Jim Gaffigan on the Business of Stand Up
by Luke Y. Thompson on April 11, 2012
Jim Gaffigan’s Mr. Universe hits the internet today, bypassing TV networks and record labels entirely. Jim has adopted the simple download model pioneered by Louis CK and quickly being embraced by other top comedians: no DRM, no complicated interfaces, just download and watch. We’ve talked with Jim before about his material and his approach to stand up, but with the release of Mr. Universe, we thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about the business and economics of stand up with someone who’s seen every angle of it and is choosing a different path.
Nerdist: What made you want to do digital downloads and deliver this special directly to the consumer?
Jim Gaffigan: Well, I think what really – it’s some of why I announced a couple of months before I even taped the thing, was that I was dealing with – there were different options and things were being proposed to me, and eventually it came down to where I didn’t want to lead on some of these people. I knew in my guts that I wanted to do the download thing. And there were some people that I really respect that thought I was crazy. And I wanted to announce it just to kind of – because you can tell that some of your advisors and stuff like that that you want to do this, but they keep coming with different ideas. And I didn’t want someone to try and talk me out of it. Very nice people that I trust from my crew tried to convince me that people that like my stand-up don’t download things. I didn’t engage in that kind of conversation any longer, and I knew that I wanted to just settle the arguments and stop people bringing me ideas about where I should go with my stand-up. So I’m just going to do it on my website. That’s why I did the announcement. I kind of brought this up. But it was getting to a point where some of the people that were offering me things didn’t really see what I was seeing.
N: Like what exactly?
JG: They were probably looking at DVDs sales of King Baby and tried to compare that to this. And I was like, you can’t — which by the way sold great — but they’re saying they are going down. Nobody is buying DVDs anymore.
N: And then there is also the censorship element. You’re completely bypassing anybody telling you that you can’t tell a joke. Right?
JG: Yes. And it’s one of those things where — the censorship thing is rather an interesting twist. Because I deal with a lot of product names in my stand-up that, you know — I don’t curse, it’s considered family friendly. But the irony is that in that show [Night of 100 Stars] Sarah Silverman and [Triumph] the [Insult] Comic Dog and all these people were simulating an orgasm and none of that was censored. But I mention the product name and – It doesn’t matter the network, it is all networks. It’s like they want to keep the people that are paying advertisers happy. And that’s what started my whole journey. I’m going to look outside the box and here I am and we’ll see, I might look like a fool. I don’t know.
N: You’re donating a dollar of every sale to the Bob Woodruff Foundation; That’s pretty important to a lot of people. What kind of reactions have you seen since the announcement?
JG: I think — there are obviously people with a military background or that are associated with — maybe having a sibling or husband or wife in the military that will really respond well. But, I don’t know. This is all so up in the air. It certainly is going to come down to whether people want to see the stand-up or not. I mean, they can donate directly to the Bob Woodruff Foundation. My hope is that I’ll make my money back, maybe make some money, but I’d love to raise some money for this foundation. But, specifically, I haven’t really — it’s not like Obama called and said, “Hey, you’re a good guy, I’m going to give you an award.”
N: One of the things that has happened, that some people figured would be a result, is that the piracy and the torrenting of specials like this was greatly reduced. Was that another reason why you might have approached it this way?
JG: I’m certainly not — I’m far from a technical or computer expert or an internet expert. I kind of approached this, that there are going to be some scumbags that steal it. I don’t want to get in the business of treating people that like my comedy as customers. Look, this is not “Jim Gaffigan trying to be greedy.” I’m kind of hoping to get my material out there without the bureaucracy of some corporate structure and without some corporation taking all the money. But there is going to be some good will out of this; This is not just me selling widgets. I don’t ever want to treat people that like my stand-up as a customer. I’m not even really so comfortable with the term “fan.” I want people to like my stuff, and, you know, hopefully, the real low price will draw people there. And I also kind of — Louis, everything is in the shadow of Louis, obviously and understandably so, but I am a pretty simple guy. To me, this makes a lot of sense, because it makes sense to me. I don’t know how to torrent anything, but I know that if I wanted to buy something and someone made it real easy, and it was not expensive, that’s my price of entering. I would buy a stand-up special of a comedian I didn’t like for at least $5. You know what I mean?
N: Right. One of the things that a lot of people are always a little bit in the dark on is – and we don’t want to go into your personal finances too much – but with the constant touring, I think people get this idea of “Oh, but I paid this much for the tickets at a live show; Why should I go and buy the special?” People sometimes don’t quite understand all the things that are involved in putting on a tour and how many people are actually making a living off of your shows. What kind of balance do you have to find with the touring and the specials to kind of hit a mark where you can support your family, and all the other people that are helping you do that are able to make their livings as well?
JG: Yeah, that is a really interesting question, because I would love to have my ticket prices be very low. But there are so many costs associated with a theater production – I get Twitter comments like “I can’t afford to go to your show,” which actually makes me think that this download is going to resonate with some people. Maybe they couldn’t have seen me when I’m at the Wilbur in Boston but they’ll be able to download it. But I don’t know if I’m even answering your question.
