Near the beginning of Mr. Universe, his 2012 stand-up special, Jim Gaffigan mentions that he’s become a father for the fourth time and playfully laments that people have received this news with far more concern than excitement.
Then, he delivers the following joke: “You want to know what it’s like to have a fourth [child]? Just imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.”
I died laughing. I had to stop the special and rewind it because I missed a substantial portion of what Gaffigan said next. The joke accumulated its humor slowly, then paid off handsomely at the punchline. It was a perfect example of how stand-up works.
This was sometime in 2013. On the strength of that joke (which, even as I think about it now, brings a smile to my face), I came to think of Jim Gaffigan as funny. I might have used the word “hilarious” to describe, if not Gaffigan himself, then certainly some of his material. I’m sure the and McDonald’s bits gave me a chuckle, and I’ve always liked his periodic jumps into the mind of a dismayed spectator watching his act.
But then I turned on his most recent Netflix special, Cinco. I watched the first half hour and didn’t laugh once. I’m not sure the corners of my mouth flinched in those thirty minutes. It was so, so bad.
I thought back. Had I laughed much during his other specials? Not really. And, come to think of it, I tried listening to the audiobook of Dad is Fat, his 2013 memoir, thinking that he would bring a stand-up’s sense of performance to the recording, but his delivery was so bumbling and un-comedian-like that I never finished it.
Then Cinco sealed it. Jim Gaffigan just isn’t funny.
And yes, I recognize that this is about as subjective as a statement can get. Comedy, more than any other art form, seems to be as much about the person hearing the joke as the one telling it. Context matters.
My wife, for example, sat through her entire first viewing of Anchorman (which we both consider one of the funniest movies ever) and didn’t laugh once. It just so happens that I had made a stupidly insensitive comment right before we left to go see the movie, and she wouldn’t have found anything funny during that couple of hours. She thinks the movie is hilarious now, but the whole situation just proves that what’s going on in our brains has as much – if not more – to do with what we find humorous as the people coming up with the jokes.
So what does that mean for me and Jim Gaffigan? I guess it means that something has changed. It means I now find grating a delivery I once found charming. It means that jokes that once felt warm and fully-realized now feel flat and half-baked. What was once engaging is now boring and predictable. What was once funny is… not.
And that’s kind of disorienting, to be honest with you. Because it means that something I thought I knew about myself is suddenly no longer true. It’s like looking in the mirror and finding out my nose is a different size and shape than I remember.
We like to think that, as we get older, our identities – including the kinds of music, movies, books, and jokes we enjoy – get more solid. We like to think we’re immune from the sort of all-of-a-sudden moment that I experienced watching Cinco. And so the reason that suddenly finding Jim Gaffigan not funny bothers me in the first place is that it suggests that, even if it’s only in some small way, that I’m not exactly who I thought I was.
I’d be troubled if I woke up one day and suddenly didn’t like listening to The Beatles or thought the films of Alfred Hitchcock were outdated and hokey. I wouldn’t feel like myself.
And although, to be clear, Jim Gaffigan ain’t exactly The Beatles or Hitchcock, once upon a time he cracked me up, and now he doesn’t.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go think way too hard about what that means.