Have we gotten Jim Gaffigan wrong all along?

A Midwestern-born father of five, Gaffigan is known for clean, family-friendly stand-up on the most inoffensive subjects (kids, food). He’s safe enough to open for the Pope and regularly grouse on “CBS Sunday Morning.” But his consistently funny new special “Dark Pale,” his 10th, pushes against that vanilla image. The pandemic, he tells us, has made him question mortality, and in one wonderfully macabre bit, Gaffigan, dressed in a black suit and shirt, imagines his own funeral. He wants an open casket, with him sitting up, crumbs on his shirt, arms occasionally rising like a marionette while a recording of him says, “Don’t worry, I’m in a better place” before adding, “Just kidding. I’m here.”

It’s an unexpectedly creepy visual, and after telling you about cremation, Gaffigan adopts his signature second voice, a gravelly whisper that operates like a critic in the crowd, asking: “When is he going to do the food jokes?”

It’s easy to miss if you aren’t a fan, but Jim Gaffigan has been on a roll. Already prolific, he’s become more so, putting out five specials in six years, with this new one on Prime Video the best of the bunch. Instead of resting on his laurels, he’s getting more ambitious. There are still jokes about chain restaurants (he calls Starbucks “an upscale unemployment office”). But the bristling tone and intricacy of the jokes demand attention, if not revaluation. He’s telling us in the title (his third using the word “Pale”) that he’s got heavier things on his mind than fast food. After revisiting his deep trove of material released over the past couple decades, what’s clear is that he always did.

Gaffigan’s patient delivery was there from the start, but his early albums might surprise those who only know his famous persona. He cursed, talked about sex and came off more as an annoyed son than a grumpy family man. In a 2015 interview with Marc Maron, Gaffigan said his earliest acting experience was pretending to be happy when his dad came home. This hints at his most fertile theme: The endless American capacity for denial.

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