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Jim Gaffigan on turning down Netflix for latest special, ‘Noble Ape’

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jim gaffigan noble ape
Jim Gaffigan’s “Noble
Ape.”

Comedy
Dynamics



  • For his latest stand-up comedy special, “Noble Ape,”
    Jim Gaffigan passed on Netflix to release the special to a
    variety of on-demand services as part of a distribution deal
    with the special’s producer, Comedy Dynamics. 
  • Gaffigan spoke to Business Insider about the
    distribution of “Noble Ape” and its intensely personal
    material, which dealt in part with the surgery his wife
    underwent last year for a brain tumor. 

Jim Gaffigan’s latest stand-up special, “Noble Ape,” features some of
the strongest material of the comedian’s career. In part, he
recounts with moving and dark humor the plight of his wife and
cowriter, Jeannie Gaffigan, who last year underwent surgery for a
benign brain tumor. 

But Gaffigan’s unorthodox distribution of “Noble Ape” is nearly
as notable as the comedy it contains.

With five of his stand-up specials already on Netflix, Gaffigan
opted to follow the suggestion of his longtime producer, Comedy Dynamics founder
Brian Volk-Weiss, who proposed that Gaffigan release his sixth
special simultaneously for purchase and renting on a wide variety
of services like Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and numerous
other on-demand outlets.  

In July, the expansive release ran through the distribution arm
of Volk-Weiss’s company, which also gave the special a limited
theatrical run.

In a phone interview with Business Insider, Gaffigan discussed
the distribution of “Noble Ape” and the process of working on its
“cathartic” material with his wife (who directed the special), as
well his experiences of touring the world for his act.

John Lynch: Could you take me through how you landed on
the distribution model for

 this
special?

Jim Gaffigan: Every special that I’ve released,
I’ve looked at what was the best opportunity to get that special
viewed or listened to by as many people as possible. For my first
special, “Beyond the Pale,” Comedy Central was the perfect
destination for it. That was a time before streaming, at the peak
of Comedy Central, so “Beyond the Pale” and “King Baby” were
perfect for that. Comedy Central was on in every dorm room. By
the time I got to “Mr. Universe” and “Obsessed,” I looked at what
the best opportunity was, and with those, one was released on my
website, when that was a thing that people were actively
participating in. Then I got to the point with “Cinco” where it
was sold directly to Netflix. Now, Netflix also ended up
purchasing the rights to my specials to stream on their service.

When I had “Noble Ape,” I was like, “All right, I have five
specials on Netflix.” I had received offers from the usual
suspects, and I was approached by Comedy Dynamics, proposing that
the special would be available everywhere people rent or buy. So
I wasn’t sure exactly how that was going to work, but they
explained that people consume things in a different manner. Some
people consume things on-demand. Some people watch it on Amazon
Prime. Some people watch it on Apple TV. Some people listen to it
on Spotify. So their model — you know, obviously they offered me
good money — but their model made it available to everyone. You
didn’t just have to have Netflix. And I thought this was
appealing, that it’d be available to everyone at the same time.

Lynch: Several weeks out from the release now, how are
you gauging the success of it?

Gaffigan: From what I’m hearing from Comedy
Dynamics, it’s doing amazing. The way the distribution is set up,
they gave me a lump sum, and after that we split the profits. But
I more measure the success of it on people gaining access to it.
I mean, this is a very personal special. It’s discussing my
wife’s brain tumor and all of that. I would say that it’s been
great, but it’s weird, you know, how the landscape changes all
the time. From feedback on social media, it’s gangbusters. Do you
know what I mean? I’ve never used that term before. 

Lynch: (laughs) Yeah. You know, I saw it at the
Village East theater here in Manhattan. Given that it was in
select theaters, I imagine that wasn’t a huge overall factor in
the release. But was it at all important to you to have it in
theaters, or how did you think of that aspect of it?

Gaffigan: That was something that Comedy
Dynamics pursued. It was not something I had an expectation of.
With previous specials, when you’re kind of approached with
options, that’s one scenario. Comedians have released specials in
theaters. But I was thrilled about the theatrical release, even
though it was small, just because it was a further example of it
being everywhere you watch and rent. 

Lynch: Seeing it in theaters, you do open with this very
cinematic, Buñuel-esque surrealist scene, depicting the horrors
of brain surgery but also the dark comedy of that situation. How
was it for your wife to direct that opening and the special
itself?

