Jim Gaffigan on Exploring Different Cultures for His Amazon Comedy Special ‘The Pale Tourist’
There may be over seven billion people on Earth, but renowned American actor and comedian Jim Gaffigan has set out to make the world a smaller place, bringing people together through comedy in his 2-part comedy special “Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist.” Filmed in Ontario and Barcelona, “The Pale Tourist” features Gaffigan’s unique but universal brand of observational humor along with jokes tailored to both countries.
Before each show, Gaffigan immersed himself in the host country, not just visiting the sites, but also meeting the people and sampling food and drink. In Canada, he not only makes the usual jokes about the cold weather and the Canadians love of the chain coffee shop Tim Horton’s, but he also finds humor in their fascinating history that is often overlooked by their neighbors to the south. Gaffigan also delightfully pokes fun at lighter things, such as our different palettes. Apparently, a cocktail containing clam broth, the Cesar, is a hit up north.
Part two, “Spain,” finds Gaffigan in more foreign territory, but he easily wins over the audience and viewer with his jokes about their national pastime, bullfighting, drawing hilarious comparisons to the American rodeo. He also sheds light on some lesser known aspects of Spanish culture, detailing his reaction to defecating statues and an unusual Christmas custom involving a mythical log. Throughout it all, Gaffigan is careful to never come off condescending or mocking, and he wins over his audiences of locals and expats by finding common ground and making himself the butt of most of his jokes.
Gaffigan recently sat down and talked “The Pale Tourist” with Entertainment Voice via Zoom, discussing his creative process, finding inspiration in other cultures, his love of international traveling, and why performing never feels like work to him
What inspired the concept of “The Pale Tourist”?
I’d just finished “Quality Time,” and I had this Asian tour planned. Some of the shows were with my family, and some of them I was solo. I got done with doing ten shows in three weeks, and I realized I had 20, 25 minutes of material, so I recorded — not super high-end, but I threw it on my YouTube. It inspired me to do a special just about a specific geographical area, or a certain country, so that inspired me to do Canada and Spain. Then I was going to do Mexico and Latin America, but the pandemic hit.
Americans poke fun at Canada a lot, and vice versa, and a lot of comedians from over there are popular in the States. However, Spain isn’t typically a country most of us here think of when one thinks of comedy. How did you end up there?
My daughter had a school trip there — this was a couple years ago, maybe three years ago — that had coincided with spring break. I went there to meet her so that we could meet up with my family. She was 14 at the time. I did a show in Barcelona, just kind of pulled one together, and ended up coming up with some material about Spain. Not a lot; it was mostly about what happened to the gold. So, when I got done with the Asian tour, I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll do it in Spain.’
I’d love to do it in India; I’d love to do it in the Middle East. Particularly for someone who loves to travel — I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to travel again — It’s very appealing.
You’ve said Canadians view Donald Trump as an exaggerated version of the typical American. A lot of people from other countries perceive us more or less the same way. During your travels, did you ever find yourself having to go out of your way to prove that you’re one of the “good ones”?
I’ve always traveled internationally. I haven’t always done stand-up internationally. Even during the Iraq War and the W. administration — during W., I felt like I encountered more anger towards the Americans, or disappointment, than with Trump. I always feel like, with Trump, I encountered more pity. ‘Obviously, you’re not one of the people.’ There was a great assumption that I didn’t participate in voting for Trump.
You tell jokes specific to Canada and Spain while also tapping into universal topics, like parenting. Did you have issues with any of your jokes getting lost in translation?
There’s a lot of risks in doing these international shows… The countries are always appreciative of you doing the research and having some knowledge, but every country and culture has things that they’re sensitive about. You have to navigate that. In Spain, you can bring up the Spanish Civil War, but it’s a very sensitive topic. It’s probably more of a sensitive topic with their grandparents than with people under 50.
