What Jim Gaffigan Taught Me About Communication

Jim Gaffigan poster

Jim Gaffigan in San Francisco

Jim Gaffigan makes me laugh out loud.

Janet and I went to see Gaffigan last week at the Masonic in San Francisco. This was the first live comedy show by a major artists I’ve ever attended in person. I was not not disappointed.

But I did more than just laugh. Gaffigan put on a communication clinic using humor. He schooled me. And here is some of what I learned:

1. Talk about what you know.

Jim Gaffigan’s comic persona is a clueless man tormented by life who will tell anyone willing to listen. This is his metanarrative.

His tone and manner suggest we could just as easily be sitting at a bistro table as in a concert hall. And the jokes themselves are drawn from everyday life, describing things like the exhaustion of raising five children, the tortrue of airline travel, and the rigors of a long-term marriage.

He executes this material beautifully because he owns it. Refining the jokes for years on the road certainly doesn’t hurt. But when he says, “I have five children….The bidding starts at $50,” he’s not joking about being a dad. He is one.

Gaffigan models the principle that my talks need an address somewhere in my life. After all, if my ideas don’t relate to my own experience, and don’t even work for me, why should anyone else consider them?

Presentations deeply rooted in the presenter’s experience offer the audience a “backstage pass.” The music seems sweeter when you’ve met the band, and a talk feels more believable when I can sense real life behind it.

Talking about what I know also enhances my content and delivery. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” So true. Being a docent for my own life is so much easier than hoping my memory holds up while unpacking “19 Ways to Achieve Financial Security.”

Longer talks on more abstract subjects serve an important function. But there is a reason why  TED presenters give the speech that springs most naturally from their own accomplishments

2. Be for something by being against it.

As a Christian preacher I was trained to make a case for the teachings of the Bible every Sunday. If my talks didn’t seem to land, the only recourse was to double down.

So the way to make an idea land was to support it with a “kitchen sink” of arguments, illustrations and statistics. Gaffigan demonstrateds something very different.

Almost all of his jokes attack the very things in life he loves the most. He laments that his wife incessantly critiques his handling of the remote control, while bragging that he contributes only 10% of the parenting effort.

That’s how I know he loves his family. Because he complains about them constantly. So constantly, the audience gets that his bond is deep enough to survive a relentless pounding in front of millions of strangers. That’s love.

So sometimes I can make a point by suggesting alternative or even opposite ways of looking at it. If I present a sermon on the resurrection of Jesus, for example, I could ask how Christian claims about it differ from the claims of alien abduction “victims”?

Telegraphing to the audience that I’m not threatened by a question like that can only help.

A contrarian approach isn’t a substitute for presenting the truth as I see it, but it can be a powerful complement. It tells the audience that I am bigger than my talk, and aware that life and tRuth are complicated.

A disarmed audience is more likely to be open to receiving that truth. And more likely to enjoy the way I present it.

3. Use weakness as strength.

“I’m a fat guy.”

If Gaffigan has a mantra, that would be it. The first quarter of his show is devoted to his issues with weight and exercise.

This material surprises, especially in San Francisco where 2% body fat is d’rigeur. But it proves he is not afraid of us. So he plunges into a full-on assault on running, hiking and every other form of exercise, summarized in a one-word challenge: “Why?”

Gaffigan is counter-cultural. Instead of insinuating the perfection of his personal brand, he focuses on its flaws. This self-mocking engenders a perverse respect for the comedian: a guy who speaks openly about his less impressive traits must have courage and integrity on some level.

And the audience embraces it. The radical idea that vulnerability is acceptable wins over the crowd in a way that jokes cannot. If Gaffigan can be a “fat guy” maybe It’s OK for me to be imperfect. And then maybe I need to re-think all the ways I critique other people on the basis of their imperfections. He is offering us grace.

There is no deprecation like self-deprication. The crowd isn’t only laughing, they are opening up to him, letting down their own defenses, and eventually are won over by his hapless persona.

Instead of allowing audiences to believe (by omission) that I am invulnerable or omni-competent, letting my weakness show in appropriate ways can forge a connection that my best material cannot. It’s common ground.

Chances are they sense some of my issues anyway. Talking about it shows I am not afraid of my imperfections and they don’t have to be afraid of there’s either.

4. Talk about faith in public–wisely.

During his running critique of physical fitness, Gaffigan blurts out, “I think of Jesus as a really in-shape guy.” The audience freezes, unsure how to react. He lets that hang in the air for a moment and then says, “that’s the name that takes the air out of the room like no one else.”

This comment launches a series of jokes about religion. The unease of the audience is almost palpable at points. My take is they’re ambivalent about whether a private, individual issue like spirituality has a place in a diverse public forum.

That’s exactly the opening Gaffigan wants. He plunges ahead into a long riff on the “loaves and fishes” story (Matthew 14:13-20). Beginning with his own devotion to bread, he speculates on what types of bread Jesus could have produced for the hungry crowd (“pretzel bread?”). I laugh. So does everyone else.

By treating religion like any other subject, Gaffigan mainstreams it as an appropriate topic for the public square. What a relief. The laughter drains the tension out of the issue and suggests we might even be able to talk about it with each other.

As a Christian who is also a professional presenter, I learned a lot about communication from the Jim Gaffigan concert. Moreover, he helped me appreciate even more how Jesus connected with people.

Jesus spoke out of 30 years living among common people, he claimed those who seem first will one day end up last, he laid aside his rights and position to sacrifice himself, and his very public discussions of faith “amazed” people.

Thanks Jim.


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