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How Jim Gaffigan Turned His Wife’s Brain Tumor Into Comedy

”People know that I would only joke about the brain tumor if everything was okay,“ Gaffigan told TheWrap

Six stand-up specials into his career, Jim Gaffigan has developed “a certain level of trust” with his audience. He opens his new hour “Noble Ape” with material about how his wife Jeannie developed and underwent surgery on a brain tumor in 2017.

But before you get scared, she’s recovered nicely. And on stage, Gaffigan takes the news completely in stride, giving his signature clean comedy perspective on how the real casualty of this whole ordeal is that now he can never win another argument ever.

“People know that I would only joke about the brain tumor if everything was okay,” Gaffigan told TheWrap. “People in the audience are pretty confident we’re not going to find out that I was highly insensitive to the situation. It’s kind of like that I joke about my kids. The fact that there’s general knowledge that I’m an involved father makes it okay for me to joke about putting them up for adoption. If my social media wasn’t filled with social media of me traveling with my children, that might be less funny.”

But Gaffigan certainly wasn’t always in good spirits. When he first learned that his wife had a brain tumor, he called Patton Oswalt, whose wife Michelle McNamara passed away and became the subject of Oswalt’s most recent stand-up special, to ask for advice.

“I’m not that close to Patton, but I called him, and was like, look, it did not look good for a couple of days. What am I going to do,” Gaffigan said. “He said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ He was very supportive.”

Like Oswalt, Gaffigan feels his job is to find a way to be funny in his distinctly personal way. The routine about the brain tumor is just a few minutes in a hilarious hour that includes jokes about the miracles of Japanese toilets, Michael Moore’s wardrobe and an unfortunate trip to the M&M store. Gaffigan’s wife, also his writing partner, came out of the MRI room and immediately had observations at the ready. And he found it hilarious how many of his atheist or agnostic friends, those who had always made fun of him for being a Catholic, called to say they were praying for his family.

“People get a lot of credit or criticism for doing their particular style or point of view of comedy, but it’s kind of like what we do,” Gaffigan said. “Comedians are very serious people, but succumbing to the sincerity or the seriousness of the situation would be kind of the easy way out. You want to entertain people. You assume that you can gain their empathy and make them laugh.”

“Noble Ape,” which is available Friday, July 13 in a limited theatrical run and “on demand and wherever you rent or buy content” via the Comedy Dynamics Network, may not be a departure from Gaffigan’s stage persona. Through acting however, he’s found a way to go to places he wouldn’t on stage, whether it’s playing a less-than-upstanding father in the indie comedy “You Can Choose Your Family,” or even cursing as lawyer Paul Markham in this year’s “Chappaquiddick.”

Today, many stand-up comedians turn to auteur-driven TV shows, directing or movie stardom to bolster their fame. Gaffigan is thrilled to have so many acting opportunities, but doesn’t consider them “necessary” to his career.

“I think we live in this day and age where, everyone who comes to my show, I don’t think they’re coming because of anything I’ve done on television,” Gaffigan said. The acting opportunities that I’m getting now, I don’t have any expectations that they will help my stand-up career.”

Gaffigan is currently performing shows overseas, finishing up a vacation in Donegal, Ireland and then performing in London. And even abroad, he’s found the same trust in his audience to open up about his wife’s tumor and his personal experience.

“We all have this tragedy that we’ve dealt with in our lives. It’s familiar to people, because we’ve all been in those moments of panic or sadness, so that stuff works pretty much anywhere,” Gaffigan said.

Find a list of theaters playing “Noble Ape” starting Friday here.