Monday night marked the eighth consecutive year in which veteran comedian Jim Gaffigan bestowed his unique construct of everyman-isms upon Milwaukee. By this point, the comic’s annual post-holiday run of shows—while he’s in town celebrating Christmas with his Milwaukee-based in-laws—has become as much a part of the city’s December tradition as busted window scrapers, Packers division titles, underwhelming Brewers transactions, robotic bears playing holiday ditties at The Grand Avenue Mall, and everybody putting on winter weight. In the years between the beginning of his December streak and now, Gaffigan has become a name that transcends the field of stand-up, his acting reel has quintupled in length, he’s managed a combined nine specials and albums, found time to write two books, and garnered a level of local interest that now requires a three-night occupation in the 1,339-capacity Pabst Theater.
Perhaps it’s unfair to Gaffigan, but the tradition and the expectation that now surrounds the honorary Milwaukeean’s yearly Pabst Theater run of shows made Monday night’s first of three performances this week a bit of a letdown. Yes, Gaffigan turned in an irrefutably hilarious and airtight set that everyone in the packed house seemed to enjoy. Yet it was how (and how long) he went about doing so that made it feel as if the holiday-adjacent event was partially re-gifted and hastily wrapped.
The headliner was actually the sixth Gaffigan to take the stage Monday night, as “The Gaffigan 5” (the comicÆs five well-dressed children, all between the ages of two and 10) preempted their father with a short and utterly sweet song-and-dance number before yielding the spotlight to the patriarch. “It took forever to cast that thing,” Gaffigan started. The unique intro was a rare treat in what the comedian estimated to be his 30th show in “his hometown-in-law.” Referencing his family ties to the city up front proved to be a serviceable segue into the the usual weather, beer, and Packers commentary—though he spoke with more expertise than the traditional touring comic. Gaffigan’s stay in Milwaukee (where he’s been “for 15 pounds”) also lent itself a sturdy bridge to his strongest material: self-deprecating jokes about his body and obsession with food.
Without blowing too many punchlines for those planning on seeing either of his two remaining shows, the heft of Gaffigan’s stage time rested in that wheelhouse, with jokes about “fatting” out of clothing, a tale of smuggling donuts onto an airplane, and a bit about Jesus’ surprising physique considering he had the ability to multiply bread. Sure, he also provided a thin coat of material regarding marriage, fatherhood, differences in each gender’s grooming habits, and some jokes about religion and “looking like Hitler’s wet dream” that threatened to push the PG performance into PG-13 territory. However, food and fatness dominated the set—not that anyone was complaining about the well-stocked buffet of jokes about steakhouses and an intense hatred of stairs. Soon, solid new material gave way to past premises, including a reprisal of his anti-fish stance from last year, a four-specials-old acknowledgement that most Mexican food has the same five base ingredients, and, of course, no shortage of jabs thrown in the direction of Hot Pockets.
Repeating old material is totally acceptable in moderation. Quite honestly, Gaffigan might not have made it out of the Pabst alive if he didn’t sleepwalk through 10 minutes of reheated Hot Pockets lines. That said, rehashed material is best said between minutes 61 and 75 (or more). As Gaffigan packed up 15 to 20 minutes worth of tested jokes and said goodnight to his most loyal city exactly one hour after taking the stage, the night felt incomplete. The crowd remained seated, the lights stayed down a few beats too long, and the cheers shrunk to an almost anticipatory hush…until the house music came on and lights went up. For eight years, Milwaukee has given Gaffigan the increasingly generous post-holiday gift of its overwhelming support. As much as Monday’s crowd loved what the December fixture gave them in return, it would have meant so much more had Gaffigan put in just a little more time and thought.