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That Championship Season - Broadway

Kiefer Sutherland stars in the Broadway revival of Jason Miller's drama.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan on Transitioning From One-Man Band to Team Player in That Championship Season

Comedian Jim Gaffigan on Transitioning From One-Man Band to Team Player in That Championship Season
Jim Gaffigan in 'That Championship Season'
'I’ve been in front of audiences so many times... but never acting and never without a microphone.'

About the Author:
Comedian, actor, writer and prolific tweeter Jim Gaffigan recently added another notch to his artistic belt when he made his stage debut in the current Broadway revival of Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season. Though he is best known for his work as a stand-up—his popular comedy specials include King Baby, Beyond the Pale and Doing My Time—Gaffigan’s acting resume is full of heavy-hitters. He has appeared on HBO hits Sex and the City, Flight of the Conchords and Bored to Death and played dramatic roles in all three versions of Law & Order, not to mention that he saved Mark Wahlberg from death in a memorable cameo in the film Three Kings. His other movie roles include Going the Distance, Away We Go, It's Kind of a Funny Story and Salvation Boulevard, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Gaffigan recently took a break from his busy Broadway schedule to share his thoughts on making the transition from stand-up artist to bona fide stage actor.

I should say from the beginning that this isn’t the story of "Jim Gaffigan Goes to Broadway." It’s not the story of "Jim Gaffigan Does a Play" or "Jim Gaffigan Acts for More Than Five Minutes Straight" or "Jim Gaffigan Doesn’t Improvise at All." This story starts with casting director Cindy Tolan and the opening night of the film It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Cindy was talking to my wife, Jeannie Noth, and asked her if I would ever consider doing a play. My wife, obviously a big advocate of mine, said of course, and when she told me I imagined that it would be community theater in the boondocks. Then I got an email saying it was Broadway, and I was shocked. I imagined that I’d get the script and it would involve something like me carrying a spear through Scene Four. Then I read That Championship Season (well, reread—I had read it 20 years earlier when I was making the shift from finance major to acting and comedy) and saw that George spoke for the first 10 pages of the play, and again I was shocked.

I assumed that an offer was out to Paul Giamatti or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but it would be a great opportunity for me to audition for Cindy and [director] Gregory Mosher. I’m a rather deadpan comedian and being quiet is part of my signature stand-up style, and I knew that turning that into a theatrical performance was going to be a really difficult transformation. So I went to the "Jeannie Noth Conservatory of Acting" to prepare. This was not a one-scene audition; it was essentially the First Act and George's emotional breakdown in the Second Act. After my audition—and this will sound corny—I thought, "Well, I did a good audition, at least Gregory Mosher and Cindy Tolan know that I could act in the play," but I expected that Phil Hoffman would be climbing on board shortly.

Then Deadline Hollywood made an announcement that Liev Schreiber was getting the part. I was actually at the Awards for the Casting Society of America as a presenter when I got a text from my manager saying the part was mine. Cindy Tolan was down the aisle and I kind of looked at her like, "really?" Really.

So, I went back to the Jeannie Noth Conservatory. I made a point that the first day of rehearsal I was going to be off book, I was going to be the most prepared one in the room and be ready for anything. I’ve been in front of audiences so many times, large ones, small ones, Broadway houses, but never acting and never without a microphone. I’m comfortable in front of an audience, and I’m comfortable acting, it’s doing it for an hour and 40 minutes straight that I was afraid of. In my stand-up I can decide which jokes I’m in the mood for, depending on if I got sleep or not, if my kid threw up on me or not, whatever. Obviously you use everything in acting, too, but there are emotional moments where I have to be truthful to the character. I can’t decide for one show that George doesn’t care about his kid or that he doesn’t want to grab the gun.

When I’m doing comedy I’m the writer, I’m the director, I’m a one-man band. Acting in this play is fun because you don’t know what someone’s going to give you, and you have to respond truthfully, and I couldn’t be doing it with a better group of actors.

We all know that Kiefer Sutherland, Brian Cox, Chris Noth and Jason Patric could have gotten a movie during these six months if they’d wanted to. Everyone working on this play is doing it for the right reasons. No one’s going to get rich, no one needs the pat on their ego; it’s all about the play and the creative fulfillment. We’re a very star-struck culture, but eventually I realized that it’s just Kiefer and Chris and Jason and Brian.

The hurdles of our day are not about egos, they are about us trying to get this right, this story about men in a pre-Phil Donahue era, about America’s obsession with winning at all costs, about questions of friendship and family. I remember saying to my wife, "The easiest part of this play is crying." As a guy I’ve cried more in this play than I probably have in my entire life.

Playing George, I get to do in one acting job what I got to do in the entirety of my acting career to date. I’m very flattered to be on Broadway and I’m very flattered to be in a play. The creative side of me is truly grateful for the challenge of a complex character like George, a guy who is a buffoon, a guy that the audience likes and hates at the same time and a guy that really goes on a journey. As a comedian you don’t get opportunities like this, you just don’t. In my entertainment business experience, "opportunities of a lifetime" come along every six months, but the chances of getting the job are usually slim. I got really lucky this time. No, not lucky. Blessed.

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