Jim Gaffigan is Catholic. As he wryly informs us, his wife is “Shiite Catholic.” Does that make his new book, Dad Is Fat, Catholic? Is he, as the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein put it, “the Catholic Church’s newest evangelizer”? Boorstein seems to want to say yes, although Gaffigan’s style is more subtle than most people would associate with the word “evangelism.” After all, you won’t hear “Christ, and him crucified” in so many words from Gaffigan.
Sometimes, however, evangelism can have a very different meaning. In modern America, most people have a certain view of devout Catholics—they’re either recent immigrants who will assimilate away from the Church, or they’re repressed weirdos with strange ideas about sex who probably hate all sorts of people (women, gays, Muslims, etc.). In any case, they can’t possibly be happy and well-adjusted.
And yet, there’s Gaffigan. He’s open about being Catholic, although he’s no Catechism-thumper (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). He has what many people—especially his neighbors in the Bowery in Manhattan—would consider an unimaginably large family (five kids!) and, while he seems tired, he also clearly thinks the kids are worth it. He has a lovely wife who is very attentive to the kids, but apparently neither he nor she thinks marriage and family detract from the enjoyment of life. In fact, he seems pretty happy and not nearly as neurotic as most of the other comics you’ll see doing specials on Comedy Central. In fact, despite his acquisition of fame, he seems pretty normal. The thought may even begin to creep in: maybe he’s happy because of all the weird stuff that look like trappings of his kooky religion. And once that thought’s present, it’s not too far away from the thought: maybe it’s not so kooky after all.
That being said, most of Gaffigan’s comedy is not about the Catholic faith. As a matter of fact, he never seems terribly interested in making Catholicism a subject of his comedy, except for the occasional joke about how long Mass is or that Catholics have guilt. That’s why his stand-up and his new book, Dad is Fat, are so deliciously subversive. The things that keep people out of the pews these days are not usually disagreements with the Church about the Trinity or about the role of Mary in the economy of salvation. Usually, it’s because they think the Church is some combination of outdated and unjust (Catholics hate sex, women, gays, Republicans, Democrats, etc.). And nowhere is the Church more outdated (apparently) or unjust (seemingly) than in the area of family life. And nowhere is Gaffigan’s comedy more supportive of the Church’s mission to contemporary America than when he is talking about his wife, his kids, and how happy they’ve made him.
There’s no secret that fatherhood is in trouble in America. The statistics show it and the canaries in the cultural coal mine—like movies and TV shows—show it. Now, obviously, fatherhood has been declining in America for a long time. Another comedian, Bill Cosby, wrote a book on Fatherhood, too. Cosby is hilarious and he’s done a lot in his time to try to shore up fatherhood, especially in the black community. But reading Fatherhood now is striking for two reasons: first, Cosby’s book fairly drips with social consciousness, so much so that it almost detracts from the laughs, right down to the earnest essays on The Importance of Fatherhood by Noted Psychologist Alvin Poussaint, MD, which bookend Cosby’s humorous take on the subject. Gaffigan’s touch is much lighter. Second, the cultural crisis of fatherhood looks somewhat different today than it did when Cosby wrote his book. Either the problems Cosby notes are much more advanced now than they were in 1986, like the lack of interest in fatherhood among American men, or there are new problems: most notably, the widespread refusal of many American men to shoulder much responsibility for anything outside of their immediate gratification.
The slacker male who shows up in Judd Apatow movies is a real problem: this guy isn’t only unable to take on the burden of fatherhood, he can’t even stir his stumps away from the Xbox and his folks’ basement. It’s no surprise, really. These are the children of divorce who grew up thinking fathers were basically like Homer Simpson: lazy, hen-pecked (in his own estimation), self-interested, absent to his children, neglectful of his wife, and completely ineffective around the house.
Here’s the great thing about Gaffigan: he’s a recovering slacker male. He explains, “Getting married and becoming the father of young children has taught me that I am a narcissist. The good news is that I am a really great, really important, and really special narcissist. I lived my life as a single man, and even for a few years into parenthood, just looking out for number one.” As a result, he says, “My perceived needs were all-important. When it came to my career, relationship, or taking the last piece of pizza, I was only thinking about myself. And, of course, the pizza.” But marriage and children change you. Your wife and kids draw you out of yourself. Your own needs and desires are subordinated to the needs of the family.
From the outside, that looks like the end of fun. Gaffigan amusingly describes the way his single friends react when they find out he has kids: “I watch the faces of single people in their twenties after I bring up that I ‘have children.’ I imagine them taking a small step backward as if to avoid contagion, with a look of ‘Sorry to hear that’ on their face. Like I naively volunteered to contract leprosy, forever quarantining myself from the world of having fun by having children.” For these people and for pre-marital Gaffigan, children are like the end of the world, except less exciting. The magic of Gaffigan’s book is how it shows that not only is this perception not true, but that his kids have made him far happier and a better person to boot.
To the typical American male, fatherhood seems like a death sentence. In one of the more direct passages of the book, Gaffigan addresses the average Joe directly, answering the question he gets often: why have so many children? “Well, why not? I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart. I would trade money, sleep, or hair for a smile from one of my children in a heartbeat. Well, it depends on how much hair.” In other words, what else am I doing with my time? How could I think that anything could be better than being a dad (even a fat dad)?
