funny. I think Paul Mooney is very funny. But are you bringing light or are you are bringing darkness? Because human beings love violence and sex. It sells. A dick joke’s great. Making fun of that guy’s shirt — funny. I don’t believe that doesn’t have a length to it. I don’t know. This is fun, ask me another question.
I’m always interested in writing partnerships, and you write with your wife, which I imagine is a very complicated one. On a, you know, on a basic level how does it work?
It’s developed over time. We both have this ethic where we enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work, but it’s changed. When we had two kids, the kids could be asleep and we could drink wine and go over stand-up. Well, now we’ve got five kids and once a kid gets to like 12, they never go to sleep. So we get our writing sessions when we can. Or it’s an editing thing. Like I was in London and she would come to the show and would say after like, “By the way, you’re coming across like a pig in this joke,” or “This is funny,” or “This is too much.” And she’ll add brilliant insights that will expand the joke or she’ll come up with lines.
When you start working on a bit at the most basic level, what do you go onstage with?
It’s just the nub of an idea, where it goes back to basic thing of “I hate.” I hate the fact that I watch so much cable news or I’m annoyed by the fact that all the cable news people have to be good-looking. It’s similar to why does a waiter need to be attractive? It’s like, “I’ll have the filet and if you can have it served by like an 8 that would be great.” I’m not even gay but I want a good-looking man delivering my steak.
It’s more of a human behavior, rather than a political thing. Even as we’ve even seen in this election — some of it is not social issues, some of it’s not economic interests, it’s just kinda like people are voting. You’re just sitting there going, “What?” So it’s a human behavior thing. Even I’ll have jokes about Jesus and some people will be like, “How dare you?” and I’m like, “It’s about a human being, it’s not like I’m not sitting there saying it’s horse shit.”
It’s just essentially observational material. Like, I think Seinfeld actually believes this too, which is that, in the end, it’s all jokes. I remember I did this benefit and Ricky Gervais was there and afterwards — and I love Ricky — and he was like, “So you just go up there and do jokes?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what you do too. Stop acting like you’re writing … You know, you’re not Socrates, alright? I know you’re a brilliant mind, but you’re doing jokes too. You might be hiding them behind some well-constructed story.
Yeah, just because yours are shorter, doesn’t mean they are more jokes than other people’s jokes.
Right. It’s a strange thing.
So you’ll just kind of talk it out a little bit, like at a club?
I’ll talk it out. Maybe with Jeannie … I’ll bring up newscasters and we’ll figure out things. And I’ll come up with some observations. Sometimes what’s really fun about trying it onstage is you just start talking and it comes out. The wording you did when you wrote it out will change. Having done it so long, I know the punch word ends the sentence.
I had a question about one of the ways one of the punch lines ends. The first half the joke is about why they’re so attractive and how they are more attractive than whomever they interview. And the punch line goes, “Is that a bad guy? Or a victim? I know they’re a loser in this scenario, but …”
It ends on a “but,” and not on the end of the thought.
I remember one time Colin Quinn saw me on Letterman and he goes, “Why do you have to be so organized?” Because I am very organized. I’ll write and rewrite. Like you’re supposed to. But the looser it is, the more organic it feels, that’s what people love. Even when developing — like I have a new hour from Cinco — people love seeing someone flounder onstage and find jokes. People respond to the vulnerability but people also love confidence. There are these rules or premises of ideas and you break them all. It’s understanding them. So the rule here would be “keep it conversational.”
I found it very interesting, when you’re doing the newscaster gossiping, you throw to the person in England but you then don’t go that person, you stay as the person at the desk.
By the way, that is a discussion I had with my wife. She was always like, “Why don’t we hear from that person?” I’d go, “It’s so funny it’s just the gossipy friend referring to the other gossipy friend.” That’s the idea that I wanted to communicate. It doesn’t have to be an English friend. It’s just they throw to these other newscasters in a manner and it’s like they’re an expert, but they’re not, they’re just there, communicating the gossip they’ve heard. What we’re seeing behind the curtain with newscasters and political reporters is they don’t know. They’re like, “Well, we know what Obama meant by that,” but that’s your guess. You might hang out at the Pentagon, but, you don’t know any more than we do.
It’s interesting even hearing us talk about this chunk. I did not come up with this, but like we are in this post-Trump era where the media is under a microscope and there is fake news, and now I’m like, “Well, that’s not what I wanted it to say.”
