'Being Frank' Star Jim Gaffigan On Evolving As A Comic And The Genius Of Seinfeld [Interview]

Comedian Jim Gaffigan is so likable on stage that it's always a joy seeing him get mean in a movie. In Miranda Bailey's Being Frank, Gaffigan does away with his charms and stars as a man who's almost always wrong. Gaffigan never tries to sugarcoat or lighten up Frank, a two-faced liar fighting to keep his two families from realizing each other's existence. Frank is, as Gaffigan says, a prick, but the actor still miraculously pulls off a few moments of empathy.

It's another performance that shows more range from Gaffigan, who's very funny as a very unfunny character. Being Frank is only one of the many projects we'll see from the actor-comedian this year, including his upcoming Amazon special and a variety of movies. Three of those movies premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, which is the first of many subjects we covered with Gaffigan. If you want to read the comedian get nerdy about stand up comedy, look no further.

Hey Mr. Gaffigan, how are you doing sir?

Jack, please call me mister sir.

[Laughs] You had many films at Sundance this year. I just read an interview you did at the festival, and it sounded like it was a significant moment in your career. Was Sundance this year especially meaningful for you? 

Well, I loved it, but I've also been in this business long enough to know that you have no control over how things are received, and I know that I just want to get other opportunities to act in good films. That's how I viewed it. Sundance like an independent film kind of ball, you know what I mean? I feel that so much of the entertainment industry is just that scene in the Wizard of Oz where you look behind the curtain, and there is no wizard. It's just that guy from the door. That being said, there's no better place to be with a film than Sundance.

I guess I'm not saying anything that makes sense. I've been at this long enough to know that there isn't some kind of, "Well, now I'm at Sundance, I never have to audition for a film again. Now I just get to pick and choose what I get to work on." What I'm most excited about is that the people that I work with at Sundance will be able to communicate to other filmmakers that I was a good partner and that I added value. In the end, when you're making films, that's what you're looking for, you know.

As you said, you never know how a movie may turn out, and it's out of your hands. Is that ever tough for a comedian? You have full control when you're on stage, but then you have to completely let go when you act. Did that take a while to get used to?

Oh yeah. No, that's a big thing. Generally, particularly with someone with not the greatest self-esteem, you have to get over the fact just seeing yourself. I'm not somebody who spends a lot of time in front of mirrors generally. I would say you got to relinquish control. There's so much control that you give up in the acting world, anyway. It's like the process of getting the job is not something you can control, and then which takes they're going to use, you don't have any control over it. Also, it's very rewarding. It's fun being part of some larger storytelling.

I did one of the films, and the female lead and I, she didn't even go to the screening. She's like, "I'm not going out of my way to see myself act." But there is a certain curiosity on what they're going to do with it. It is so difficult to do a good film. You're friends with these directors and producers, so you're rooting for them. In the end, you want it to succeed. There are times where you're like, wow, that really worked together, and then there are times when it's better than you thought.

How does a role like Frank read to you on the page? He's such a frustrating, not always comically, character, so do you see him as a challenge to play? 

I love the challenge that Frank is kind of a prick. Then, over the course of the film ... For the film to work, maybe you don't like Frank, but you emphasize with his choices or his decision making. That was a very appealing part of the script. Look, I'm thrilled to get acting roles, but it's like, is there real acting involved, or is it just me going in a room and insulting someone? I like comedy, but I've turned stuff down that I think other people would say would help your visibility. I'm not dying to increase my visibility. I'm more interested with each film that film people see it, and hopefully they can go, "Oh, he can do it." Therefore, you have to show other things that you can do. See what I mean?

Absolutely. Plus, I imagine you have the freedom to turn down a lot of roles. If you don't want to do a movie, you can just do a few gigs, right?

Yeah. No, it's very much a... I also have five children. I have to turn to my wife and go, "I'm going to be gone for this amount of time." You know, I'm leaving her with five kids. It has to be worth it. There's no money in acting at my level. She's a creative person so she understands the value of it. I'm not like a single guy that can do everything, you know? It has to make sense because I do travel a lot doing stand up, so it has to be worth the time away.

You've used to performing in front of thousands of people, so when you're in front of a camera and a crew, how does it compare? Are you just naturally comfortable performing on a set? 