There’s a lot of lazy stereotypes about Canadians, so you have to communicate to them that you’re not dealing with lazy stereotypes. I remember about a year ago, I did a show in Canada where I talked about this Cesar drink, and the host got very defensive. My point of view didn’t change, but I didn’t realize it was something that was a source of pride for some Canadians. I thought it was just a drink.
Different cultures find humor in different things, but social media and the internet in general has made the world a smaller place. How do you feel this has impacted comedy?
I have an advantage. People who are coming to a show, if I’m doing one in Barcelona or Vancouver, they know my sense of humor. They know that I’m, hopefully, not a total idiot. They also know that I’m not somebody who peddles in irreverence or “us and them” comedy. So, I think I’m given some leeway with some of the jokes that I say.
I think the internet has made it where people have been exposed to stand-up. I have been posting clips to Instagram and YouTube. During the pandemic, I have been posting everyday on YouTube. So, I think social media is educating people to different sensibilities. That’s helped me a lot.
You devote time in both specials discussing regional cuisine, describing in detail some dishes that sound mostly delicious, yet pretty fattening. Why do you think Americans have been saddled with the reputation of being unhealthy eaters?
That’s a great premise, because the irony is that Americans, we’re known as these gluttonous slobs, but, when you think about it, French fries and mayonnaise, that’s the French and the Belgians. And poutine, it sounds like an American dish. The donair, which is kind of like a gyro, it’s very much drunk food that Americans would eat, but I think because we do it more often, we’re more associated with it. But all the white trash food is French. There is some humor in it.
You also find humor in history, which led me to research certain subjects you touched on, such as Acadia. Did you always intend for your special to inspire intellectual curiosity?
I shot this movie in Montreal, and the whole crew was Quebecois, so everyone was French-speaking. That’s where I learned a little bit about Acadians. But some of it is similar to the U.S. There’s regional differences. Just like there’s different parts of Michigan, there’s different parts of Canada. When I was in the Maritimes, I learned more about the Maritimes and the Acadians. It was fascinating. There was an inherent joke. There’s material in there, but some of it is tragic. It’s a very tragic story of how the Acadians were treated. If you bring them up in the Maritimes, if you’re in New Brunswick and you have knowledge about the Acadians, they appreciate it, even if they’re not French-speaking New Brunswick people.
“The Pale Tourist” made me think of “Comedians of the World,” the Netflix stand-up series that showcased comics from various countries. During your travels, did you come across any international comedians whom you feel we should know about?
There’s tons. Some of them perform in their native tongue. I remember I was flying to Portugal from, I think, Vienna, and there was a Brazilian guy — I was on the Portugese airline — and he had, like, two specials. Obviously, in Portugal, they speak Portugese, and in Brazil they speak Portugese. He’s the Seinfeld or Dave Chappelle of the Portugese-speaking world. I can’t think of his name.
But, yeah, in every culture, there’s amazing comedians. It’s fun to do shows, because sometimes they’ll come to see me perform. There are huge comedy communities, and, also, huge English-speaking comedy communities throughout the world, like in Asia. There’s a huge comedy scene in Hong Kong and in Shanghai. It’s really fascinating.
Once it’s safe to travel again, where would you like to visit next?
I was supposed to do either Latin American or Mexican American, one or possibly both of those specials for “Pale Tourist.” So, I would probably want to finish that, but I love international travel. It’s easier to come up with material when you’re exposed to a different culture, and when you’re exposed to a different culture, there’s a mirror held up to your own culture.
I loved being in Spain and wandering around and doing a touristy thing, and then taking a nap, and then going and eating something, and then seeing some other touristy thing. That’s something that I really enjoy. I loved to do that in India, in the Middle East.
You had eight movies released last year alone and you’re a parent to five children. How do you balance everything?
Performing doesn’t feel like work, really. There might be moments where I’m not in the mood for it, but I love acting and doing stand-up. I would rather do stand-up than sit on a beach. I would rather do research or write stand-up or act in a movie than do some kind of relaxing thing. So, if I’m doing stand-up or acting and spending time with my family, I’m good.
“Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist” begins streaming July 24 on Amazon Prime Video.