Comedian Jim Gaffigan knows all the world's a 30-second spot. Jim Gaffigan has a very complex relationship with commercials. See, he's been in a bunch of them -- he was in those Sierra Mist commercials that aired during the 2007 Super Bowl, and before that he talked up Rolling Rock on a bridge, shipped Saturns to Japan and asked audiences at home, "ESPN -- that's like Spanish for 'sports,' right?"
He was also, if you remember that far back, "Energizer Benny," a guy who dressed as the perpetual-motion rabbit, a stand-in should the bunny's battery ever fail. In all of these, you'd swear he was sort of making fun of the product itself. It's clearly Jim Gaffigan, suddenly dumped onto a bridge and given a cooler of Rolling Rock and asked to riff on it. It's hard to tell, in other words, where his self ends and his performance begins.
Figuring this out became harder still after his 2006 comedy album and TV special, "Beyond the Pale," in which he holds forth on the pleasures and perils of Hot Pockets -- a bit that earned him a place in the golden halls of comedy. His rant on Hot Pockets ("It should just come with a roll of toilet paper") seems to come from the same primitive advertising node in the brain as his actual commercial work.
"I used to write commercials, too, which probably explains a lot of it," Gaffigan says by phone from New York. "I mean, that kind of even inspired the Hot Pocket joke. I just thought it was such a weird commercial when they first came out."
And it was the Hot Pocketologue that forever ended his anonymity in those many commercial endeavors. Gaffigan suddenly was known.
If he fears retaliation from the ominous NestlA^ conglomerate, he keeps it hidden beneath his pale-faced poker face. "Well I think secretly they kind of liked that," he says of the rant. "I think the Hot Pocket people know that it's not caviar that they're selling. In fact, I feel like it's kind of free advertising for them."
At 44, Gaffigan has entered that rarified space of comedic success where his bits may reach ears before his name does, where a tour ends with a one-hour special on Comedy Central (such as his current one, the Sexy Tour), where people start analyzing the big ideas behind the jokes.
For Gaffigan, those ideas often revolve around breakfast meats.
"I deal with the hard-hitting issues of bacon and escalators in my act," he says. "I'm not trying to pose as some important social satirist."
But there's something very familiar about his processed-food-loving persona onstage -- why, he could be sitting right next to you on a couch, nestled in pork rinds -- which may be why he tends to be a gentle scold.
"I never want my material to be based on shock or kind of like making someone feel bad," he says. "I know that sounds kind of Pollyanna," but he genuinely does seem to care about where his barbs end up. To that end, he's scrubbed his comedy of profanity, though that doesn't mean he's not going to tackle things like, you know, religion.
"My religion material is really more about me being a lazy guy -- the lazy guy's perspective on religion," he says. "Probably most of my e-mails are from Christians or Mormons -- and I suppose Mormons are Christians; I don't want to get anybody pissed off -- saying that they like it, that it's not the whole unbeliever kind of thing, if that makes sense.
"I kind of love the challenge of taking a topic that might make someone uncomfortable, but there is a big tension relief in that; you know, nobody gets hurt," he continues. "And hopefully, you know, it appeals to secular people as well as Christians. But you're also talking to a guy who talks about bacon for six minutes, where you know after two minutes people are like A®all right.' So it is kind of a strange kind of balance."
And though he may be unable to get through even one full quote without speaking of the Church of the Other White Meat, Gaffigan does venture into other territories occasionally. He co-stars on the TBS series "My Boys," now in its second season, appears in Mike Myers' tragically unfunny "The Love Guru" and produces "Pale Force," a series of recurring animated shorts on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Which is a long way from playing Handcuff-Removing Soldier in 1999's "Three Kings." But if you're doing it all, there's no telling which version of you achieves recognition.
"You have no control over how you're perceived," Gaffigan says. "I mean prior to my last hour special, I think a lot of people kind of knew me as an actor who did stand-up, and now I'm kind of like the stand-up who does acting."
And while he may have no control over people's perception of him, he does what he can to shape it. Gaffigan invariably interjects falsetto commentary on his act -- in the middle of the act. "It's always kind of been an aspect of my personality," he says. "I am a slow-talking Midwesterner. Being in New York, where people are loud and fast, it's like one of those things where almost whispering kind of caught people's attention."
Onstage, he speaks for the audience, and it's like those commercials all over again. He's making fun of the product, except that now, the product is him.
"It's a weird thing, but you know, it's like me just trying to understand it," he says. "I guess there's a lot of voices in my head." S
Jim Gaffigan's the Sexy Tour comes to the Landmark Theater on Friday, July 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39.75. Call 646-4213 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.