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Jim Gaffigan on ‘Comedy Monster’ and SXSW Movie ‘Linoleum’: ‘The Only Measuring Stick That Matters Is Funny’

Jim Gaffigan Talks Netflix Comedy Special,

Jim Gaffigan has had a very busy pandemic. The fruits of his COVID-era labors are on display recently in two distinctive projects that illustrate the size and scope of his ambitions.

First, there’s his recently released special “Comedy Monster,” a filmed version of his stand-up act that quickly became a ratings juggernaut for Netflix (more on that later).

Then there’s “Linoleum,” an off-beat dramedy that premieres March 12 at SXSW and showcases a much more understated Gaffigan doing double duty, playing both a children’s TV host named Cameron and a charming NASA scientist called Kent. Both projects were conceived and shot as the world was grappling with its new masked reality. It’s proof that Gaffigan isn’t just a master of “guy-next-door humor;” he’s got some impressive range as an actor, too. Mastering the roles required Gaffigan to bone up on his physics and chemistry. Cameron’s program is a much lower-budgeted version of the kind of show that turned Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson into small-screen staples.

“I had to acquire an enthusiasm for science,” says Gaffigan. “It’s not that I found it boring, just overwhelming. I’m dumb is essentially what I’m saying.”

To distinguish between the two roles, Gaffigan drew on a personal source of inspiration. “I didn’t want to do an imitation of Bill Nye or anything,” Gaffigan says. “I felt like Cameron was from a different era, so I adopted a little bit of the machismo my dad might have had. Kent was like a much more confident version of myself.”

Filming presented other challenges. “Linoleum,” which co-stars “Better Call Saul’s” Rhea Seehorn, was shot in 2020 before vaccines were widely available.

“I was mostly concerned about bringing it home,” says Gaffigan. “My wife is high risk. Now we’re all double-vaxxed and boosted, but this was a very different time. It was a weird atmosphere because we all had to stay in a bubble. We didn’t want any of the cast or crew to go to bars, so I was always like, ‘here I’ll buy the beer.’ It didn’t matter to me, because I have no life anyway, but it was kind of a big sacrifice for people when they had their days off and they couldn’t do anything.”

“Comedy Monster,” which began streaming on Netflix in December, looks back at those crazy times and finds the funny side of the dumpster fire that’s been the past two years. In it, Gaffigan tackles everything from the endless array of variants that keep complicating things to the new class of billionaire astronauts that have cropped up as of late. There’s even a detour into the conspiracy culture that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, dark material for a comedian who has a reputation for being, if not exactly wholesome, then family-friendly adjacent.

“A lot of my friends and family members who were embracing conspiracy theories had been some of my more entertaining friends, and they slipped into destructive conspiracies,” says Gaffigan. “It is rather tragic, but we also have to laugh and acknowledge it.”

Initially, Gaffigan wasn’t sure he would be taking on the pandemic so directly when he returned to the stage.

“I had an expectation that people would not want to hear about COVID, but as I went back out last summer I discovered that people kind of needed to digest what had happened in a group setting,” says Gaffigan. “It was very different with Trump, because during the initial years of his presidency, I didn’t think the audience wanted to hear anything about him, because they were consuming it on the news all the time. Also, I normally don’t do topical material, partly because I’m too lazy. I don’t want to come up with material that I can’t use for a long time. But the pandemic has become evergreen. Even if it disappeared tomorrow we’d still reach in our pocket and find a mask.”

The approach worked. “Comedy Monster” wasn’t just a hit, it was one of the most-watched shows on Netflix. For the first 28 days of its release, the show was the fourth most-watched comedy special in 2020 and 2021 with 5.5 million views, behind only “Dave Chapelle: The Closer,” “Kevin Hart: Zero F**ks Given” and “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill.” That’s in front of popular specials from the likes of Pete Davidson and George Lopez. For all comedy specials in 2021 and 2022, Gaffigan’s latest was the third most-watched comedy special with 6.1 million views. That was just behind Chapelle’s most recent show and “Bo Burnham: Inside.”

“I was surprised it was so popular,” Gaffigan confesses. “I was always frightened by the [Netflix] algorithm, because I have this reputation as a ‘clean comedian,’ which carries a lot of baggage. I believed that all adults and teenagers who are on Netflix are like ‘I’m a big boy’ or ‘I’m a big girl,’ and I want to hear some naughty stuff. When they go to look for adjectives to search for something to watch, they’re not necessarily going to pursue clean.”

While it’s true that Gaffigan steers clear of sexual humor and four-letter words, his comedy has bite. Clean doesn’t really cut it when it comes to a descriptor.

“The reality is you can’t be funny without being a little irreverent or a little shocking,” says Gaffigan. “Any comedian would tell you that the only adjective that they’re going for is funny. Some comedians might want to be rock stars, some might want to be revolutionaries, but the only measuring stick that matters is funny.”