I would say there is a different task, but I would also say that there are some skills in stand up that are necessary, that you can utilize in acting. Even if you're in a scene where you can improvise a line or not, there is a level of concentration that you might not need in stand up. Stand up, you've written it, and it's also an ongoing conversation. Whereas in a film, you're servicing a story and the moment. There's a level of concentration that might not be obvious.

Even though you're servicing the story or a moment, do you ever feel like you want to bring some of that showmanship or crowd-pleasing skills from stand up to a role? 

That's interesting. I wouldn't want to say that because I've been asked this many times, and particularly, I think a lot of comedians have a tendency towards... People say, "Oh, I'm going to be with a comedian — whether it's male or female — and it's just going to be hysterical." They're kind of introspective people. There might be moments where we're these exhibitionists, but comedians are to be stripped away. They're probably much more sincere introspective people that would work better in a dramatic setting. I don't know if that sounds like I'm kind of twisting a scenario.

I think that's been proven by many comedians. 

I think that comedians with comedy, you're kind of relieving tension, but there's also something fun about sitting in a moment of awkwardness that you're allowed to do in a drama that, or in a dramatic scene, that in a straight or screwball comedy, you're not afforded that. Or, it seems kind of awkward or kind of iffy in some situations. If I was really sincere on stage during my stand up, it feels like emotional manipulation. As a comedian, I'm supposed to be funny and make people laugh.

Did you see Neal Brennan's Three Mics? I thought he balanced sincere, personal stories well with his bits and more comedic stories. 

Yeah. No, it's different things for different comedians. Seinfeld, in talking to Jerry, he's like, everything in a comedy special that is not comedy is easier than writing a joke. In other words, it's like what Hannah Gadsby does, what she said in her special is really impressive. It's probably harder to write a joke, a good joke. In the end, I'm kind of a comedy absolutest. The showman stuff varies, but it is also, whether you like Richard Pryor or not, from the top to the end of the special, it's funny.

If there is something sincere, it serves as backstory rather than a cornerstone of a 10 minute period. Sincerity is used to set up the comedy. I don't know. I can totally nerd out because the British have much more of, like, stand up and one person show melds together. If I'm going to see Chris Rock, he can educate me on things, but I want the fun.

I forget which comedian said it, but they thought telling a dramatic story about something painful is a lot easier than a comedic story because you already have empathy from the audience, and you don't have to win them over with real laughs. 

Yeah, no, I think it's ... By the way, I'm not saying one way is better than the other. It's just different. Look, I'm a comedian who is clean and sometimes people associate that word with morality. I would be the first one to defend someone's right to say whatever they want. Essentially, you're talking about my brothers and sisters, you know what I mean? I'm going to defend them, even if I disagree with them. I'm going to defend their rights to kind of do whatever they do.

I thought your last special, Noble Ape, was great, by the way. You're always looking to evolve as a comedian, so how have you wanted to evolve with your most recent stand up? 

You know, here's the thing is that standup comedy is very much, is self-assignment. I have this friend of mine, Todd Glass, and when you get comedians together, they talk a lot about comedy philosophy. One of the things that Todd Glass and I always talk about is that there's a responsibility similar to a friendship. You want your friend to tell you when you're being out of line. You want your friend to challenge you. Even though you might sit there and go, oh my gosh, this one friend, all we talk about is the same thing, or like we have the same memories. The reality is, you have to evolve. You have to use that shared experience to build on it.

Like [my] Philadelphia story [from Noble Ape], that's like, all right I'm going to tell a story, I want to tell a story. People that come to my shows are not thinking, when's Jim going to tell a story? The audience doesn't necessarily want to hear me bring up new realities that we all deal with, like hospitals in our lives, and medical crisis, and in some way,s we don't want to hear about it. There's also, I believe, a shared kind of acknowledgment of how lost we all feel in that kind of scenario.

That's where the whole challenging your audience is similar to how some of your closer friends will challenge you on your beliefs. When you do jokes that challenge your audience or have conversations where you challenge your friends, it makes your relationship evolve. I mean, that's some of my philosophy. It's like, should I just do jokes about food the rest of my life? Possibly, but wouldn't be that fulfilling for me, and it also probably wouldn't be that fulfilling for some audience members.

