Exploring The Pale: An Examination Of The Crossover Appeal of Jim Gaffigan

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Jim Gaffigan is one of the bigger acts working in comedy today. It’s an event any time he releases a new album and his second book, Food: A Love Story, was just released this fall. But how did Gaffigan become one of the biggest comedians on the scene? Let’s take a closer look at the various reasons for his ever-growing popularity.

A big part of Gaffigan’s success can be attributed to his crossover appeal. Gaffigan is the rare comic who can appeal to both the intellectual crowd and the folks looking for more family-friendly material. He doesn’t swear in his act, but you never get the feeling that he’s trying to be safe. Rather, he just happens to do largely clean humor.

His bits center around the absurdity in our daily life and he gets that across without any words that would be bleeped on network TV. He’s the type of comic who could appeal to fans of Paul F. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, or Eugene Mirman, while also being an acceptable option for those who just want a comic their kids can enjoy.

While Gaffigan had a considerable following in the early 2000s, he really broke out with his 6th album, Beyond The Pale, which also garnered a Comedy Central special. That was the hour that gave us the classic Hot Pockets routine, easily the most famous bit of Gaffigan’s career, and quite possibly the best. He repeats the “hahhhhhttttt pockets!” jingle roughly a dozen times over the course of the bit and pokes fun at just about every aspect of the popular frozen food (“they have the vegetarian option for those who don’t want to eat meat, but would still like diarrhea!”). And while seeing this routine dozens of times has not dissuaded me from buying Hot Pockets, I never reach for one at my local supermarket without thinking of it. That “Hot Pockets” bit became Gaffigan’s calling card and it played a huge role in increasing his mainstream popularity.

An equally important bit when understanding Gaffigan’s appeal as well as his philosophy is “McDonald’s” off his 2012 album King Baby. In this routine, he jokes about the reactions people have when you tell them you eat at McDonald’s (“oh, I didn’t realize I was better than you”), while also discussing the guilty pleasures that are parts of all our lives.  All of our tabloids and reality shows tend to fall into that same category of things we know we probably shouldn’t like, but we do anyway. As he points out, it’s all McDonalds!

What makes both the McDonalds and the Hot Pockets bits work so well is that he’s not looking down on the people who consume those products. He’s one of them! So rather than sounding like a condescending scold telling us how awful we are for liking the things we like, he’s joining our level – “isn’t it silly that we all – myself included – enjoy stuff like this?”

Yet another example of this comes from a classic bit about his love of chicken – “Do you know what they do to those chickens?” “No, but it’s delicious!”

In many of Gaffigan’s bits, he describes the pains of having low-brow interests while still being smart enough to know how low-brow those interests are, and wishing you didn’t like them so much. This is a position that many (including me) can relate to, so his act has wide-ranging appeal.

Between his ability to be clean without being safe, and his ability to mock the dumber aspects of our culture while also copping to enjoying them, Gaffigan hits every note perfectly. It’s no wonder that he’s become one of the most popular comics around. Okay, the fact that he’s hilarious doesn’t hurt either.