Jim Gaffigan’s Calling

A few days ago a friend e-mailed me a link to the season premiere of The Jim Gaffigan Show, with the episode titled, “The Calling.” “Would love to know your thoughts,” he wrote. Having taken a master class for professional coaches that I taught last fall (called “Make Your Job a Calling”), he knows I am obsessed with understanding what people mean when they say they’ve found their calling—and what difference it makes. What is a calling? How do people discern one, and live it out? To my utter delight, these are all questions that Gaffigan took on in the first episode of his show’s second season.

The show presents a fictionalized version of Gaffigan’s real life: Gaffigan, for those who don’t know, is the wildly successful stand-up comedian and actor known for, in no particular order, (1) his obsession with food, (2) his wife and five children, and (3) his Catholic faith. All three factor into “The Calling.” The episode opens with Gaffigan dreaming that his priest, Father Nicholas, shows up around every corner, each time with a request that Gaffigan serve in the soup kitchen, or speak to a men’s group about fatherhood, etc. Gaffigan is unable to escape and unable to say no, because “then he’ll tell on me. . . to God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit guy.” He wakes up from his dream screaming. Later he agrees to a real-life request to play on the church soccer team, and watches Father Nicholas absolutely dominate the competition. As it turns out, Father Nicholas had played on the Zimbabwe national team, was recruited to play with Manchester United, worked as a model for Benetton, and studied at the London School of Economics. Gaffigan, dumbfounded, asks: “You threw that away to be a priest?”

“I’ve been blessed with many gifts in this life,” replied Father Nicholas, “but I realized that I had a calling to serve. . . and I answered that call.”

“I think I would have let that go to voice mail,” responds Gaffigan. But the exchange gets him thinking—perhaps a calling is not for everyone, only for people who do things that are really significant, things that change lives, that impact the world. Did he have such a calling, he wonders, and somehow missed it?

His wife Jeannie weighs in: “Everyone has a calling. You just have to listen for it.” Suddenly Gaffigan, while walking through the neighborhood, hears an audible voice. “God?” he asks. But alas—it’s only Macaulay Culkin, yelling at him through a bullhorn outside a party.

Gaffigan goes back to Father Nicholas. “When you got your calling, was it all at once, like a moment of catharsis? What am I looking for?” The response: “I’m sure it will be revealed to you when the time is right.”

Then, Gaffigan receives a vision. . . from Jerry Seinfeld. Or rather, Jerry Seinfeld in 1992, speaking to Gaffigan when Gaffigan was a litigation consultant, hating his job but loving his Cuban sandwich. “You should be a comedian,” Jerry tells him. But he’s not sure that’s enough—“I think I’ve been doing it wrong,” he tells Jeannie. “I’m supposed to talk about important issues. . . if [comedy] is my calling, I should be using my gift to bring about change. . . make the world a better place. It’s going to be great.” His next routine though, with references to cosmic plans and hunger for the truth, bombs. Until he envisions Seinfeld again, reminding him: “Food you idiot. . . food!” Gaffigan switches his jokes back to his usual fare of pastrami and corned beef, and the belly-laughs follow.

Finally, the show fast-forwards to Gaffigan at the pearly gates, with St. Peter welcoming him—but directing him to the line of people who didn’t follow their callings. “What was my calling then?” asks Gaffigan. Peter checks the clipboard: “You were supposed to be a good father.”

The show first aired on Father’s Day and closed with a dedication “to all the fathers,” which obviously had something to do with Peter’s final revelation. Yet earlier in the show, Gaffigan’s sleazy friend Dave suggested (albeit mockingly), “You could have multiple callings. You could have two callings at the same time.” People resonate with that notion, of having multiple callings. In an early study on this question, we found that nearly every participant in a large sample of students expressed that callings were plural and extended throughout multiple life roles. The longing to discern a calling is not unique to Gaffigan—more than 1 in 5 Americans say they are searching for one—but even theologians point out that callings are rarely delivered in an “a-ha” experience or an audible voice. Instead, as Ryan Duffy and I have written, in Make Your Job a Calling, people striving to discern a calling are better off taking an active rather than passive approach. By leaning on relationships with important others, and carefully considering one’s gifts (broadly defined), obligations, and the world’s needs, people can identify “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” as Frederick Buechner famously put it.

Gaffigan ultimately does this in “The Calling,” realizing that his knack for food jokes gives people more authentic joy than his direct appeals to change the world—and that his responsibility as a dad, though he constantly downplays its impact, is always front and center. Gaffigan is doing this in real life as well, embracing what he’s best at doing and bringing his family commitments and his faith to the fore while his career reaches new heights, rather than separating himself from them. We can see this in every interview with Gaffigan, and in his comedy, and now in the show. In a way, it serves as a rare and pretty impressive example of how to balance these things. We should (apologies for the food pun) relish it.

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  • Daniel Piedra

    I really appreciate the theme of “The Calling” as well as Gaffigan’s overall message. One particular thing that struck me in the above article was the statistic that 1 in 5 Americans are searching for their calling. I think in some part this is due to our culture of individualism and its pressure to “be somebody” and/or “make a difference” in the world. That being so, I think a lot of people bow under the pressure. This leads me to my point that his pressure is a reason why people have let go or rejected the practice of Christianity.

    There is this widespread notion that exists — and which is encouraged from the pulpit — that if you truly want to be a Christian, you need to do something outwardly visible to proclaim the Gospel and show people the love of Jesus. And this type of pressure naturally keeps people away.

    Referring back to the episode, the correct approach is alluded to when St. Peter checks the clipboard and tells Gaffigan: “You were supposed to be a good father.” Ultimately, one’s true calling isn’t doing something outwardly extraordinary; it’s making every day life a pathway to happiness (or, in a spiritual context, holiness). It’s perfecting and conquering with joy and enthusiasm the small, mundane things of life — coming home to play with your kids instead of plopping yourself on the couch, folding the laundry neatly, obeying your boss’s ridiculous request with eagerness and diligence, putting the shopping cart back in the corral instead of sticking it up on the curb — these small, ordinary “acts of love”, as Gandalf says in “The Lord of the Rings”, is truly transformational. And not only for the person, but for the entire world.

    To conclude, modern society and its individualism and self-centered desire to “be somebody” has created a certain malaise, a gnawing insecurity. If people are looking for their calling, it’s right there, in their own little, insignificant — no, extraordinary — world.