Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist Is the Comedy High-Wire Act That COVID Cut Short

He was going to tour the world, writing routines for every place he performed. Then came the lockdown.
  • Jim Gaffigan in his new two-part stand-up special, The Pale Tourist. (Amazon)
    Jim Gaffigan in his new two-part stand-up special, The Pale Tourist. (Amazon)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Know who’s a big fan of Jim Gaffigan? Jim Gaffigan.

    Know who else is? Me. And this wretched lockdown has done nothing but boost my admiration for the happy Hoosier, who has been a brilliant spokesperson for everyone trapped with families in close quarters.

    Inside America’s overcrowded households, Gaffigan’s running commentaries have nailed all the feelings — from his low-simmering anger at having to clean up continuously after his kids (“it’s like a New Year’s Eve Party I wasn’t invited to”) to sadness at receiving all the notifications from his computer about long-cancelled events. (“Ding! We’re not attending the family reunion this year. Well, I guess it’s not all bad news.”)

    On the day that New York City began sheltering in place, Gaffigan, who is married with five kids, started broadcasting his family dinners live on YouTube. They sit around a table in their spacious Manhattan apartment, say table grace, then plow into pizzas and salads as they argue, interrupt each other, look at their phones, and pontificate. The response has been tremendous, and Gaffigan has turned the nightly ritual into a fundraiser, raising millions for various COVID-related charities.

    He’s even managed to turn his aborted 2020 comedy tour into an Amazon series. Jim Gaffigan: Pale Tourist only collected enough material for two episodes before coronavirus shut down production, but that’s enough to see a standup at the top of his game stepping out on the high wire — writing a brand-new, highly localized routine for every country where he performs.

    Jim Gaffigan’s ascent to the pinnacle of comedy has been deceptively low-key, just like he is. The Gaffigan brand is “what you see is what you get,” which makes the live dinnercasts possibly the most on-brand thing he’s ever done. Gaffigan is just as twisted a comedian as, say, Bill Maher (as Gaffigan pointed out to Maher on his show), and his observations can be as cutting as anyone this side of Dave Chappelle. Yet he has a magical ability to crack jokes about current affairs, and even political figures, without being polarizing. He’s adding audience, not dividing it.

    For example, in the first hour of Pale Tourist Gaffigan apologizes to his Canadian audience for his president, whom he then compares to an alcoholic father. “Sorry about my dad … we’re trying to get the phone from him.” But before he crosses the danger line, he backs off — “Americans are known as being obnoxious, Trump is just turning up the dial” — then pivots to make fun of his audience — “We’re not polite! We’re passive-aggressive!” — and himself — “What you don’t realize about Americans is that we think passive-aggressive is polite.”

    This disarming back-and-forth, with occasional interruptions from an imagined heckler in the seats (“How many horse jokes is he going to tell?”), is a formula that makes Gaffigan arguably the most likable high-income entertainer working today.

    I like how he treats his career as a 50-50 creative partnership with his wife Jeannie. As the louder and showier half of a creative married couple myself, I know performing is simply the most visible part of a much larger process involving drafts, rewrites, time management, marketing, and the juggling of career and life. (“Address the camera,” Jeannie instructs one of her kids during a YouTube dinner.) From what I can tell, Jeannie Gaffigan — who recently came back from a brain tumor — is so crucial to Jim’s success that her executive producer title on his projects kind of sells her short.

    From the time he was shoehorned into an ill-fitting CBS sitcom in the 1990s alongside that comic legend Christine Baranski, Gaffigan has kept trying new things, showing a restlessness that belies his lackadaisical, flabby-dad persona. “In the entertainment industry, every house is made of ice and it’s melting,” he told Forbes last year, “so you’d better be building a new house.”

    But sometimes the house melts before many buyers have a chance to walk through it. The Jim Gaffigan Show, his 2016 TV Land sitcom, was aptly named since Gaffigan was the only person funny in it. And that still was almost enough to save the show. Almost.

    Jim Gaffigan: Pale Tourist feels like one of those near-misses, too, but it’s less than two hours of your life and loaded with laughs, so I’d still recommend watching it. Comedians used to measure their work in seven-minute increments — that was the amount of killer standup you needed to get on the Johnny Carson show. For Pale Tourist, Gaffigan researched each country where he was scheduled to do shows, including some walking-and-talking with the locals. Then he and Jeannie came up with an hour of material poking fun at the customs, place names, and personalities of that country. Garrison Keillor did a version of this on his radio show, but his was more like gentle ribbing (after all, he had to ask these people to pledge to their local station). And it wasn’t an hour long.

    The Canada episode comes first, because that’s the easiest country for an American to mock, and the best audience he’s likely to get. The trick here is to do content that’s localized enough to get the natives laughing, but broad enough that it can play on Amazon. So there are a lot of jokes about provinces. He does a solid five minutes on how Saskatchewan is full of perverts. Quebec and francophones come in for some mockery. “Manitoba,” Gaffigan says, “is that friend you invite last to the party, but only because you forgot they existed.”

    Don’t forget Vancouver! “Vancouver is like a rainy Seattle,” he says. “I was in Vancouver for a week — somehow it rained for two weeks.”

    Gaffigan’s roly-poly, self-mocking, multi-voiced persona gives him versatility that most standup comics lack. That’s how he is able to get laughs out of some relatively thin material ... near the end of the Canada hour, he's clearly running on fumes. By the time he jumps to Spain — and a much less responsive audience — the wheels are starting to come off. That said, it’s hard to say a negative word about something this ambitious that was rescued from oblivion at a time when we could all use a laugh.

    Dave Chappelle showed up at a moment we needed to hear from him. His 8:46 special broke our hearts and contained the funniest and dirtiest joke that will likely come out of this awful time. Jim Gaffigan is never going to be that punch to the solar plexus. Dirty is not his brand. But when I look back on 2020, I may not remember any of his zillions of jokes or observations, but I will remember that he and his crazy family helped get me through this.

    Jim Gaffigan: Pale Tourist drops on Amazon today.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist, Amazon, Jim Gaffigan, Standup Comedy