Comic Jim Gaffigan On Stand-Up, Faith And Opening For The Pope

Comic Jim Gaffigan On Stand-Up, Faith And Opening For The Pope

4:50pm Sep 24, 2015

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a big gig on Saturday: He's performing at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia for an estimated audience of 1.5 million, including, perhaps, Pope Francis.

"I think I might be opening for the popemobile driving in," Gaffigan jokes to Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

A practicing Catholic, Gaffigan has made his faith a central part of his comedy, both in his stand-up act and in his TV series, The Jim Gaffigan Show. But he wasn't always comfortable talking about his beliefs. When he was starting out, he says, "I really steered away from it."

Over the years, though, Gaffigan warmed to the idea of including his faith in his work. "My faith is very personal," he says. "It's not something that I want to project on other people, but some of my fear and anxiety surrounding it, I think, provides some good comedy for my act."


Interview Highlights

On performing for such a large crowd at the World Meeting of Families

Comedy is this art form that's constructed on intimacy; it's a conversation. And so I don't know ... I can't even contemplate ... I can't even reach out to another comedian who has done a similar event to this. Kevin Hart did the Eagles football stadium, but we're talking about a difference of 900,000 people here, probably. ...

Talking about it, doing interviews like this, makes me realize that I should be more prepared. ... I'm definitely going to be prepared, but I don't know what I'm going to say when I step onstage because the environment is going to inform it.

On his faith in real life and on The Jim Gaffigan Show

In the show I'm a cultural Catholic, which is what I was. And I would say now I'm somebody who goes to church. I should clarify: Some of my anxiety is I'm a horrible person. I need the concept of mercy for me to have some semblance of self-admiration. ...

The reason why I say I'm a horrible person is I don't want myself to be presented as somebody who is a great Catholic. The idea of being a practicing Catholic, for me, it's like I need a lot of practice. I do get nervous, so even being presented as somebody who will be performing at this event there's a little bit of concern or an expectation that I'm going to get a call and they're going to say, "Look, we did some research. You really shouldn't be performing, but if you want to pick up garbage after the show maybe we could have you do that."

On how his faith influences his stand-up

I think stand-up comedy is this kind of indulgence and narcissism. ... Because stand-up comedy is one of the few meritocracies in the entertainment industry, there's some kind of, at least for me, some kind of idea of control. And my faith kind of keeps me in touch with the idea that I'm not in control of things. When I'm in touch with the idea that there is a higher power and there [are] other factors at work, it kind of quells my narcissism, and a lot of the teachings really kind of keep me grounded.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM GAFFIGAN: I do want everyone to feel comfortable. That's why I'd like to talk to you about Jesus.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: He better not.

It doesn't matter if you're religious or not. Does anything make you feel more uncomfortable than some stranger going, I'd like to talk to you about Jesus?

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I'd like you not to.

You could say that to the pope. I want to talk to you about Jesus. He'd be like, easy, freak.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: I keep work at work.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: You have to admit, that was a good impression of the pope.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's comic Jim Gaffigan recorded in 2005. Pope Francis might actually hear Gaffigan perform on Saturday in Philadelphia, where Gaffigan and Aretha Franklin will be among the performers at the Festival of Families, which the pope is expected to attend after his papal parade. Gaffigan has made his Catholicism a central part of his comedy, in his standup act and in his TV series "The Jim Gaffigan Show," which had its first season finale last night on TV Land. Gaffigan is the author of two books, each focusing on other subjects he talks about a lot in his act. "Dad Is Fat" is about being the father of five children. "Food: A Love Story" is about eating a lot. On his TV series, he plays a standup comic named Jim Gaffigan who, like the real Gaffigan, is married, has five children and is Catholic. But in the series, Gaffigan tries to keep a pretty low profile about his faith until The Huffington Post prominently features him in a story headlined "Entertainers Of Faith." His always sarcastic friend, played by Michael Ian Black, discovers the article while visiting Gaffigan and his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW")

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: (As Daniel) What is this picture of you holding a Bible the size of a child's coffin doing on The Huffington Post?

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Let me see this.

BLACK: (As Daniel) Congratulations, you made the front page, right next to a story about Miley Cyrus' tongue.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan, reading) "Entertainers Of Faith," funnyman Jim Gaffigan isn't ashamed of his Catholicism. He's seen here leaving a New York comedy club with his Bible in hand.

ASHLEY WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What are they talking about?

BLACK: (As Daniel) I know. They lost me at funnyman.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no, I've been outed as a Christian.

WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What is wrong with that?

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Well, I don't want people to think I believe in God.

WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) But you do believe in God.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah, but that's my private business. Besides, the perception is that people that believe in God are stupid.

WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Oh, I don't think that's true.

BLACK: (As Daniel) Your signature bit is you singing "Hot Pockets," and suddenly you're worried about people thinking you're stupid?

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) No, really, this is serious business. I don't want to get involved in the culture war. Religion's iffy. Once you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself to ridicule.

BLACK: (As Daniel) You're being completely paranoid. Just because you believe in a Jesus that looks like Chris Hemsworth doesn't mean people are going to think they're better than you. They got plenty of other reasons for that.

WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Come on, Daniel. You don't believe in some sort of higher power?

BLACK: (As Daniel) You think God made man in his image?

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I'm a target now.

BLACK: (As Daniel) I know, a mighty big one too.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from "The Jim Gaffigan Show." Jim Gaffigan, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I should mention, further into that scene you get calls from the White House inviting you to the annual Prayer Breakfast. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, wants to debate you. Joe Austin wants to take you to dinner. (Laughter) I'm sure you wrote all of that before you got the call asking you to perform with the pope in the audience for the World Meeting of Families.

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, it's...

GROSS: During the pope's visit Philadelphia. So what is it you're being asked to do?

GAFFIGAN: Well, I am being asked to perform standup comedy for the World Meeting or the World Festival of Families prior to the pope's arrival. I believe it's - I think I might be opening for the popemobile driving in. But I'm - I'll be doing 20 minutes of standup after Aretha Franklin...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: It seems very, you know - it just gets more and more obscure. And of course, you know, the clip from the show - there's a couple episodes in the show that kind of deal with, you know, my fears surrounding, you know, being exposed as a Catholic or the - you know, there's a - we have a whole episode about how Jim is terrified to perform in front of a priest. We present it as comedy poison. And now, of course, I'm - I'll be performing in front of the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, so...

GROSS: So is he going to be in the audience or not? I'm unclear about that.

GAFFIGAN: I don't know. I - you know, this is such a unique situation. I'm kind of flattered to be asked. And I assume he - I don't know what security reasons, you know, might - I mean, obviously he doesn't have to worry about me. But I don't know if they're having him downstairs or if he's arriving after I do the show. I don't know.

GROSS: Do you know how many people are going to be there?

GAFFIGAN: Well, I've heard - I've heard 1.5 million, but - which, you know...

GROSS: About the size of the Comedy Cellar.

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, right? It's, you know - comedy is this art form that's constructed on intimacy. It's a conversation, and so, you know - I don't know. I can't even contemplate. I can't even reach out to another comedian who's done a similar event to this. I mean, Kevin Hart did the Eagles' football stadium, but we're talking about a difference of 900,000 people here probably.

GROSS: So how is this set that you're performing for, you know, not only a Catholic audience but a Catholic audience who is gathered to meet the pope and possibly the pope himself - how is this set going to compare to the sets that you typically do at comedy clubs?

GAFFIGAN: It's - people, you know - you nailed it right there. It's like, people are not coming to see Jim Gaffigan. They're coming to see Pope Francis and hear what Pope Francis has to say. You know, I don't have any expectations. You know, like, there's different kind of humorous takes on it. I don't imagine I will have a negative impact. I hope people don't come to the event and say, you know, I was a Catholic, but after I saw that Jim Gaffigan guy, I'm thinking of switching to Protestant.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: You know, I don't think that's an issue. But I also, you know - maybe me doing this set, you know - when the decision of letting me into heaven, they might be like, well, he was a horrible guy, but he did do that gig for the pope. So maybe we'll let him in. You know, I think it's such an enormous idea of, you know, of a show for a comedian, that I don't know how to comprehend it. I just am hoping to not ruin this special experience for everyone else.

GROSS: (Laughter) You had a very funny tweet. You wrote, I can't believe the pope is staying in my apartment tomorrow night. Should I get extra Bugles? (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: Yes, 'cause I - you know. Who doesn't like Bugles?

GROSS: Yeah, really, so...

GAFFIGAN: They're shaped a little bit like a pope hat, so...

GROSS: (Laughter) So in the clip that we heard, the Jim Gaffigan that you play on your TV show is very uncomfortable with being outed as a Catholic. And he's afraid that it's going to hurt his comic identity and that people will project things on him, that it's going to lead to trouble. Were you uncomfortable with audience or the press finding out that you were a practicing Catholic?

GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, well, I - you know, my wife and I, we work together. And we wrote this book, "Dad Is Fat." And in the book, you know, I was encouraged constantly by my editor to be more personal and talk about more personal experiences. So we wrote about having five kids and bringing them to church. A journalist at the Washington Post wrote this article where the headline was, the new Catholic evangelism Of Jim Gaffigan. And it was a bit terrifying. I spent most of my adult life essentially agnostic or an atheist. And I am somebody who - my path to my faith is very kind of individual, and I don't want to be lumped into the category of, you know, those Westboro Baptists. Like, my faith is very personal. It's not something that I want to project on other people. But some of my fear and anxieties surrounding it, I think, provides some good comedy for my act.

GROSS: Let's play an example of that in your TV show, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," on TV Land. Further into the episode that we heard an excerpt of earlier, after the article about you is written in The Huffington Post, after you're profiled as one of the entertainers of faith, you get a call to meet with a corporate executive who has an offer to make you. So here you are with the corporate executive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW")

H. JON BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Mr. Gaffigan.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, hi.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Kevin Ferguson, I'm an executive at Cane Corp.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, great. Yeah.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Ever heard of it?

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) We operate a chain of restaurants called Pizza House.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Make your house a Pizza House.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) That's us. We're looking for a new spokesperson.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's very flattering, but I'm already doing this water campaign. So I don't want to do too many commercials.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Water campaign, that sounds fun.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Two days in Florida with us, seven figures.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I could go to the airport right now if you want (laughter).

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Our CEO loves you.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, yeah? He likes my comedy?

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Well, he hasn't seen your comedy. But he likes that you work clean and that you have five kids. Jim, you'd be the perfect person to represent our company and reflect our American values, like pro-community.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Pro-family.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.

BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) The repudiation of homosexuality.

GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's - that's not me.

GROSS: (Laughter) So that's probably a pretty good example of what you're afraid of...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: That people will associate you with values that you don't share.

GAFFIGAN: Yeah. You know, I grew up in a Catholic family in the Midwest. And I knew people of different faiths and people that were atheists and people that were agnostic. And it really never came up, but I think that in present-day America, they're - you know, and I touched on it in the initial clip - is that we are in the middle of this culture war. And there's a quote in this episode where I say, I just want to talk about avocados. And some of it is - I do just want to do jokes. I don't want to be a divisive figure. I don't want to pick a team. I want to make people laugh and hopefully bring some - be humorous about the human experience, you know, whether they're people of any stripes of life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Gaffigan, and he has a comedy TV series in which he plays a version of himself called "The Jim Gaffigan Show." That's on TV Land. He also has two books. One is called "Dad Is Fat" and the other is called "Food: A Love Story." He's about to perform for an audience of approximately a million and a half people in Philadelphia when the Pope comes here over the weekend. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Jim Gaffigan, who has had the extraordinary invitation of performing for over a million people this weekend when the Pope comes to Philadelphia. He says he's unsure whether the pope will actually be in the audience for this performance, but, you know, he might be. Jim Gaffigan has his own TV series in which he plays a version of himself. It's called "The Jim Gaffigan Show." And his two books are "Dad Is Fat" and "Food: A Love Story." There's an episode in your TV show, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," where your priest, who's from Zimbabwe...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Is so impressed that you're a comic. And in one episode, in this episode, he accompanies you to a comedy club because his wife has kind of invited him to go with you. You really don't want him to come because, first of all, you're embarrassed to be seen with a priest and to be seen as so overtly religious. But also, you're afraid the priest is going to be exposed to things that are going to make him really uncomfortable, like curses and foul language. And so he says to you that he saw soldiers burn down his village in Zimbabwe. And then you say to him yeah, but did they curse? (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm wondering if you have a priest similar to this priest, who has been exposed to all kinds of things that most of us have not.

GAFFIGAN: Well, the priest that married my wife and I is actually from India. But, you know, there is something about people that come from what might be considered a Third-World country or are Third-World countries that - you know, it's the classic First-World problem stuff that when we're dealing with some of our, you know, American kind of paranoias about, like - oh, there's going to be cursing in front of a priest - you know, my wife and I, we wanted to kind of - you know, like, look, these are human beings. And some of our worries and concerns in the U.S. or as a comedian are really trivial compared to what other people are dealing with in other countries.

GROSS: So, you know, in the TV show, like, your wife is especially religious, and you're, like, not much of a churchgoer. The first time you go, the priest is surprised because he didn't even realize your wife still had a husband (laughter)...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Because he hadn't seen you before. Are you a churchgoer?

GAFFIGAN: I am. I would say I'm - in the show, I'm a cultural Catholic, which is what I was. And I would say that now I'm somebody who goes to church. I mean, I should clarify, I - you know, some of my anxiety is, like - I am a horrible person. I need...

GROSS: (Laughter) That is, like, mean.

GAFFIGAN: You know, I need the concept of mercy for me to have some semblance of self-admiration. So in real life, I'm probably somebody who is more devout. That's not to say that I'm a well-informed Catholic. You know, I'm - I'm still in idiot, you know? Like, I know that Colbert can quote Thomas Aquinas, but I'm somebody who - you know, because it's a necessity for me on a personal basis. I need it because I'm a lunatic.

GROSS: When you say you're a horrible person and a lunatic, what do you mean?

GAFFIGAN: I mean that I'm somebody that - you know, I think standup comedy is this - it's this kind of indulgence and narcissism. And you're on stage and because standup comedy is one of the few meritocracies in the entertainment industry, there's some kind of - at least for me, there's some kind of idea of control. And my faith kind of keeps me in touch with the idea that I'm not in control of things. And when I'm in touch with the idea that there is a higher power and that there is, you know, other factors at work, it - it kind of quells my narcissism. And a lot of the teachings really kind of keep me grounded. But, you know, the reason I say I'm a horrible person is I don't want - I don't want myself to be presented as somebody who's a great Catholic. You know, it's = the idea of being a practicing Catholic, it's - for me, it's like - I need a lot of practice, you know what I mean? So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: ...I don't - so I do get nervous. So even being presented as, you know, somebody who will be performing at this event, there's a little bit of concern or an expectation that I'm going to get a call and they're going to say look, we did some research. You know, you really shouldn't be performing. But, you know, if you want to pick up garbage after the show, maybe we could have you do that, so...

GROSS: When you were growing up, did you grow up with the concept of mercy?

GAFFIGAN: I don't think so. I think I grew up with the idea that God was a punishing being, constructed around rules. And so he was, you know, this father figure that, you know, I was in trouble with, you know, constantly. And so it was not something that - you know, I lived across from a Catholic church for 15 years that I never went into. And then I got married to my wife and - you know, and now we're going in there every other day baptizing a kid. So it's...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: It's - you know, it's an amazing journey, you know? You know, it's interesting because I was watching this thing last night. I think CNN had a thing on it, and it may me realize that, you know, for, like, the past 20 years, there has been this belief among the Catholic community - and this - I'm no expert, this is my opinion - that cafeteria Catholics are wrong. It's - you either - you know, follow all the rules or you're not really Catholic. And I think what Pope Francis is saying is that nobody's perfect, you know? And so someone like Joe Biden, you know, where - you know, when he was running for president, people were - there were some bishops that were like don't let him have the Eucharist. And Pope Francis is saying that's not the point of this, you know? So...

GROSS: So you grew up in a Catholic family. You became an agnostic at about what age?

GAFFIGAN: I would say in my mid-20s...

GROSS: So it...

GAFFIGAN: ...Yeah.

GROSS: You stayed with the - you stayed with the church pretty long by - by agnostic standards.

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I mean - well, you know - I mean, that's - you know, the - you know, there's - that's why I think they're called cultural Catholics. It's - you know, I mean, I - I - you know, I was still rooting for Notre Dame, you know? It's like there's the cultural Catholic experience. I mean, I went to a Catholic University and, you know, there's something about being a Catholic-American. You know, St. Patrick's Day is - you know, I'm Irish-Catholic. You know, there's alcoholism in my family. It's like I've got to be Catholic, right? And so I think when I started doing standup, that's when I really tried to question everything in my belief system, you know, which is - I think a pretty important part of being a comedian is really questioning things. And so that's when I really kind of steered away from it, but, you know, came back and, you know, still as uninformed as I was in high school. But I think, you know, faith is something that's - it's hard to articulate. It's - there's - it's not based on logic. It's a leap, so that's where I am.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Gaffigan, who is preparing to perform along with Aretha Franklin and others for over a million people in Philadelphia as part of the pontifical gathering the Festival of Families. The pope is expected to be in attendance. After we take a short break, Gaffigan will talk about why he started to work clean. Here's Aretha Franklin from her album "Amazing Grace," recorded in 1972, featuring the Southern California Community Choir. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus. All our sins and grief's to bear. What a privilege it is to carry everything to God in prayer. Let's do that one more time. Oh, what a friend we have - we have in Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic Jim Gaffigan, who's preparing to perform Saturday for over a million people in Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families, which Pope Francis is expected to attend. The gathering is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Families. Gaffigan is the co-creator and star of "The Jim Gaffigan Show," which had its first season finale last night on TV Land. He plays a comic named Jim Gaffigan, who, like the real Gaffigan, is a comic, husband, father of five and a Catholic. When we left off, he was talking about being raised as a Catholic but identifying as agnostic or atheist in his 20s, when becoming a standup comic got him to question everything in his belief system. So comedy took you away from faith. What brought you back to it?

GAFFIGAN: I wouldn't say that comedy brought me away from it. I think that's my idea of faith was another obligation in my life. You know, I was raised in a family where my father was the first one to go to college. You sought security. You didn't question - kind of like, you would go to college. You would wear a tie to work. You would, you know, you would work for 40 years. And then you would play golf for three years, and then you would die. That was how I was raised. And so I think when my mother died, it was such a - you know, a shock to the logic that I had been raised with. You know, I wasn't going to church. I never went to church when I was in college, either. But I would say my return to my faith is - you know, it's a very personal thing. But I think it was - you know, I reached a point in my life where I didn't really like who I was. And, you know, I had the all these things that I wanted. I was married to an amazing woman. I had children, and yet there was frustration. You know, it's kind of hard to articulate, but, like, this notion of mercy, forgiveness, was very appealing for me. It was very profound. And it had a deep impact. And I think it still does.

GROSS: Lots of your comedy is about being a father with now five kids. Did you ever think you'd have as many kids? I know you lived alone for, like, 13 years, didn't you?

GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, it's - you know, I love standup comedians. I really do. And, you know, we're - even when you hear about a comedian getting married, among comedians, we're always kind of like, what are they doing? (Laughter) And so the idea of having a large family, you know, I definitely had a romantic notion of it. But I didn't think that it's something that would happen. I didn't think I would be in the position, emotionally or financially, to be able to do that. But, you know, I've been lucky. But, you know, there's also - you know, I do get a lot - you know, my children have made me a better man, which is - in the end, that's probably more important than, you know, two more comedy specials or being in better shape. So I don't know. I mean, I know it sounds like I'm saying what I'm supposed to say. But I - you know, it's really kind of my experience.

GROSS: So what was it like for you when you got to New York and had to establish a comic identity? I don't know if being a Catholic was an issue for you then, that you felt like you needed to... I'm not sure whether you were in your, you know, agnostic phase or like...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I was...

GROSS: I'm-not-going-to-really-let-them-know-I'm-Catholic phase. So how did you find who you were on stage in New York?

GAFFIGAN: Well, you know, it's - you know, I always had this romantic notion of living in New York. I didn't know - I just felt like, you know, everyone could be different and weird and whatever they are in New York, where I felt like in the Midwest, as much as I love the Midwest, I felt that's I was, you know, I was a little bit different. And so when I started standup - and this is in the '90s - there was definitely - you know, people hadn't watched decades of Comedy Central, where, you know, people are really much more educated on standup comedy. It used to be much more of a form combat. You know, heckling was much more common. And I - you know, I couldn't get stage time, so I would go out to Pip's in Sheepshead Bay.

GROSS: Oh, gosh, I grew up in Sheepshead Bay.

GAFFIGAN: Right. And so...

GROSS: My parents used to go to Pip's. I never went there.

GAFFIGAN: Right, and so, you know, and that's where Andrew Dice Clay kind of - you know, obviously...

GROSS: Woody Allen, I think, started there.

GAFFIGAN: Oh, yeah, and so - Richard Lewis - you know, so many greats. And - but, like, at that time, Pip's was very much this rough-and-tumble kind of, you know, Brooklyn Italian kind of - or Andrew Dice Clay kind of working-class thing. And so I came across - I remember that's where I had this realization. To these people, I just looked like John Tesh.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAFFIGAN: You know, to this audience. And so, you know, look, I always - I left the Midwest thinking I didn't fit in. But when I got to New York, I realized how truly Midwestern I was. And so, you know, I grew up 45 minutes outside of Chicago. But there was - some of it was this perception of the Midwest that I realized in this multicultural city that - and I don't think it's as true as it was - but everyone was kind of like, what, are you Jewish? Are you Italian? What are you? You know, are you black? Are you da-da-da? Are you Puerto Rican? And so I ended up - my ethnic identity was Midwestern, was white bread. And so it informed a lot of my standup.