N: It’s interesting that the comedy landscape is what it is and nobody really thinks of the business side of it. Nobody thinks of the costs incurred. That could not have been cheap traveling with your family for those tour dates that you tried to include them on.
JG: No. I did 11 days and we were on a tour bus. The preferable alternative was flying with 4 children. But it’s weird because the money thing is kind of — I just feel a little bit icky to talk about it. There is a balance for me to go all the way there [to a live show]. It’s like a balancing opportunity. I would also love — I love stand-up but my priority is to be a decent father. But if I’m going to get an extra amount to perform in San Francisco, then I can be gone for the weekend. I don’t know. Does that make sense?
N: It does. In regard to your specials, do you own those? The way this special is yours?
JG: Yeah. I understand what you’re saying. The whole thing is, my old specials, my very first half hour special is owned outright by another company, and then, after that, I did a leasing arrangement with Comedy Central, and I think it might have gone to some other channel at one point. But usually you cannot re-lease it out for 2 years to a network. And the arrangement is kind of complicated to describe because what is so appealing about — look, let me put it this way, Comedy Central has been very good to me. They’ve been very good to me. They are partners, they are sponsoring the tour that I am in now. And I wasn’t opposed to doing it with Comedy Central. It’s just that what they were offering me was rather unappealing.
N: What kind of deals were you looking at?
JG: So there is like broadcast and there are also CD and DVD sales. Now, the CD and DVD percentage that goes to the artist is ridiculous. It’s just absurd. And so based on what the corporate structure or corporate model is for offering an artist for a CD or DVD, it is not good to the artist. It is a fraction, and when they consider that they are going on-line to iTunes, iTunes takes a chunk of it. So essentially you are not making any money whatsoever. And so — I am exaggerating a little bit, but, again, I like Comedy Central, but the deal they offered is probably what I would make if I sold 50,000 of this. By the way, that will be my break even. I guess my point is that even with my initial idea of putting this on Amazon, even though Amazon — I didn’t realize that Amazon is doing the whole Netflix thing. Because I thought, all right, I’ll give you my special instead of an advertiser advertising on a special. Lets just put it right in your store, and then you guys can maybe pay me per view or something like that, but they’re are not in the content purchasing business, and so I pursued other options.
N: It’s got to be tough pitching new models to the old guard.
JG: They’re thinking about the normal way to do things. They are very cautious. No one wants — like, if my name was James Franco, it might have been a different situation. And that is why I felt like I was kind of put in the position of doing this, the alternatives were not that attractive to me.
And I loved the statement that the download is making. Because I think there is some truth that exists on the internet that I really like and admire, which is: Don’t be greedy, have transparency. I am saying what this is, I’m saying what you’re getting, there’s no restriction. And I’m someone who buys stuff on the internet, stuff that I would want, and certainly, I am not a tech genius. I’m just happy that I can provide something that I would want. Which is similar to my stand-up. I want my stand-up — I kind of write what I think is funny.
N: You act as well as perform your stand-up. Do you feel that people abandon stand-up to pursue the money of acting or they just get pulled away?
JG: What you have to understand is that what’s unique to stand-up comedy is that within all the bullshit of the entertainment industry, it is the closest to meritocracy. You either get the laughs or you don’t. It’s not like everybody’s going to like every comic. People are coming to my shows; They are coming because they think I’m funny. They are not coming to see a fancy outfit or because I’m a friend with some fancy person. They like my stand-up. And another aspect of stand-up is that stand-up is pretty much a solitary pursuit. It’s perfect for the control freak. I uniquely write everything with my wife. You are a writer, director, performer, editor — the list of things that Louis does on his show. For me, it doesn’t surprise me. Because every comedian — we are spoiled by the control that we have in stand up shows. And I think that comedians doing something like this, whether it be Louis or Aziz or anyone else, it makes perfect sense. We’re going out, we’re getting on a plane and we’re going and we’re doing shows in all these different cities and we live or die by what we do on stage. So that’s another reason that makes sense.
So this is what I say. I honestly love acting. I live in New York, which is actually the worst space to have an acting career. But I think that stand-up is more of a marathon. I audition for things and it’s the biggest waste of my life. I’ve been ruined by stand-ups, and auditioning is begging. I am happy that I had the opportunity to audition, but — I think I’m like some comedians who want to keep their career or to get bigger, but for me it’s something really serious. It is something I love, but you don’t have any control over it. I tweeted once, “The difference between auditioning and stripping is a dollar.”
N: That’s pretty true actually.
JG: You know, essentially in the end we are all looking for creative fulfillment. And in stand-up, you’re spoiled by that. Like a writer — I write too, and sometimes getting feedback or input on what you have written takes a lifetime. And I am lucky. I can come up with an idea and try it tonight.
Jim Gaffigan’s Mr. Universe is available for $5 today.