What if it was still funny to you, though? I mean, I like that Jerry Seinfeld has used the same material for a long time because he thinks the jokes work. 

Here's my thing. Hopefully, it's okay for me to get all nerdy on you.

Please do. 

The thing about Seinfeld which is so impressive is Jerry Seinfeld is 65 years old. Being a great comedian is not just creating material. You know, George Carlin created tons of material, but it's also the evergreen nature of it. The most impressive thing about Jerry Seinfeld, whether you've heard these jokes he's done for a while, what I would say is he's expanding the materials. His chunks aren't very long. They're four or five minutes on a certain topic.

I think the most impressive thing is that Jerry Seinfeld is 65 years old. Granted he is famous, but what's amazing is that he kills today after he gets the applause because of Comedians in Cars, Seinfeld, and Bee Movie and all that. He kills consistently, at the age of 65, that he did when he was 40, so he's spanning different decades.

Like, Bill Hicks is a genius. When we watch Bill Hicks' material if feels homophobic at times, it feels mean. The thing is, what Jerry has done and subtly over years, because we've become much more of a voyeuristic and an exhibitionist culture, is the Jerry of the 70s, of the 80s, provided no information about his life. He's provided more autobiographical point of views stuff. He would hate me for saying this, but you can just be observational like in the 80s, but in this day and age you have to, and maybe it's a result of the Kardashians or whatever, but you have to open up a little bit. Jerry is much more open than he was in the 80s, but that's just me being a nerd.

It's a good point. There are weird expectations now for people to bare all, especially in comedy. 

Yeah, and by the way, then it shifts again. It's going to shift. We're dealing with this era of where there is, you know, some people view it as censorship, some people view it as a greater level of enlightenment. I mean, it doesn't really affect me because my comedy is not constructed on a flame thrower.

I also think that there's nothing wrong with tweaking words so that they don't piss someone off or make someone feel bad. I would hope that I would be like that no matter what. In the same thing, I would defend the comedian's right to not be censored. If I had two friends sitting next to me right now, one of them would agree with what I'm saying, and the other one would be like, you know, there is this wave of censorship that is kind of consuming comedy. I don't necessarily agree with that.

I don't think it's consuming it either. These conversations mostly happen online, and almost everybody who goes to comedy clubs still enjoys regressive humor. Do you think the conversation just seems louder than it is because it's on the Internet? 

I think that there's, you know, tone and point of view are not something that necessarily comes across [online]. There's anonymity of the Internet, and there's an equality on the Internet. We might see a topic trending in New York that you're like, oh wow, that's a big issue. When you break it down, maybe 3,000 people are talking about it out of 260 million. It's not necessarily a true representation.

I think that, yeah, you can slice and dice a lot of things, and find things problematic when it might not be. I remember even in the 90s there were these 80s comics that couldn't make the shift to the new decade. What they were saying is no longer true. In a lot of ways, it comes back to authenticity, and that concept of authenticity is constantly changing and being reevaluated. Even what we consider the concept of liberty today, is different from what it was 10 years ago.

Even though your humor usually takes your mind off the horrors of the world, how much do you consider how times are constantly changing in your work? 

Here's what I would say, you're talking about like the 800 pound Trump, right?

He's a part of it, sure. 

I would say that comedians get ... There are certain topics that are in their wheelhouse. Usually, they fit their personality. With that being said, look, I love the news. I'm very involved with everything that's going on, but it doesn't necessarily fit for me to discuss some of this stuff. Some of it is, other people do it better. Specifically the Trump thing, there was the time, like after his election where I thought, I'm probably going to have to talk about this. I saw this trend where there was fatigue on both sides of it, like, I just want to come here and not hear about the news. Do you know what I mean? It's not sticking your head in the sand, it's like why we go to movies, to escape a little bit.

I do think that there are people that are really good at it, but I almost feel, particularly in this day and age, you're not going to change someone's mind by jokes. I just don't think you're going to. Honestly, it's not something I would do, but I would also see in clubs that the audience would just be like, okay, I don't want to think about this for 10 minutes.


Being Frank opens in theaters June 14.