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Jim Gaffigan: How wife's brain surgery led to ban on Hot Pockets jokes

Earlier this year, comedian Jim Gaffigan decided to leave the food jokes at home.

Domino’s Pasta Bread Bowls, McDonald’s french fries and Hot Pockets, the usual suspects of Gaffigan’s fast-food wrath, have been absent from the comic’s Noble Ape tour, which stops at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Friday, Dec. 29. Replacing the carb-heavy humor is a less savory subject that threatened to end his standup career: the health of his wife and writing partner, Jeannie, who suffered a brain-tumor scare earlier this spring.

Jeannie Gaffigan had a “pear-size” tumor removed from her brain stem in April. Although the surgery was successful, Jeannie’s still in recovery mode, the father of five admits by phone from his Manhattan home.

“It’s been insane this year,” says Gaffigan, 51. “Not only could I have lost the love of my life, but we have five children, so the career would be coming to a halt. She’s still not 100 percent. But her 95 percent is like me on my finest, most productive day.”

He’ll address the surgery and hospital life at the BB&T Center. That arena’s size befits a man of Gaffigan’s caliber, a PG-rated standup whose popularity can be blamed on his endearing observations on fatherhood, laziness and the extreme grossness of kale. He earned $30.5 million in 2017 (a shade behind Kevin Hart’s $32 million), according to Forbes’ recent list of the top 10 highest-paid comedians.

On his way to Sunrise, Gaffigan discussed his dramatic movie projects, brain tumors and being a mediocre dad.

Some of your upcoming film projects sound pretty heavy. You have roles in the thriller “Them That Follow” (about a snake-worshipping community in Appalachia) and “Chappaquiddick,” out in April (about Sen. Ted Kennedy’s infamous 1969 car accident). Is this a nice break from comedy for you?

You know, I love doing both. In an ideal world, I’d work on a movie during the day and do standup at night. Standup is very much a conversation, but with acting, even though you’re playing some dark character covering up Chappaquiddick, it’s fun to play pretend. But I’ve never had so many dramatic roles before. There’s this perception thing when people see me on “Law and Order,” they’re thinking, “What’s he doing in a drama?” So I’ve just been lucky.

I read that you learned a lot more about Chappaquiddick by being on the set of “Chappaquiddick” than by growing up hearing about it.

I’m 51, so I kind of knew about it from an historical context, but I didn’t know that Ted Kennedy had a lot more pressure on him than I realized. Ted outlived all of his brothers, and with the loss of Bobby [Kennedy], within six months, there was this push for him to run for president when he was just starting his political career. Does that pressure excuse a woman dying? No, but we all have failures. We all have stuff that defines us, and they can make us quit at life or go forward.

The stuff that has defined your life recently was your wife’s surgery. How is Jeannie recovering these days?

She’s doing OK now, but the tendency for society to react is that once you dodge this life-threatening event, the problem suddenly goes away like the common cold. She’s still getting better. A scenario could have come up where she was completely debilitated or she wasn’t there, and even though I joke about being a mediocre dad — and I am a mediocre one — I wouldn’t want to outsource being a dad of five kids to strangers. I would do it myself.

Has that reality check mellowed you at all? How does Jeannie feel about publicly addressing her surgery?

It’s all given me a certain revitalization of enjoying and appreciating every performance more than ever. But when it came to her brain tumor, I didn’t want to use it in standup. But Jeannie was like, "I want to talk about this." So I’ve been following her lead, and she’s been posting on social media videos of me blow-drying her hair. Social media is very strange. The balancing act is you want to be open for your fans, but you also don’t want to go full Kardashian.

So what topics will you be covering in your standup? I’ve read that you’ve cut out all the food jokes, even about Hot Pockets. How do you even talk about a brain tumor?

People will probably think now that I’ve gone through all the fast-food chains, maybe I’ll just start growling a lot. It’s not like that. I wanted to focus on the medical experience this time. The tumor humor. It’s like, why do doctors always compare tumors to sizes of fruit, like pears? Or golf balls? It seems weird. Why fruit? Initially, I thought it was because surgeons are really bad at analogies, but then I realized that surgeons are just dumbing it down for idiots like me.

Sure, but when you become famous for food jokes, how much of a risk is it to diverge from that material?

Well, pears are covered. But of all the different standup specials I’ve done, there’s always been non-food-related material, but those jokes resonated because they’re far more universal. Everyone eats. Everyone’s had bacon, and you can relate to the struggle of getting out of a chair because you‘re lazy.

How will our political landscape figure into your standup? Talk about a universal subject.

I feel like my standup is a break from the onslaught of politics that are happening right now. People have very strong opinions on Trump, but when they come to my show, they’re like, “Don’t talk about that. Stick with the funny.” This will be a politically agnostic thing. We’re going to take a break from it and laugh at the stupidity of humans.

Jim Gaffigan will perform 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 29, at the BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, in Sunrise. Tickets cost $31-$65 via Ticketmaster.com. Call 954-835-7000 or Ticketmaster pay-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000 or go to TheBBTCenter.com.

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