GROSS: Part of your thing is that you work clean. You're a clean comic. You don't use four-letter words and stuff. I guess you don't talk about sex explicitly in your performances.

GAFFIGAN: No.

GROSS: That probably has something to do with being invited for pope weekend in Philadelphia to perform for the World Meeting of Families, with possibly the pope in the audience. But did you always work that way? Or was that a conscious decision after not working that way?

GAFFIGAN: Well, I was - I was - you know, I was never really that dirty. I definitely had some curse words here and there. And as I mention, you know, I curse in everyday life, as my kids will repeatedly tell me. But you know, I had some jokes that were dirty. And some of it is when I started making appearances on Conan and Letterman back in the late '90s, I think. You had to remove the curse words, or you couldn't do some of the more explicit jokes. And I realized, in removing or rewriting these jokes, that often the jokes weren't done or that I was using, for me, the curse words as kind of a crutch. So then I just started writing - if I knew I was going to be on Conan, you know, every other month, I wasn't going to write a joke that I wouldn't be able to do on Conan. But again, most of my material is - you know, it doesn't necessarily involve a lot of editing. So even the show with - you know, for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, I don't have to worry about some of the material being inappropriate. I mean, I do have some Catholic stuff that is done from the perspective of an ignorant Catholic. But other than that, topic-wise, there's nothing really filthy.

GROSS: In your TV series, your best friend is played by Adam Goldberg. And he's also a comic. But he's not - his career isn't really going anyplace. He's an atheist Jewish person who lives with his mother in a retirement community. And although he lives with his mother in a retirement community, he thinks you're the one who's in a dead-end because you're married and have five children and that, therefore, you must have an awful life, and he has all this freedom. And you think that that's absurd because he's living with his mother in a retirement community. Do you - is your characterization of this Adam Goldberg best friend in the TV series a reflection of how you think some people look at you?

GAFFIGAN: I think, yeah. I mean, I think my - I remember, you know, back in - being in the Comedy Cellar and Ray Romano, before his show, having to leave to go home to - because he had kids that had to get to school. And I remember thinking, that poor guy (laughter). So, you know, there's probably a lot more people that identify with Dave, who's played by Adam on the show, than identify with my point of view. And, you know, there is something, you know, where the Dave character is - you know, obviously Adam does such a terrific job with it. But he is - he's both a cautionary tale of what Jim could have been and also Jim is envious of his freedom and some of the independence and the nomadic nature that Dave - kind of his romantic paths - take. You know, so - you know, like the Dave character was intentionally constructed because we did want him to be somebody - you know, a voice of the audience - like, Jim, you are a lunatic for having five kids and also, you know, to represent so many comedians that I know and love.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Gaffigan. And he has a comedy TV series in which he plays a version of himself called "The Jim Gaffigan Show." That's on TV Land. He also has two books. One is called "Dad Is Fat." And the other is called "Food: A Love Story." He's about to perform for an audience of approximately a million and a half people in Philadelphia when the pope comes here. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is comic Jim Gaffigan who stars in "The Jim Gaffigan Show" as a comic who like Gaffigan, is a husband, father of five and Catholic. On Saturday, he'll performance in Philadelphia at the pontifical sponsored event the World Festival of Families. Pope Francis is expected to be in attendance along with over a million other people. So how nervous are you about this weekend performing for a huge audience of Catholics who have gathered for the World Meeting of Families, and there's a very good possibility that the pope will be in the audience too?

GAFFIGAN: You know, talking about it, doing interviews like this, makes me realize that I should be more prepared. I'm definitely going to be prepared, but I don't, you know, I don't know what I'm going to say when I step on stage because I'm going to - the environment's going to inform it. And I don't know if...

GROSS: Really? Tell me if that's true, that you really, really don't...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, I can't compare myself to you.

GROSS: But I know, like, for me, when I have a guest speaker appearance, I...

GAFFIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I need to know the first words I'm going to say, and I need to be confident that I know what they are and I'm confident that they're - that it's going to be OK because if I don't have the very beginning, I just feel like I'm going to be lost. I can't afford to stumble with that first sentence. So really, like, you don't know what you're going to say?

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, no, well, you know, you know, I understand your logic, but I also understand that it's 1.5 million people. I also know that there are many things that are going to happen beforehand. Mark Wahlberg is hosting. I know that Aretha Franklin...

GROSS: He probably knows what he's going to say (laughter).

GAFFIGAN: He probably does. He probably does. But I also know that they're not there to see me. You know, I'm going to have to get a semblance of understanding what the task calls for. So am I essentially - am I going to be going for laughs? Am I going to be, you know - but, yeah. No, I should - I'll have some ideas, but it's also, you know, irreverence in that situation is, you know, it's like a conversation. What's the most appropriate thing to start with? You know, since it is a World Meeting of Families, do I start with family material? Do I start with the fact that the pope is coming? Do I start with the enormity of the audience, or is that going to be too - or is that going to come across as insecure? I mean, look, the Northeast whether it's New York, Philly or Boston, from my experience, you don't go out there and appear weak. You go out and you appear strong. And so I would say that informs it also. But some of it is also with, like, you know, from experience from doing TV shows, don't expect to get a laugh for the first minute. It's, like, people are going to figure out who you are, what their expectations are. There's, you know, look, there's people from - there's going to be people from Latin America and the Philippines in the audience, you know...

GROSS: Oh, I hadn't thought about that, of course, right.

GAFFIGAN: Yeah, yeah. So it's...

GROSS: Right. So do you have to come out there and go, like, here's who I am? You know, to basically establish who you are...

GAFFIGAN: Well, hopefully...

GROSS: ...And why of all the comics in the world, like, you're there?

GAFFIGAN: Hopefully - yeah, I mean, I could do, you know - that's an approach. I - hopefully Mark - I'll say Mark like we're best friends - Mark Wahlberg will say that, and then I'll just try and get free Wahlburgers for the rest of my life. But - so he will - but some of it might be, you know, maybe I'll go, you know, trying to get their attention by saying, you know, who's here from South America? Who's here from - you know, I don't know. Maybe he would've done that. But - or maybe I, you know, like I said, you know, maybe I'll, you know, I'll be like I can't believe I'm here. I've done that in other shows when I've gone on after comedy greats. It's, you know, kind of like letting people know that this is a, you know, experience bigger than yourself. But...

GROSS: What...

GAFFIGAN: ...So I don't know.

GROSS: What do you do when you have an event that's making you nervous? What do you do to take care of the anxiety?

GAFFIGAN: You know, I would say, you know, preparation, right? But...

GROSS: I'm sorry...

GAFFIGAN: I don't know, I'm...

GROSS: ...You just told us you're not going to know what you're going to say (laughter).

GAFFIGAN: I know - no, no, no believe me, I want to be clear. I'm going to be very prepared, but I'm not - I'm not trying to sound like Mr. Cool, like, I'm going to do all new material, you know? I'm going to be very prepared. But I'm not going to have - you know, I can't commit to what jokes I'm going to do. Any comedian would do this, by the way. This is not me being like - but I think it's - you know, the weird thing is that I'm somebody who, when I get nervous, I get quieter. So I would say I don't know. I mean, it's - you know, I'm definitely nervous when I perform in certain situations. But, you know, I performed at the New York State Fair which was only 10,000 people. But some of it is people are also going to be in a really good mood. It's - you know, they're going to be very excited to be there. Again, they're not there to see me (laughter) so that's a wrinkle in the logic. But it will be a positive experience. You know, but if it's a World Meeting of Families, announcing that I have five children and maybe they're going to be receptive to that. Announcing that I'm Catholic, that might be - but I don't know what Mark Wahlberg's going to do. I don't know what Aretha Franklin's going to do. She's a wildcard. I imagine she'll sing, you know? I don't know.

GROSS: Well, listen, I wish you really good luck this weekend.

GAFFIGAN: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

GAFFIGAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Jim Gaffigan will perform in Philadelphia, Saturday, as part of the pontifical sponsored World Festival of Families. Over a million people, including Pope Francis, are expected to attend. Gaffigan's TV series, "The Jim Gaffigan Show" had its first season finale last night. You can see the series On Demand. The show has been renewed for a second season. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the first complete recording of the 1954 musical "The Golden Apple," which introduced the song "Lazy Afternoon." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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