Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is comic Jim Gaffigan the Catholic Church’s newest evangelizer?

Is Jim Gaffigan technically employed by the Catholic Church?

The thought occurred to me in a week during which I saw the awesome Catholic comic speak in person and did some reporting about the church’s major new outreach effort it calls “the new evangelization.”

The sweeping campaign seeks to bring back the many millions of Catholics who have left the church and generally to re-imagine the entire concept of evangelizing, which is more typically associated with, well, evangelical Protestants. The new Catholic version is more subtle, highlighting Catholics who are just living out Catholic teachings and are happy as a result.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan is interviewed by NPR's Scott Simon during a show at the Sixth & I Hiistoric Synagogue. The synagogue has become a multicultural meeting place with concerts, educational opportunities and social events. The building has been there since 1908 but has been through many changes. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
Comedian Jim Gaffigan signed copies of his book this week after being interviewed by NPR at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

Gaffigan seems to effortlessly embody the idea the Catholic Church and other denominations are desperately promoting: You can be a devout member of mainstream American life. You don’t have to leave God in order to live in the regular world. With many Americans bailing on organized religion, the long-popular Christian maxim to “be in the world but not of it” is being argued a bit less strenuously.

Gaffigan literally symbolizes life at the intersection of tradition and hipsterdom. The guy lives with his wife and five children in the Bowery section of Manhattan (doesn’t get a lot hipper than that), from where they walk with their awesome double stroller to church every Sunday.

Listening to Gaffigan at a Tuesday night event at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, I noted that he promotes core teachings, but not explicitly. For example: He talks and writes a lot about having a big family, and you can’t miss the “Catholic” angle, but the way he explains his reasons for baby-making is subtle.

Asked by interviewer Scott Simon of NPR that night to talk a bit about “family life” (code for five kids), Gaffigan said: “I’m Catholic, my wife is Shiite Catholic. There’s no goalie.”
In his new book, “Dad is Fat,” Gaffigan names a full chapter after the three-word response that proved sufficient through his life when people asked him about being one of six children himself: “Six kids (pause), Catholic.”
Honestly I have nothing to compare the big family experience to. I was the youngest of six children. The scrape of the pot. My parents tried their best, but they were exhausted. It was like the last half hour of a brunch buffet. It’s still a great meal, but let’s just say at that point, the guy working the omelet station has lost some of his enthusiasm.
And later in the chapter, he uses fully secular words to express profound – some might say spiritual – reasons for his big family.
Well, why not? I guess the reasons against having more children always seemed 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 … each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.
He talks often about his love for his wife, Jeannie. He praises everything from her looks to the 50-50 partnership they have in writing. At Sixth and I he lobbed another casual religious half-joke: “I’m kind of surprised she’s staying with me, but she’s Catholic.”

Gaffigan spoke about the potential moral questions involved in his work. He noted that his comedy, which constantly touches on his children, takes often him away from them. Someone asked if he would like his children to go into the entertainment business, and he seemed ambivalent, explaining that his own work was a constant push-pull of being overly praised and then squashed.

Am I going overboard? I don’t know that much about Gaffigan, except that he’s known for being noticeably wholesome (no swearing) for one of the country’s most popular comics.

He also hit another sweet spot of American religion – interfaith. He performed (though this wasn’t intentional, his publicist told me) at a downtown synagogue and made a few jokes about how his son was circumcised at their apartment by a lesbian rabbi who hit on Gaffigan’s sister.

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