Is Pope Francis good comic material? If you consider yourself a devoted Catholic, the line can be blurry.
I’ve written several times in recent years about popular comic-actor-writer Jim Gaffigan, who has used his Catholicism as successful fodder. He built an entire TV show around having five kids and what it’s like to be religious in the entertainment business. He doesn’t swear on stage.
Yet jesting about the spiritual leader of the world’s biggest Christian church himself — when you’re an adherent, with a “super devout-Catholic mother in law” — feels like tricky territory. Gaffigan lived this 2 1/2 years ago when he performed on stage as a kind of opening act for Pope Francis in Philadelphia, during the pope’s 2015 U.S. tour.
On Francis’ fifth anniversary, Gaffigan is still feeling around for how this super-relevant pope, known for his down-to-earthiness, has impacted life for regular Catholics. He agreed to talk with us about Francis’ fifth, and to share a little of his upcoming stand-up special, which comes out in July and explores the Philly experience.
“You can only be ‘the new pope’ for so long,” Gaffigan told me by phone. Then in a tone that sounded both serious and funny, he said he relates. “I think being pope is similar to being a comedian. You have to keep your audience, bring them along — they want to be challenged. They think they want to hear the same thing, but you have to challenge them.”
He met the pope backstage in Philadelphia, part of Francis’ East Coast U.S. tour that year, something seriously jarring for an observant Catholic.
Since then he’s been thinking both about a) how to use the experience as entertainment fodder and b) what the heck did that all mean, anyway? What’s the big picture?
In the first category, Gaffigan makes a crack when I asked if he ever saw Francis again. “I took the family to Rome last Thanksgiving, and it’s like: ‘Should we look him up?’”
In the bit coming out this summer, Gaffigan spins a tale of how he panicked just before going on, realizing he had no material about Philadelphia. He talked about how tribal the U.S. Northeast is, and how he made a joke that went South about a snowball fight at an Eagles’ game. The joke bombs.
In the bit, Gaffigan advises the pope backstage: Stay away from the Santa-snowball joke. No duh, Francis tells him — in the joke — “I’d get crucified!”
Growing up, this entire scenario — a crucifixion joke, involving the pope — would have been beyond off-limits for Gaffigan. But not only is he now a hugely successful actor and comic, but Francis also has made the faith more inviting, more forgiving, more fun.
The pope’s dedication of a full year to the theme of mercy was “brilliant,” Gaffigan said. “I always thought, about everything, ‘Oh, I’m going to hell anyway.’ But he whole notion of mercy is that Jesus came back and communicated: ‘You’re getting this wrong, it’s about forgiveness.’”
I asked Gaffigan if Francis’ impact has been affected by the appearance of another massive public personality: Donald Trump. “There’s a part of me that thinks: In this Trump era, Trump dominates and has made celebrity-as-leverage something rather icky. It’s like the last thing leaders want to do is be a cult of personality.”
He believes the pope stands out all the more for his differences from the U.S. president. “There is this appeal of the pragmatic part of populism — but it’s like a shortcut. America first. It’s antithetical to what the church is supposed to be putting out there.”
In his upcoming comedy show, Gaffigan describes not only being booed on stage in Philadelphia, but also being up there knowing the crowds of hundreds of thousands weren’t there to see him.
“No one was like: I hope the pope has a comedian open for him.”
According to The Comic’s Comic, a site about comedians, Gaffigan knew as much on the stage in 2015, and told the crowd so:
“I know when I’m done, you’re going to be tempted to leave,” he said, according to the site, “but stick around, we’ve got some amazing people coming up. There’s a guy coming up. Seventy-eight years old. Used to be the bouncer of a dance club. He’s going to talk for a little bit.”