Gaffigan: You know, it’s interesting. That
whole opening was my wife’s idea. It was something that she
wanted to do. The timing of us shooting it, because I was working
on a couple movies, made it so that it was only available in the
theatrical release, and I think it’s been added as an extra
feature on iTunes. But that was all Jeannie’s idea. Obviously, my
wife and I, we write everything together. She was instrumental in
some of the material on her brain tumor, but that opening was all
her. It was interesting, and my five-year-old, he was like, “It’s
too scary.” The opening’s too scary for him. 

Lynch: What was your experience generally of
incorporating this really personal material with some of the more
traditional stuff that you do? How was it working with the mix of
that?

Gaffigan: Look, as a comedian, it’s
incredibly cathartic to process life events into material. It
kind of helps organize them, and it pays homage to the feelings
or fears you might have been experiencing. But I also think
that’s how I process life is through jokes, and same with my
wife. My wife came out of a two-hour MRI, and she was like,
“Write this down,” like she had ideas from the MRI. It just kind
of happens in certain ways. 

Lynch: In the second half of the special, you sort of
take us on a tour describing your touring abroad. You joke about
difficulties with social mores in China, Japan, England. I’m
wondering, is there any country or area in the world that you’ve
found harder to perform in than others?

Gaffigan: Well, some of doing stand-up in
other countries is — it’s not ideal, but that’s almost what I
enjoy about it. First of all, you’re subjected to a completely
different set of social norms, and you typically have a language
difference. But those obstacles, they provide fodder for
material. I did a show in Barcelona, and I only got to spend a
day or two in Barcelona, but it prompts you to absorb. And some
of it may be initial observation. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’m
even answering your question.

Lynch: (laughs) No yeah, it’s all good.

Gaffigan: But yeah, I love the international
shows because I’m somebody who loves traveling internationally,
and I love different cultures. You’re forced to have a completely
different point-of-view, and it also gives you insight into your
own culture. You know, Paris is a beautiful city, but I think
famous writers have written in Paris because they can gain a
perspective on America just by being in another country. 

Lynch: How would you say your years of touring informed
this special in particular?

Gaffigan: I would say, doing stand-up for
as long as I have, you develop a skill set. Any comedian would
tell you you should be able to make everything funny, and doing
stand-up for that long, whether it be a medical crisis or
traveling through another country, those same skills that I use
to make food or laziness funny, I can apply those same skills to
what it’s like to be an American in another country or what it’s
like to have a spouse have this life-threatening medical
emergency. 

Lynch: Going back to the distribution briefly, the path
you took for “Noble Ape,” do you see that as a viable option for
other comedians, or as something you’ll see people
adopt?

Gaffigan: What I’ve learned from doing
stand-up and releasing six specials now is that the landscape
changes relatively dramatically every couple years. There was a
time when having a special Comedy Central seemed like the
only logical step to take, or releasing a special on
Netflix seemed like the only logical step. But the
marketplace is ever-changing. By the way, Netflix is great for
stand-up. I love Netflix. Netflix has five specials of mine. If I
didn’t have five specials on Netflix, I might have taken a
different approach. But every couple years, the technology and
market changes. When I started stand-up, there was no YouTube.
Comedy Central was just like a clumsy cable network that did
comedy. I mean, I’m thrilled that people are enjoying this
special, and I’m thrilled that Comedy Dynamics views the special
as a success. Comedian friends have expressed excitement that
there’s an alternative in distribution, but I also know that we
live in an age where, in a year, Amazon, or Apple, or who knows,
Disney, could get into the comedy business, because comedy
specials are relatively inexpensive to produce.

What I’ve found with my material, and one of the things that was
also appealing, is an audio version being released
simultaneously, because a lot of people consume my comedy while
driving in a car. Some distribution models, understandably, they
want it exclusively to say, HBO, or Showtime, or Netflix. They
don’t want the audio version released right away. But in ten or
fifteen years, with the audio version of a stand-up special as an
album, I think people kind of underestimate the popularity of
that, because we’re living in this age where audio streaming
services are really rising out of nowhere. 

Lynch: Moving forward for you, what’s next? I know you’ve
also been in a couple films this year, but what’s on deck for you
career-wise?

Gaffigan: I love acting, and given the
right opportunity, I would love to do tons of acting in film. But
the thing that’s great about stand-up is you don’t have to wait
for the opportunity. You can be writing and working whenever you
want. Obviously, living in New York City, it’s helpful to be able
to walk over to a club and try out material. I love acting and I
love stand-up, but no matter what I do, I’ll always be doing
stand-up. Creating specials is something that I really
enjoy. 

Noble Ape” is
available now on on-demand services like Apple TV, Amazon,
iTunes, and more. 

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