The question is also acute for women, maybe even more acute for women. Now, Gaffigan’s book can be read by women and women will find it funny and insightful. But even when he speaks about women, it always seems to be with an eye toward men as his addressees. When women have babies, of course, they lose time working on their careers and, at least to some degree and temporarily, they lose their good looks. What could be more valuable to a slacker male than a women who is hot and can pay for his Xbox Live subscription? Why would he want to give that up? Why would the woman in question? But the question doesn’t penetrate very deeply, not even getting to the point of asking the obvious follow-up question: well, why did my mother have me? Why did she think I was worth it? Aren’t I good? Aren’t people good? Don’t we want more of them around? Aren’t babies cute and loveable? And maybe even more interesting, at least sometimes, than Halo 4?
It is the very loveableness and goodness of children than make men better. Gaffigan seems in awe of his kids, as well as frustrated and driven up various walls by them, and it is responding to their needs that have made him less selfish. The sweetest and the most important parts of the book, however, are reserved for his wife, Jeannie. Obviously, it takes two to tango: there are no kids without the mommy and the daddy. And pre-Jeannie Jim did not seem, even to himself, a particularly viable prospect as a dad, or even as a husband capable of living with one woman for his whole life. His love for Jeannie is the prod he needs to shake off the languor of slackerdom. Interestingly, that love is not a love confined to Jeannie’s looks or to romance. Instead, he notices, “For the first time in my life, I felt like I could spend the rest of my life with someone. Heck, I could even have a child with this person.” Jim’s love for Jeannie extends to the desire to spend his life with her and, almost inexorably, to children.
That brings up perhaps the most subversive part of the book: how Jim views Jeannie. Their marriage is not Leave it to Beaver-land. As a matter of fact, he gently criticizes his own father for embodying Ward Cleaver’s distance from his kids (while not having much of Ward’s wisdom). Jim and Jeannie’s marriage is clearly very modern. They share duties around the house, with Jim being responsible for the occasional trips to the park, birthday parties, picking up kids from school, etc. Meanwhile Jeannie maintains a busy professional life, editing Jim’s writing, brainstorming for his stand-up jokes, and producing his TV specials. Nevertheless, when Jim expresses the most amazement about Jeannie, it tends to be about her abilities and temperament as grounded in her femininity and womanhood. He cribs a line from his stand-up routines at one point, writing:
But truly, women are amazing. Think about it this way: a woman can grow a baby inside her body. Then a woman can deliver the baby through her body. Then, by some miracle, a woman can feed a baby with her body. When you compare that to a male’s contribution to life, it’s kind of embarrassing, really. The father is always like, “Hey, I helped, too. For like five seconds. Doing the one thing I think about twenty-four hours a day. Well, enjoy your morning sickness—I’m going to eat this chili. Mmmm, smell those onions.”
It’s almost as if Jim’s love for Jeannie has something to do with sexual complementarity! It’s almost as though sexual difference is what draws men and women together! The very things that generations of radical feminists have decried as the biological and social bases of women’s oppression are what Jim finds amazing about Jeannie and, mirabile dictu, what Jeannie seems to glory in as well. Yet Jim and Jeannie would probably dare you to say she’s not a successful, liberated woman. After all, as Jim says later in the book, they’re happy, and, “Being happy is really the definition of success, isn’t it?” Even the common opinion about women losing their looks when they have kids gets a second look from married, father-of-five Jim: “When you see a gorgeous woman, and then you find out she’s had a bunch of kids, doesn’t it make her like a hundred times hotter?”
The last thing to be said about Dad is Fat is that it’s funny: really, uproariously funny. Even so, laughs per minute don’t necessarily mean that the comedian is a good comedian. So many comedians depend on the anxious laughter of blasphemy, the uncomfortable laughter of gross-out jokes, or the nervous laughter of speaking about sex out in the open. These are ways to get cheap laughs and oftentimes obscure the fact that the comedian just isn’t very good. Gaffigan’s humor is different, based on real insights into how ridiculous human beings often are. But even as he skewers, Gaffigan never descends into cynicism; he’s always affectionate, even when he’s frustrated or even affronted. He does, however, shy away from the “family-friendly” label even though he’s known as a “clean” comedian. After all, “As a parent, I know ‘family-friendly’ is really just a synonym for bad. Family-friendly restaurants serve horrible food. Family-friendly hotels have the charm of a water park. Really, anything with the word family before it is bad. Have you been in a ‘family restroom’? They always seem like they should be connected to a gas station.”
Gaffigan would probably be the last person to argue that he’s some kind of evangelist. That’s not really what he’s trying to do. Just like a good novelist, a good comedian has to avoid being didactic. Gaffigan’s comedy doesn’t flow directly from a desire to make disciples of all nations. Instead, his comedy expresses what he sees. What strikes him as funny is without a doubt shaped by who he is as a man, as a husband, as a father, and, yes, as a Catholic. The world does still need missionaries, Francis Xavier types; but it’s also good there are Jim Gaffigans out there. He may not mean to point out how absurd the objections to the Church’s support of marriage, fatherhood, and big families are or, by implication, how wise the Church’s teaching is that fatherhood is a vocation that fulfills men and makes them happy. At the same time, he can’t seem to help it and, while having kids might not be contagious, Gaffigan’s obvious joy in being a father certainly is.
Dad Is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan
Crown Archetype, 2013