When is a joke finished? Not in terms of when you stop telling it, but in terms of “This joke is the finished product of what this joke is.”
It’s interesting because I don’t know if this chunk was finished. In the past, I’ve had observations about bottled water and I’ll just go, “Every idea on bottled water,” “Every idea on bacon,” and my wife and I will just sit there and go, “What else about bacon?” You cover it from every corner. This is much more of an observation and a little bit of a social commentary in there, but I don’t know if there is an ending to that. I definitely want there to be some meaning. I want people to laugh at themselves and maybe learn something, but I don’t want it to be like, “And that’s why racism is bad.” Some of that stuff is self-congratulatory. It’s like, “I support the troops.” Everyone supports the troops. We’re all against racism. We all think everyone should be able to get married.
You do a voice at the end of the joke, but you don’t do the voice you became known for. The inner voice. Generally it shows up much less in this special. Why did that change?
Some of it is evolving. I don’t really talk about food for the first 40 minutes either. There’s nothing conscious. It is fun when you’re playing to do that but I try and always remove crutches. I know it’s my most recent special, but once I get done with a special, I immediately go into forget mode, so I have to fill it with new jokes. It’s like I have an iPhone 4 that only can hold like 120 minutes of music but it’s new jokes. The point I’m saying is that you’re trying to come up with new stuff.
In terms of using voices, there’s a musicality to a lot of how your stand-up works.
I find that so flattering. Thank you.
When you work on a joke like this do you turn that off? I think the classic example is Chris Rock who has no affect whatsoever when he’s working out material.
Basic writing skills would tell you go towards the greater details. Like doing a character is gonna help paint a more detailed picture. For me, it’s finding an observation and then I gain more confidence in the joke. You talked about Chris Rock. My wife and I saw him in L.A. many years ago and he was like, “What else is there? What else is there?” and its just silence. The audience is sitting there going, “Huh? What’s going on here?” He doesn’t give a shit. That’s how he comes up with material. Whereas I’m a little bit like, “Ah, still like me!’”
Yeah, his is an extreme of it. I’m saw him do an hour and have almost no jokes, just trying to see what an audience might react to. He’ll say essentially straight-up offensive things to see if he can get an inch from different types of audiences.
There’s also shock. Our concept of liberty is always moving. Does it sound like I’m trying to sound smart? Our concept of shock is always moving and also what was shocking is just, like, offensive now. Bill Hicks was downright homophobic — like “gay people are bad” — same with Sam Kinison. That’s not to say that I don’t use a little bit of shock. My shock might be a whiff of misogyny. That shock is just to gain their attention. The shock also could be religion. There’s nothing more toxic to a secular audience than the idea of a real Christian talking about their faith, so bringing that to a secular audience and then alleviating that tension, like “Oh, all right, he’s not a Westboro Baptist,” is the same thing as saying fuck in front of nuns.
Do you think you’re a better comedian now than you were five years ago? Ten years ago?
Absolutely. One-hundred times better.
What is that better?
Writing this new special after Cinco, it’s different skills. It’s storytelling. Storytelling is a rather scary thing. Dave Chappelle, he’s probably one of the best storytellers we’ve had and Louis C.K.’s an amazing storyteller. There are different skills and finding those skills and trying those skills are really fun and scary. Getting beyond just, Here’s a topic and I’m gonna have a point of view on it and I’m going to dismantle it and then maybe I’m going to turn it on its side.
Is it a matter of trying to know if people are interested even when they’re not laughing? Have you had to figure out what different laughs sound like?
I think some of it is a gut thing. It’s finding nubs of an idea and typically they’re uncomfortable or they’re anger or they’re frustration. Like right now, I have a seven-minute story about opening for the pope. For like six months that was just an awkward experience. It was then figuring out how to tell the story onstage. Talking about it on podcasts helped. It all goes back to like the Mark Twain “How to Tell a Story.” I did these shows in London and my kids were with me and we would spend time doing rather touristy things. We were in Piccadilly Circus, which is the worst place on Earth. I remember walking back to our hotel and we would see the M&M store and I would be like, “Eh” Like that moment of like “Eh,” which is negative, I don’t know what the insight is going to be but there’s something there that, if I can get beyond the basic “I hate materialism.” That’ll be funny. That’s the mirror that I think humans want to use to laugh at themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.