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The secret screen life of Being Frank star Jim Gaffigan

The comedian talks about playing a dad with a hidden second family: "I wanted to find the humanity in the guy and how he could rationalize it."

With seven films being released in 2019, the stand-up Jim Gaffigan has slowly become a movie star.
Elevin Studios

In the film American Dreamer, Jim Gaffigan plays a ride-share driver who also works as a driver for a drug dealer. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of Gaffigan. It's a different look for the comic than we've seen before: His normally cherubic face looks worn and tired, and his blue eyes have a muted gaze that carries the weight of a man who is scared and desperate. Gone is the beloved Emmy-award-winning comedian known for self-deprecating jokes about food, laziness and his five kids. There are definitely no Hot Pockets here.

Due in September, American Dreamer is one of seven films to be released this year starring Gaffigan. He had three premieres earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, including Troop Zero, in which he stars with Allison Janney and Viola Davis, and Them That Follow, where he plays a member of a snake-handling Christian cult. If that weren't enough, Gaffigan recorded the very first stand-up special for Amazon Prime.

"I'm grateful that they're all coming out," Gaffigan says. "I don't know if it's 10 or 9 or whatever. But I'm thrilled either way." Gaffigan took time to talk with me about his film Being Frank, which opens widely in the US on Friday, June 14. In it, he plays a man with a secret family. He also talked about of heckling in stand-up, and how YouTube has changed comedy forever.

Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity. 

On deciding what roles to play

It changes all the time on what motivates me to take a role. Some of it's whether the role is challenging. Do I think I can do a good job at it? Sometimes I really want to work with the director or the producers. And sometimes it's just a great story. 

In the movie American Dreamer that comes out in September, I play this guy who is a ride-share driver and ends up driving around a drug dealer. His life falls apart in the process. I'm not even doing it justice, because it's a larger commentary on this guy's white entitlement. It's a really interesting kind of movie. But that one was completely different from, say, Troop Zero, which was amazing because I got to work with Allison Janney and Viola Davis. And then, there's Being Frank, where I play this guy who had two families.

On playing a father with a secret family

What made Being Frank so appealing was that it's a lead role, but it was also this guy who had complexity having two families. On the surface, it's a horrible thing to do, so I wanted to find the humanity in the guy and how he could rationalize it. The task of making the viewer empathize with him was something that I wanted to pursue. In the movie, he gains the empathy of his son. But at the end you see like, "Yeah, this is just horrible."

On how technology changed stand-up

The effect of technology on stand-up comedy is enormous. When I started, you could find stand-up on late-night talk shows, daytime talk shows and maybe HBO had a special. People who are interested in comedy have access to stand-up outside of albums and stuff like that. They can go on YouTube and search a comedian that they thought might be funny, and that changed the whole thing. It's reflected in how the audience responds to comedy. It's reflected in what's expected of a comedian.

When I started in the early '90s, Andrew Dice Clay and Rodney Dangerfield had this sense of the audience as not an audience but as a possible participant. But now the entire population is educated on not only the task of stand-up but the expectation of it. You see it in the disappearance of heckling. Technology has created this educated populace. People can find any type of content that they want, whether it be highly political or espousing their social values.

On being the first to record a stand-up special for Amazon

It's their first time, which is going to be interesting. But the reach and impact of an Amazon special is going to be really exciting. I know that I've watched some stuff on Prime. We all have it; it's just a matter of us using it. The habit isn't necessarily created yet for us to consume our entertainment on Prime. But hopefully I can help get people to check out their Prime.

The reach that Amazon's going to have, I'm not even conscious of. As somebody who has done six specials before this and brought them to Comedy Central or Netflix or -- I even did my own distribution last time -- there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them. The advantages of the Amazon platform are incredible.

On backlash other comedians face on social media for 'non-PC' jokes

As a comedian, I'm never going to be for censorship. If you're talking about my brothers and my sisters, I'm immediately going to defend them. There's a delicate thing where comedians do not believe in censorship. But that being said, we are writers. And writers are always editing anyway. Margaret Atwood, when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale, it's not like it just came out in one thing. She wrote and rewrote, and she threw out stuff.

Stand-up is very much an exhibitionist ongoing writing collaboration. It used to be the worst crime was to be unfunny. I don't think there's anything wrong with being conscious or sensitive to other people's feelings. I'm not running for senator, but I'm also motivated by making people laugh. I think that if it's an honest mistake or if it's a misinterpretation or it's something that people can learn from, then people will get over it. But if people have a dark intention, that's a different thing.

On comedians throwing out old material to start a new slate

When I began doing stand-up 30 years ago, starting over was something that essentially George Carlin and Richard Pryor did. And that was it. There were people that did it, but there wasn't an expectation of it. But we live in this age where people really want quality content.

It's great to get a fresh start on a new hour, and to start over. Success is built on taking risks, and trying something that you haven't tried before. The greatest reward is in trying things. When you have to start over, you're forced to try. You're forced to say I'm going to try a tweak on this point-of-view I have. I'm going to pursue this bold opinion or tell this story in an entertaining and humorous way. So there's a secret advantage in starting over.

On why his fans should watch one of his upcoming movies 

Hopefully, the quality that I put into creating my stand-up material is reflected in these films that I've done. Having five kids, my time is (as everyone's time is) precious. I'm trying to only do stuff that's interesting to me.

Originally published May 17. 
Update, June 14: Adds release date for Being Frank.