Sitcom Gets Biblical: The Jim Gaffigan Show’s Case of Mistaken Identity

The Jim Gaffigan Show stars the eponymous comic, actor, voice-over artist, and author in a fictionalized version of his life as a comedian living in New York City with wife Jeannie (played by Ashley Williams) and five offspring. In its first season on TV Land, the sitcom is not quite as smart as Louie, nor is it absurdly abrasive and hilarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm. I prefer a more subversive comedy to the vanilla-white variety on display here, and so I tend to agree with The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the Jim Gaffigan Show: “Like its affable leading man, the series is an overall genial affair. …Gaffigan’s good-naturedness is pleasant, if not particularly interesting.”

However the show’s ninth episode, titled, “The Bible Story,” which aired last Wednesday and was also released for a brief time during the summer as a preseason promotion,  touched on several meaty issues about religious identity and the US media.

[SPOILER ALERT] The entire episode is an imaginary sequence of events that Jim hypothesizes would happen if he went to his church to pick up a Bible as requested by his wife.

After picking up the Bible, Jim goes to a comedy club where he performs, is photographed after with a fan while holding the ornate, oversized tome, and lands on the Huffington Post as being one of the “entertainers of faith,” adding Catholicism as a new label by which to characterize Jim and his comedy.

Jim is reluctant to accept this identity for multiple reasons. “I don’t want people to think I believe in God,” he says, to which his wife replies, “But you do believe in God.” His issue is that he doesn’t want to be part of the “culture wars” (he’s afraid Bill Maher will want him to appear on Real Time and skewer him). He’s also afraid of alienating his non-Catholic audience or his friends, “90 percent” of whom are atheists. But most interestingly, while he first argues that religion is (or ought to be) a private matter, he soon admits that he doesn’t want to open himself up to ridicule, because, he says, religious people are seen as stupid.

A host of outlandish follow-ups result, including an invitation to the White House prayer breakfast, praise from televangelist Joel Osteen, an invitation from Richard Dawkins to debate, as well as a moment in which a fan recognizes Jim at a restaurant and praises him when she mistakenly thinks he’s saying grace before eating (he’s actually burying his head in his hands despondently).

Eager to shed this identity, Jim attempts to rectify the situation on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (one great thing about the Jim Gaffigan Show is that it features a lot of fun cameos). He tells Stewart that he was picking up the Bible for his “Shi’ite Catholic” wife, suggesting that he would have rather put it in a black garbage bag than have others associate him with religious belief. Jim manages to enflame his situation and is cast by the media as a “bigot,” an anti-Semitic Islamophobe, and a hypocrite who is actually gay and in an adulterous homosexual relationship. He spirals out of favor with everyone, becomes “too controversial” to be asked to be a spokesperson or celebrity endorsement, and at one point anticipates that the next call he receives will be a revocation of his US citizenship because he “disrespected” the Bible.

The episode remains lighthearted and just superficially touches the surface, with ideologies and identities represented by shallow caricatures. Jim never explains why he feels self-conscious about the generality that religious people are stupid. Why would it bother him unless he already knows his level of religiosity is cultural and somewhat indefensible by reason? As he says at one point, “Catholics don’t read the Bible. That’s why they give us Cliff Notes on Sunday.” The episode does point to the ridiculousness of interpreting the Bible literally when Jim’s friends Chris Rock and Adam Goldberg hold the Bible for him when he goes on stage: “Let’s try and find the part where the dinosaurs don’t exist,” Goldberg jokes, and Rock responds, “It’s probably right next to the part where Jesus is a blond white guy.” The episode does raise the question why the character Jim calls himself a Catholic. What does it mean to be Catholic? Why derive meaning from Catholicism except by default? In real life, Jim and Jeannie, also a writer on the show, explain themselves a little bit in this interview with Catholic Vote, but I found it decidedly unintrospective.

The more interesting theme in this episode is how easily Jim loses his agency in controlling his identity as soon as the Bible picture goes viral. His identity is picked apart and analyzed and voiced by everyone except for Jim, painting completely distinct pictures of his internal identity and social perception, becoming a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

But the representation of faith here lacks meaning. Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece advocating for common ground between religious people and atheists, suggesting that it was possible if the elephant in the room was addressed. This episode shows religious people coexisting in a secular multi-faceted world without addressing the elephant. For an example of interesting conversations on faith that do address it, I recommend the podcast, You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes.