Last week Jim Gaffigan announced his new hour special, Noble Ape (presumably a reference to that most noble of apes, the gentle orangutan), will be released not on Netflix or HBO or Comedy Central but on a broad patchwork of more than 20 cable providers and other streaming platforms. The list includes AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Google Play, iTunes and the Playstation Store. This may strike some as an unusual choice for someone of Gaffigan’s stature, but Gaffigan tells Paste he turned down an attractive Netflix deal for something even more attractive: an audience bigger than Netflix’s. We spoke to Gaffigan about why this move was the right one for Noble Ape, which comes out on July 17th.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paste: So I understand you’re one of a small, growing group of people who’ve said no to Netflix.
Jim Gaffigan : I can see how that would be a takeaway. But Netflix has been good to me, I have five specials on there. But not everyone has Netflix, and one of the things that is ongoing with every special is—you look at a special two different ways. Obviously it’s great to do a special and it’s fun to complete this chapter in your comedy writing process. But there’s also something of, you want people to see it. And you want as many people to see it. So as popular as Netflix is, not everyone sees it, and not everyone sees it at the same time. And I was presented with this idea that we could kind of make this accessible to a lot of people at once. And now there’s even talk of it being in theaters, which is weird because—I’ve been kicking around long enough, I’m not doing anything for ego. I just kind of want to get it out there. Also, simultaneously [releasing] the album and the special was appealing to me. Because the way people consume stand up is is varying. And by the way, we know also from experience that in two years, it’s going to be completely different. I have some specials available on my website, and there was one that was through Comedy Central. There’s value in every new step.
Paste: Can we go back a little bit, then, and can you tell me how this new deal came together?
Gaffigan: I was approached through my agent and manager with different options. Very attractive offers, particularly from the perspective of, versus five years ago. I would also point out that Comedy Central, you know, Beyond the Pale, released my special for essentially an amount of money that covered the production. We’ve gone into a completely different [world]. So I was presented with different options from different platforms. And what was so appealing about this model was the fact that it was going to be a lot of places. It was also going to, in a way, attract a larger audience. Whether they watch it immediately or not, it’s going to be accessible.
Paste: I don’t want to ask you to badmouth Netflix, but—do you think it’s good for comedy if so much of stand-up is consolidated in one place? Do you hope other people follow your lead?
Gaffigan: When I started stand-up, the career expectation, or hope, was to be a writer. Or you could tour doing clubs. And there would be one Seinfeld, one Carlin, one Roseanne, one Brett Butler here and there. So I think that people can look at this as where Netflix is right now, but from when I started stand-up in the early 1800s—when I started stand up, which is pre-Comedy Central having a huge impact, pre-YouTube, pre-satellite radio and of course pre-Netflix and Hulu and Amazon—what is ever changing is the platform. What people are dismissing is not only the accessibility of stand-up, which did not exist outside of late night appearances when I started, but the education. People can have a particular taste in comedy. So the fact that people like my comedy, that they can have access to it, is really appealing.
The Netflix thing is interesting. But I’ve also gone through—when I started, getting on Letterman or Carson was the biggest thing, or getting an HBO special was the pinnacle of importance. But I also feel as though in this day and age, there’s what can make your career and what comedians hold important to a career goal, or moments when you feel like you arrived. And I think that Comedians In Cars is probably the arrival moment as a comedian. When I started, it was being on The Tonight Show or being on an HBO Young Comedians special. I don’t think that is the case anymore. So I don’t know.
I know I’m hopping around the place. I understand what you’re saying and I think that—you know, there’s a cynical look at this that you can embrace, but there’s also, as a comedian who’s been doing it as long as I have, the success of comedians, or more people in the world getting access to comedy, or American comedy or observational monologist comedy that’s eccentric like mine, is always good. So Michelle Wolf or Hasan Minhaj getting a talk show on Netflix, that’s good for all of stand-up.
So I understand you’re asking a different question—is it all being consolidated in one place? Is that a problem? But I’ve also gone through years where people were completely dependent on who the booker of Letterman was. And it will change. I think we kind of look at, when will Amazon enter it? As a comedian or a comedy fan, I think everyone’s kind of like, when is Amazon gonna do this? Or when is Hulu gonna do this? And some of it is, I feel like I’m kind of in a position where this opportunity was the best choice at this moment for me. And it might not have been the most lucrative option. But as I mentioned earlier, during hour specials, which are personally really important as a writer and a performer, but in kind of a crude sense, it’s almost an infomercial for your sensibility. And this special is—I feel like I’m getting better at stand-up, and I enjoy doing it, and it’s also kind of personal, discussing my wife’s brain tumor and recovery. So there is something about, I want it to be out there.
Every kind of creative thing I’ve done, whether it be a book or a stand-up special, or even a CBS Sunday morning commentary, we’re in this fragmented market where there used to be three networks and there used to be this platform, and it’s ever expanding. If we have the same conversation we’re having in six months, there would be this other element—I mean, Katzenberg’s talking about these three-minute Game of Thrones shows, right? So it’s ever moving. And I think you have to make the decision that’s best for the material. And I do love traveling internationally and performing internationally. But I think as fast as the world is shrinking, it’s not like a North American comic is on equal par with a British comic in the UK. That’s just not the case.
