It's a running gag on TV Land's The Jim Gaffigan Show that Gaffigan's fellow comedians dismiss his act as being dumb, uncool, and almost entirely about food.
The latter charge? Sure, even Gaffigan would cop to that. His signature stand-up routine is about his hatred of Hot Pockets, he wrote a book called Food: A Love Story, and most episodes of the show feature him stopping by Katz's Delicatessen for a pastrami sandwich. There's even a scene in an upcoming episode where, through the magic of time-lapse photography, we see him eat an entire plate of steak frites and a friend's side order of fries in under a minute(*).
(*) Being a responsible journalist, I of course asked whether Gaffigan really ate all the food in that scene. He replied (on the record), “I cannot lie, I only ate 90%. There was a spit bucket involved. Please don”t let this become public knowledge, I have a reputation to uphold.”
But even though Gaffigan's material is famously clean and cholesterol-obsessed, he's not at all the simple-minded, pasty-faced rube his colleagues accuse him of being. (Okay, so he doesn't see the sun much.) The Jim Gaffigan, now midway through a very strong second season (the next new episode airs Sunday night at 10; previous ones are available On Demand or on TV Land's website and app), isn't as formally adventurous as Louie or Master of None or Lady Dynamite or some of the other recent stand-up-driven sitcoms, but it's quietly much sharper and more sophisticated than his onscreen persona ever gets credit for.
Run by Gaffigan and his wife Jeannie – who no doubt plays a big role in giving her fictionalized counterpart, played with verve by Ashley Williams, much funnier things to do than the female lead usually gets in the “schlubby guy with hot wife” subgenre(*) – The Jim Gaffigan Show presents as a pretty low-fi autobiographical comedy. The TV versions of Jim and Jeannie live with five small kids in a two-bedroom apartment, while her ex-turned-gay best friend Daniel (Michael Ian Black at his most satisfyingly smug) tries to find them a bigger place, Jim does stand-up gigs with his toxic bachelor buddy Dave (Adam Goldberg, whose character gets to deliver the kind of raunchy jokes that Gaffigan himself would never say), and there's constant pressure for Jim to be more involved at their church, where the cheerful priest, Father Nicholas (Tongayi Chirisa), gave up careers as a soccer star and male model to devote himself to God.
(*) True story: while researching a detail for this piece, I found myself unwittingly Googling “According to Jim Gaffigan Show.” My fingers did a deep disservice to this vastly superior show, and they feel great shame and regret.
But if the structure and basic subject matter are familiar, the specific material from episode to episode is more curious and more cutting, drawing on observations about life and his career that Gaffigan's clearly been honing for a long time, but couldn't find room to squeeze into his act in between the bit about his cake addiction and the one about the grossness of shellfish.
One episode this season drew inspiration from a 2013 incident where Gaffigan's tweet about women's nails got him accused of sexism, here spun out to surreal proportions, including a trial with Zachary Quinto as the prosecutor.
Another mused on the kinds of roles he's offered, as guest star Alec Baldwin tried to convince him he'd be perfect to play a guy who is literally named Ugly. A couple of weeks ago, he got bent out of shape when an influential comedy blog left him off their list of the 100 best stand-ups in New York, traveling deeper and deeper into New York's alt-comedy scene (which became more ridiculously minimalist with each stop) to try to impress the writer. (It was a much smarter version of the usual “artist is mad over a bad review” story than, say, last week's horrible Roadies.)
The show's currently in the midst of a three-parter (part 2 is the one airing this Sunday) where Dave gets a development deal at TV Land, while Jim tries to pitch Will Ferrell on a sitcom where he plays an Indiana weatherman who gets a job in New York and is treated like a bumpkin by his co-workers – which not only reflects how the other stand-ups talk about TV Jim, but the premise of Gaffigan's very first TV show, the CBS sitcom Welcome to New York, which was supposed to be a vehicle for him, only for him to be demoted in favor of Emmy winner Christine Baranski. The three-parter's only tangentially about the weatherman idea, but as Dave and new writing partner John Mulaney get deeper into writing the script for his TV Land pilot, the whole thing turns into a funhouse mirror reflection of the preposterous nature of the TV development process, and how shows often turn out to be nothing like what they were intended to be.
The Jim Gaffigan Show itself went through a complicated development process, which Gaffigan and I discussed last year. It took five years and three pilots at three different networks for them to even get on the air, and then another half season or so for Jim and Jeannie to figure out the absurd comic voice of the show to go along with the fundamental warmth of the marriage at the center of it. But the show has long since found itself, and this three-parter – where the fictional Jeannie is giddy at the thought of Jim finally getting his own show – cleverly demonstrates how much further ahead in the process the real Jim Gaffigan is from the clumsy and inarticulate guy he plays to great comic effect every week.
Even when he was new to the TV business, Gaffigan was congenitally incapable of being the Hot New Thing. He's never going to come across as cutting-edge, not even in the relatively quiet environs of TV Land, which is attempting to seem cooler and younger with shows like, well, Younger. But The Jim Gaffigan Show is smarter and weirder than it seems at first, and just plain fun. We're nearing the 16th anniversary of Welcome to New York's debut, and if Gaffigan couldn't get his weatherman idea to work, he's definitely figured out how to translate the different parts of his life and career into a sitcom.
The Jim Gaffigan Show won't be mentioned in conversations about the boldest experiments of Peak TV, but it's also not nearly as much of a throwback as you would expect from either its star or the channel where it airs. It's an excellent comedy that feels like it belongs in this special time and place.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org