What’s so funny about Jim Gaffigan’s Christianity

A lot of entertainers think of religion as the third rail — something you stay away from. Catholic comic Jim Gaffigan is testing that theory in a major way in his new “The Jim Gaffigan Show.”

Comic Jim Gaffigan has built a huge brand around a few things: overeating, having tons of kids (five at last count, and it’s not clear he and his wife are done) and a performing technique people often call “the inner voice.” His inner voice is whispery, almost lady-like, has a scolding tone and lets Gaffigan assume the position of people he perceives as his critics – perhaps an audience member or some random person on the street. It’s a quirky, funny way for Gaffigan to get one up in advance on people who judge him, or, more accurately, people he suspects might be judging him.

Which is also Gaffigan’s way of dealing with his Catholic faith – a little bit on the defense, a little bit paranoid. Which is how some people might see religion’s posture in general these days.

This all plays out very deliberately in Gaffigan’s new show, which premieres in July and is set in his real life. “The Jim Gaffigan Show” explores what it’s like to be a popular stand-up comic named Jim Gaffigan, juggling the secular, sometimes raunchy entertainment world with being a husband to a devout wife and dad to their five kids, all of whom are crammed into a hip apartment in lower Manhattan.

Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan – who have long co-written his comedy – have pre-released one of the shows through the end of May, an episode centered on the idea that it’s risky for a pop culture figure to come out as religious. The plot takes off after Gaffigan is accidentally photographed carrying a massive Bible and then panics about what the public will think. Will he come across as stupid if people know he believes in God? Gay-hating if they see he’s a committed Catholic?

“I don’t want to get involved in the culture war. Religion is a very iffy business. As soon as you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself to ridicule,” he tells his wife and her friend on the show.

This rings bells for me as someone who writes about religion in America.

The belief that the mainstream culture is hostile toward faith is not only widely held and spoken of by many religious leaders, but has powerful theological allure. Core texts present religious believers as essentially outsiders, inherently persecuted and that to be religious is by definition to assume the identity of the marginalized. It can be a challenge to see one’s self as fully religious and mainstream.

Which is part of why I love Jim Gaffigan; he dives into this paradox. He and Jeannie (who he often calls a “Shiite Catholic”) chose to introduce themselves through an episode that centers on their Catholicism. In fact the entire series is built around the juggling act of this wholesome, churchgoing, no-swearing, no-artificial-birth-control-using family. And they aren’t painted as oddballs, but hip Manhattanites living in a cool loft and hanging around with people like Chris Rock.

In other words, Gaffigan knows that being religious is not a black mark per se but potentially an asset, a marketing point – IF he can sell it right. The question is: What kind of religious person? Gaffigan and his wife play with this idea in the episode, as they do in his work generally. I wrote about this first a couple years ago after seeing Gaffigan speak during the same week in which I covered the Catholic Church’s then-new global campaign to reimage “evangelizing” as being more organic and less judgmental about one’s faith. Part of this involves facing a reality I think has become even clearer since my 2013 piece: It’s not God that Western society seems anxious to ditch, it’s institutional religion.

This week I asked the Gaffigans about why they chose this topic as a way to introduce the show.

“We played off the notion of being outed as Christian, that being Christian in entertainment is like being gay in the ’50s. It really touches on my fear surrounding being known as a Christian,” said Jim.

Jeannie said they wanted to present the Catholicism they live – while also strategically “critique-proofing” themselves.

“This [topic] isn’t thematic for the rest of the series, it’s just meant as a given that Jim is Catholic, he’s friends with the priest, is Catholic in an off-beat way that’s more real than you often see on TV portrayals … you can be Catholic and your best friend can be gay, you live in this world where that’s reality. You can keep your traditional faith but you don’t have to be categorized into some box,” she said.

But the couple are very aware that they are both spotlighting religion while simultaneously saying it’s something Jim may feel like hiding. Is the fear of being known as religious real for him at all?

“It’s resonant with Jim’s paranoia, that’s definitely true,” he said. Jeannie compared the episode to Jim’s strategic decision years ago to create the “Inner Voice.”

Back then “he felt, if the audience was going to judge him, he would make that judgment for them first. It disarms them a little. In Jim’s mind, it’s like saying: ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’ It’s putting it all out there.”

Gaffigan talked about what he called an important comic device — the “fish out of water.” In reality, as a married, churchgoing guy with a bundle of kids, he feels a bit like a fish out of water. On the other hand, he knows his family is thriving. The show merges his reality and his comedy, which can beg the question: Who is he really making fun of? Himself for being paranoid? Society for mocking the religious? The media for its lack of nuance around religion? The audience for buying any of this as serious?

“He still has point of view, but he’s not going to take a stand because there are people who love Jim who are atheists, and who love Jim and are of all faiths. The Christian ghetto is a hard one to get out of if I’m only preaching to the choir,” Jeannie said.

Indeed there is pragmatic business here.

“There are positions in this culture war that Jim doesn’t want to engage in, he just wants to do jokes about avocados,” he said of himself, using the third-person. “We know conflict sells, but 90 percent of my friends are devout atheists. The message is: He believes in God, it’s not that big of a deal. When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.”

And there is pragmatism in comedy, too, not everything is about the culture war. For example, Gaffigan gets a lot of media coverage for his clean language; it’s not uncommon to see tweens at his shows. But there was a time when he used vulgar language more freely, and he has no judgment about it today either.

“I’m a clean comedian, but some of my friends are filthy. It’s just a style, it’s a language he uses,” he says of his on-stage character.

Is Catholicism particularly funny?

“It’s been around for a while. I think there’s something about that. There’s an intellectual side to it, a questioning side. There’s also this kind of ritualistic side that lends itself to humor immediately. Our priest (they attend church in Manhattan’s Little Italy) is hilarious. I’ll go around to all the statues of little-known saints and guess their name based on looks, like ‘Saint I-Have-A-Boo-Boo,’ ” he said.

Whatever his motivations for weaving his faith into his comedy, it’s working. Gaffigan has been invited this fall to attend an event in Philadelphia with Pope Francis.

“You don’t turn down the pope,” he said.