I first saw Jim Gaffigan perform in 2013 at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles for a hundred skinny 20-something hipsters. He was older than anyone else on the bill by ten years, and he was wearing a bright canary-yellow T-shirt one might charitably describe as a little too tight. I was worried the audience might reject a mainstream dad-comic known for working “clean,” but Gaffigan was ready. The first words out of his mouth were an impression of a skeptical audience member reacting to his entrance. “Look at that shirt,” he whispered, earning a solid laugh. “He’s trying to look young,” he added for another, and then went for the jugular — “He’s fat” — to applause. Not only had he won over the crowd in less than a minute, he was already killing, and he hadn’t even talked as “himself.”
Few bits have reached a wider audience than Gaffigan’s “Hot Pockets.” It contains everything that makes the comedian great. It’s four minutes and 30 seconds on one topic. It’s lean at under 600 words, and it’s packed with act-outs and character changes. It gets so many laughs that, two-thirds of the way in, Gaffigan is essentially performing over a rolling applause break. The bit — track 17 from his 2006 album, Beyond the Pale — is a stand-up smash, with 7.8 million views currently on YouTube. But to put that in perspective, Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” from the same year has over 279 million views. While hard-core comedy fans can recite “Hot Pockets” from memory, most people have never heard it. Before you read any further, enjoy the bit that catapulted Gaffigan from the Vic Theater in Chicago where it was recorded to that same city’s United Center in 2023.
Gaffigan starts “Hot Pockets” by confessing that he ate a Hot Pocket and felt awful. No one enjoys being lectured for poor choices, but by presenting himself as a fellow victim of the frozen calzone/hand pie, Gaffigan assures his audience that his tirade comes from a place of empathy. Merely mentioning the product’s name earns an extended applause break, indicating that many in the crowd have been there with him.
Like most of Gaffigan’s work, “Hot Pockets” contains no “swear words.” While a clean comic might have material that works in more places and access to audiences that “dirty comics” don’t have, a stigma accompanies the idea of working “clean” in the minds of some of stand-up’s most dedicated fans. There’s a sentiment that comedy should always contain the possibility for anarchy and transgression, and that a comic who removes profanity from their toolbox because they might offend someone is like a metal band choosing not to play above a certain decibel level. Having opted out of using taboo words, Gaffigan must find something else to replace their transgressive power in his material.
His first solution is to get mean. He says that Hot Pockets’ warning label should read, “Hope you’re drunk or heading home to a trailer, you hillbilly. Enjoy the next NASCAR event.” This hostility gives the joke some bite despite the lack of profanity. The price is possibly angering NASCAR fans, but Gaffigan has a trick for that — the same one he used on the hipsters at UCB in 2013. “I like NASCAR. He’s a jerk,” Gaffigan says in his “annoyed audience member” voice, winning any detractors back by showing them they are “seen.” Two seconds later, he’s at it again, having lost no one.
He gets nine laughs in his first 40 seconds then starts to “run” the crowd — a technique where, instead of letting the audience’s laugh fade so they are ready for your next joke, a comedian starts the next setup in the middle of their laughter, giving them no time to think. Gaffigan cuts five laughs short to get to what will become the bit’s mantra — singing the “Hot Pocket” jingle in a high-pitched, breathy off-key warble. Then he pulls his foot off the gas and lets the audience get it all out. They reward him with nine seconds of applause at the one-minute mark.
After observing that you don’t ever see Hot Pockets on restaurant menus, Gaffigan performs a dialogue between a waiter and patron who behave according to an absurd, inverted logic. The waiter delivers a list of negatives, and the customer gets more excited with each new horrifying detail. Gaffigan would later win acclaim for his acting, but he’s already portraying precise, easily recognizable emotions here, perfectly capturing the artificial nature of the waiter-patron dynamic. He gives each speaker their own body language, switching between them with a simple change in head direction. When the customer announces he’ll “have the Hot Pocket!” with smug conviction, Gaffigan’s performance equals the best Will Ferrell sketch characters. As the audience begins to roar, Gaffigan “runs” them again, ignoring the applause building up at 1:40 to drop punchline after punchline until the time between laughs goes from two seconds to one to an indistinguishable rolling applause break that Gaffigan performs over, continuing for six seconds after he’s done.
Gaffigan portrays the executive who first pitched the product next. He employs a new method to generate transgressive energy while still working clean by using gross-out imagery to accomplish what insulting “hillbillies” did earlier. The exec pitches a Pop Tart filled with “nasty meat” in a “sleeve thing” you could dunk “in a toilet.” Later, Gaffigan describes the vegetarian Hot Pocket as for people who don’t want meat but do want “diarrhea.” This language keeps the bit edgy enough to be funny, the way close-ups of garbage and infected wounds made Ren & Stimpy cartoons feel dangerous yet still “safe for children.”
Gaffigan adds a Phil Hartman–esque ad exec, earning a huge laugh with “Not as good as your ‘By Mennen,’ but good,” the most economical way possible to point out that the Hot Pockets jingle sounds a lot like the shaving-cream song. With just a few lines, Gaffigan paints this powerful man as incompetent and maybe insane. He thinks the befuddled composer who’s clearly making it up as he goes is a genius, and weirdly tells him not to hide his talents in a “bushel basket.” Since we have elevated this man to where he is powerful enough to blanket the country in frozen ham pies, the joke is really on us.
At 3:03, Gaffigan mimes following the absurd directions on the lean pocket as if he has no choice. His silent portrayal of the defeated modern consumer throwing away the thing he just bought because the wrapper said to is a perfect, Chaplin-esque comment on how powerless we often feel. Gaffigan sings some version of the jingle 12 times, each time to the audience’s delight, changing it to “dead pocket,” “diarrhea pocket,” and “flush pocket” to retain the element of surprise. His final bit about a “Hot Pocket”–flavored Hot Pocket — where he says the words “Hot Pocket” five times in a row — ends with one last triumphant rendition of the jingle. Gaffigan’s audience could not be more satiated.
Writing and performance aside, “Hot Pockets” succeeds because of the central observation that grounds it. Corporations surely know when their product is trash. Some products are so clearly trash that the most believable explanation is that it’s intentional. What if the company just came out and said it? Based on the enthusiasm with which we as a society consume Hot Pockets — something we know from all our senses is terrible for us — Gaffigan seems to suggest that it wouldn’t make any difference at all.
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