As a Catholic father of seven children, I was cautiously optimistic when The Jim Gaffigan Show was announced--particularly as the promotional materials suggested he would be drawing from his real life as a Catholic father of five. Now I don't watch a whole lot of contemporary comedy, but if Gaffigan is on and I'm flipping by, there's a certain protocol, a bit of a "stop, drop, and roll," which I endorse:
1) Press "Pause" on U-verse.
2) Visit bathroom to prevent Comedy Related Accident.
3) Stretch stomach muscles to avoid Comedy Related Injury.
4) Move sharp edged furniture.
5) Press "Play."
Any man who can transform the term 'Hot Pockets' from a culinary abomination into three syllables of permanent comedic value is a flat out genius. Let's not kid around here: I don't wish to tarnish a great man in a blog review.
Having said this, my optimism was checked as early as last week, when Gaffigan referred to his wife as a "Shiite Catholic" on ESPN's Highly Questionable. Great, I thought. Another term to hear when picking the kids up from school, or checking out at the grocery store. "Hey, what are you guys, Shiite Catholics? Ha!" It'll be right up there with "Hey, you know where those come from, don't you?" In short, it'll be an unwelcome addition to my growing laundry list of first world problems.
That line was repeated again last night--in a pilot episode that my wife and I laughed through from beginning to end. Other reviews have been quick to point out the show's cliches, but talent can cover a multitude of cliches, and this caste has plenty of talent.
Under the laughter, however, was the unsettling reality that this show might not be destined for my DVR much longer. While ostensibly about a large Catholic family, it showed no real Catholic reason for family at all. No discussion of love, nature, respecting each others bodies, faith--and believe me there's plenty of room for comedy surrounding those topics. Instead, the entire plot revolved around Jim's farcical consultation with a urologist for a vasectomy that he was too scared to follow through on. Now the prospect of a man neutering himself, or paying someone to do it, is indeed fertile [a-hem] ground for comedy. I have no problem at all with the subject matter. But being neutered wasn't the butt of the joke: it was Gaffigan's squeamishness. In short, there were two recurring reasons given for Gaffigan's avoidance of the vasectomy: 1) that he was dominated by his wife (and therefore unmanly) and 2) that he lacked the physical courage to endure the pain of surgery (and was therefore unmanly).
So the moral of the humor can be summarized thus: "Jim wasn't man enough to be neutered." A warped premise for humor, to be sure, and certainly a First World Problem--but a demographically real one (beyond the scope of this review).
As I wrote above, I laughed through this entire episode, from beginning to end--and it wasn't just the whiskey talking. But by the end, those laughs reminded me of the ones I got out of many episodes of Seinfeld--the type of laughs that are only funny until you realize exactly what you're laughing at when the punchlines are "sponge worthy" or "Delores". The premises of those plots were sad, even depressing. Let's face it, the hollow use of other people for one's own meaningless physical gratification can never be really funny on the deepest level. No depraved comedy of manners can cover that up. In order to be deeply funny, there has to be a premise that is deeply true; otherwise comedy devolves into cynicism or nihilism.
Being the Catholic father of five (or seven) is indeed qualification enough for a sitcom. This first episode showed all the talent Jim Gaffigan and his crew have. My continued cautious hope is that they will also give us true, deep laughter--where the foundation of the humor is the joy of life in a big Catholic family--and the utter silliness of our society surrounding it. If the wife character is to be deepened, her faith--her reasons for being a "Shiite Catholic"-- will have to be credibly developed. I hope that yields some great, funny, results.
The very ending of the episode seemed to me the best part. Jim and his wife are collecting the kids from the playground, on their way home. "Gaffigan kids! Gaffigan kids!" they yell. This is so true to experience, it's actually funny and heartwarming. Most parents in our society will yell individual names for their one or two kids, but not in big families like ours--there are simply too many names, so the family name is shouted. Until last night, I never noticed how that emphasizes the family, out of mere necessity. It was nice to hear on a nationally broadcast TV show.