Paste: To be clear about what I hope isn’t too cynical a take that I and other critics have about Netflix: It’s more a fear that in a world, six months or two years from now, where all stand-up or most stand-up happens on Netflix, then comics have less bargaining power and less ability to get good deals for themselves. Which is why it’s exciting to see someone of your stature say there should be comedy other places too, and on other platforms.
Gaffigan: Yeah, look, I’ve read all the articles too. And it is interesting, but I think in Netflix’s defense, what Chris Rock and Chappelle and Seinfeld are getting paid is astronomical. So we can look at individual cases of whether that person’s being underpaid, but I think it’s hard to—they’re running a business. You know what I mean? And it’s weird, because what you’re touching on is, is there this monopoly? Are we heading towards this monopoly? And I don’t think that’s the case. There’s something very strange and beautiful about stand-up, where it’s inherently a meritocracy. So even the best marketing can’t make something popular if it’s not. I mean, obviously that applies to all the entertainment industry. But most people who watch stand-up, they don’t really care what the person’s wearing, you know what I mean? There’s nothing flashy about it. It’s a substance-based entertainment vehicle.
I also think there’s something interesting about Netflix. which people have identified in articles: A great comedian like Ali Wong, considering how crowded it is now on Netflix, would she be able to break through like she did before? Some of it is, the world is spinning, opportunities are changing. Not to get too nerdy, but I think comedy kind of lives in decades. And comedians that can be relevant in the ‘90s and the oughts or whatever, and then the teens, that’s the task. That’s why Chris Rock’s Netflix special, I think it didn’t get enough credit. This guy’s been that good for that long. I know that’s a bit of a tangent.
Paste: No, I’m all about tangents. What else do you and other comics talk about when you talk about the market, the business of making specials and how it’s changing?
Gaffigan: It’s interesting, because you look at the ‘80s, prior to really—Carlin was doing an hour a year, but there wasn’t really an appetite for comedy. Because consumption is driven by the appetite. So when Carlin was doing an hour, people were like, this is insane. And great comedians like Jake Johannsen were always doing hours, but now there’s been this change of an appetite for comedy. And by the way, it’s not just streaming, whether it be Netflix or Hulu. I think people underplay the impact of satellite radio, and also Spotify and Pandora and stuff like that. It’s amazing how people consume comedy. I don’t know how old you are [Editor’s note: a respectable 26.], but when I was a kid there was no comedy on the radio. Even when I started there would be these eccentric great DJs in Boston and San Francisco, and when I started headlining there was Marty Riemer in Seattle that would kind of champion stand-up. But it was rare to hear comedy on the radio. And now that’s a pretty important point. Maybe not as an income source, but for people to be exposed to your comedy—it’s interesting because the streaming option is a voluntary one, whereas satellite, or say you pick a Jim Gaffigan channel on Pandora. If you’re listening to me on Pandora or whatever, you’re going to also be exposed to John Mulaney and Ted Alexandro and Mike Birbiglia. And satellite radio, the music streaming sites or whatever we call them, that’s pretty important too. And that was something that kind of factored into this.
This is a big umbrella. I love coming up with new material. It’s not unique to me, every comedian would tell you that the best moment of their last week was coming up with a joke or the last line. But I don’t know. I think when we talk about streaming or the Netflix thing, we forget about the power of Pandora. Even what we’re doing here is gonna be—you can watch it or rent it or buy it on DirectTV and all these other platforms, whether it be Cox or iTunes and stuff like that. I used to turn on my TV and I’d say, who are these people buying these on-demand movies or renting them? And then it became a point where I was like, yeah, all right, I’m gonna do that. Behavior changes with the accessibility of the content.
Paste: I guess I just want to ask you the fluffy question, then: Can you tell me a little bit about what’s in the new special and what else you’re excited about these days?
Gaffigan: The weird thing is, for me, I feel like I’ve spent my entire life running away from generic adjectives. As a kid I was just the pale guy, so I wanted to add the adjective “funny.” And as a comedian, whether it be “clean” or “food,” you don’t want to be put in these categories. Whether you’re any type of comedian, male, female, trans, you just want to be known as funny. It was something that I made a concerted effort on Cinco, that the first 45 minutes would have no food. And no familiar trappings of my comedy. And so with Noble Ape, not only is there no food, but because of this horrible medical situation my wife had to go through, I was forced to look at this brain tumor and hospital conditions and fear from a comedic standpoint. And so it’s different from what I’ve been doing. Obviously my comedic point of view is the same, but selfishly it’s just fun to see yourself evolving. ‘Cause you know, in the end, I’m just a freelance guy, so I have to set my own assignments. So I’m really proud of it and I feel like I’m getting better.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.