By: Kevin Rolfe
Stand up comedy is an art form that fascinates me. The ability to stand in front of a group of strangers and cause them to naturally react to something you’re saying with laughter totally blows my mind. I truly marvel at the nerve these people have. I don’t know how they do it. I think it must be the scariest, riskiest in terms of failure potential, and therefore the most rewarding art form out there. When a comic bombs, it’s just them out there. There aren’t other bandmates that they can share in their tanking with. It’s just them. But when done right, what can be better than having an entire comedy club crying laughing because of something you said. Then imagine having an entire theater cracking up at something you said. Then imagine having an entire arena, filling a venue with thunderous laughter because of something you said. That’s how it was on Friday, December 7, at Vivint Smart Home Arena with Jim Gaffigan.
Utah loves Jim Gaffigan. So much so that December 7 was actually his second show at Vivint Arena within a week. Jim also performed at Vivint on December 1. I’m sure part of his popularity in Utah has to do with Gaffigan being known as a ‘“Clean” comic. Meaning that he doesn’t use profane language or dirty jokes. But when it comes down to it, Gaffigan is hilarious, so I think he’d do well here regardless.
When I walked onto the arena floor I looked around and the setting looked like any rock concert. The stage was set up in the middle of the arena. The crowd was eagerly anticipating the headliner. It felt similar to any show that I had seen recently at Vivint Arena. But the difference the thousands of people in attendance weren’t excited to see a band, they were anxious to see one guy, stand there and tell jokes.
Before Jim Gaffigan took the stage, the night was opened by Ted Alexandro. I would guess if there is anything more intimidating than doing stand up comedy in front of a bunch of strangers, it must be doing stand up comedy in front of a bunch of strangers who are there to see the guy after you. I have to hand it to Alexandro, he won over the Salt Lake City crowd in a very short period of time. He shared some very relatable stories of getting older and being a newlywed. His comic style is different from Jim Gaffigan, but I can see why Jim brought Ted to open for him. He’s a really funny comedian and totally warmed up the crowd. I would imagine if he comes back to Utah on his own, over at Wiseguys, he’ll have a great turnout. When Alexandro finished his set, he left the stage to a very warm applause.
As soon as Ted Alexandro made his way backstage, Jim Gaffigan was announced. The crowd went crazy as music played over the PA. Jim walked on stage and the ovation grew even louder. There must be a good and bad to having people already anticipating how funny you’ll be. Yes, there was a full arena of fans there to laugh at his jokes. But much of why these fans like him are based on what he’s said at previous stand up shows or specials. So that has to be a lot of pressure to get out there and tell new jokes to people who are cheering with the eager expectation that they’ll be laughing. Come to think of it, stand up comedy kind of stresses me out!
All was put to ease the moment Gaffigan began. It’s clear that he knows what he’s doing. It’s remarkable how he made that huge arena feel like a comedy club. He times his jokes perfectly so that he doesn’t speak over the laughter, yet doesn’t quite let people get to settled before they roar with laughter again.
The difficult thing about writing a review about a stand up comic is I can’t restate the jokes and do them justice. They’d be much better received when they’re heard by the actual comedian. So I’m not even going to try. But what I can say is sometimes it’s not even the subject matter that’s funny. Things like horses, or a bear encounter, or having your appendix removed, might not sound like they’d be topics that will make for funny jokes. But it’s all in the telling of the story, and the inflection of the punchline. Gaffigan is a genius in this area. Part of the joke at times is about how many jokes he’s telling about a subject. Like the horse jokes. They were all hilarious, and they went on for a long time, to the point that he made the comment in that high side voice he does, about how many jokes were being told about horses. So he just builds and builds to where you think he can’t possibly have another joke about a topic, and then he tells his best joke yet. It’s amazing to watch this all unfold.
Looking around the arena I saw audience members old and young. And they were all laughing. I was sitting next to an eight-year-old boy who was laughing hysterically from the beginning of the 90 minute set to the very end. I have to believe that there were some topics and jokes that he didn’t quite understand, but the way Jim told the story, with funny voices or accents, made the boy laugh. But then stories like the ones he told about bears or horses were stories the boy understood and laughed the hardest. I even heard him retelling the bear story to his mom. Almost word for word. The fact that Gaffigan can tell a joke to an audience and a little boy gets a lot of it says a lot. These jokes weren’t written for kids, but the jokes are so good, that a young boy can sit for an hour and a half and laugh the whole time.
While I believe most of Gaffigan’s jokes were new, he did end his set with some of his amazing Hot Pocket jokes. The moment he said “Hot Pocket” the crowd cheered. I’ve always wondered how the retelling of jokes that appear in a special go over in a live setting. But we hear songs we like over and over at concerts. So why not jokes, right? The thing that impressed me was the way Jim told these classic jokes. He weaved them together in a way that made them seem fresh and new. And he told them as if they were brand new jokes.
Jim left to a standing ovation. I wondered for a minute if he was going to come back. Do comedians do encores? I have no idea. As I was leaving the arena I saw a lot of bloodshot eyes. Like a lot! It looked like people had been crying. And then it dawned on me that they had totally been crying. From laughing so hard.