Growing up Catholic in the small town of Chesterton, Indiana in the late 1960s and ’70s, Jim Gaffigan had a fascination with the famed Kennedy clan. After all, he recalls them as “the peak Catholic family,” thanks to the fact that they produced both a president in John F. Kennedy and an assassinated Democratic presidential candidate in Bobby.

Now 51, the devout Gaffigan has become perhaps the most popular “clean” comedian on the planet, with a string of highly successful Netflix comedy specials, best-selling books and a popular sitcom to his credit. But his latest role in the new historic thriller “Chappaquiddick”— as real-life US Attorney Paul Markham, who was dragged into the cover-up of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death after she drowned following a car crash with JFK and RFK’s brother Ted — might be his most challenging one yet.

“I’m a history buff so I was definitely fascinated by the fact of the cover-up and the fact that they pulled it off,” explains Gaffigan. “That’s what I think people are going to be fascinated by now, because in our present climate if this happened in 2016, he would definitely be in jail. I don’t know if that’s because of the American appetite for salaciousness, or the privilege to pull things off.”

Gaffigan recalls the historical significance of the Chappaquidick incident, which drew national attention but was quickly overshadowed two days later by the first team of US astronauts landing on the moon. He was fascinated by the fact that while Kennedy avoided jail time for the death of Kopechne, the fact that he was enmeshed in such a sordid situation with a woman who wasn’t his wife destroyed his own dreams of becoming president.

“Paul Markham was someone who desired to be in the Kennedy’s circle but you’ve gotta be careful what you wish for,” says Gaffigan. “He was on this sailing weekend at [Kennedy family resort] Chappaquiddick with Ted, they were gonna do good, but once Teddy came and asked for Paul, he was pulled into this mess. Who knows, he could have become part of the Supreme Court or done a lot of things, but following Chappaquiddick there was that association: did he contribute to the cover-up, and if so, how could he make it through a Senate confirmation?”

After 30 years in show business, Gaffigan realizes he “has some success” as a comedian but considers himself a journeyman actor. He’s riding a hot streak right now, with appearances in 11 films slated for release in 2018 alone, but makes sure that his Catholic values enter his decisions on which roles to take and which to turn down.

Another factor in his decisions is ensuring he finds the time to be a good husband to Jeanne, his wife of 14 years, and father to their five children. The two are creative partners, with Jeannie co-writing Jim’s standup routines as well as having co-created and directed his TV Land sitcom, “The Jim Gaffigan Show.”

That critically acclaimed series employed a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-style approach to depicting Gaffigan’s life, mixing misadventures based on his family life and career with funny fantasy sequences. But after two hit seasons, the Gaffigans made the highly unusual move of pulling the plug on the show, noting that the series’ hectic production schedule was risking the health and stability of their family.

“We were working 14 or 15 hours a day for six months of the year,” says Gaffigan. “We had done one season and had made adjustments for the second season and thought we could simplify it, but thought, ‘This is just insane. This is fun and creatively fulfilling, but at what cost?’

“No one was sick or getting injured, but it was just irresponsible,” he continues. “It was easier for me because I’m off doing standup and acting, but my wife was directing and was the showrunner. That’s an ongoing decision. I’m on this tear right now of booking jobs, but now I’m thinking, ‘Do I need to take another job this quarter, or is it more important that my kids aren’t smoking crack?’”

The youngest of six children, Gaffigan recalls that his father “wasn’t intentionally funny,” but that hearing his mom’s laughter “was really important to me.” He started clowning around to impress his siblings by impersonating their father and “prove I wasn’t just some competitor for food.”

He debuted onstage in January 1990, overcoming a lifelong fear of public speaking in which “I’d turn red and start hyperventilating.” He had taken an improv comedy class in college, during which a guest speaker gave a seminar on standup comedy, and from the first time he performed, Gaffigan recalls, “It felt like, ‘This is completely right.’ It felt rewarding to change the feeling in the room, and then I bombed for six months.”

While Gaffigan eventually became one of the most popular comics on the planet, he attributes much of his success to the strong opinions of his wife holding him to high moral standards.

“Bringing up that you’re Catholic onstage occasionally does make people uncomfortable, but making them uncomfortable and then making them laugh is pretty powerful,” he says. “And then the other side is that, as a comedian, I’m supposed to question authority. I might say something, but it has to get past my wife, so if she protests deeply about something I won’t do it. All I know is I’m busier than ever, I’m happy and hope it keeps coming.”

“Chappaquiddick” opens Friday. 

“chappaquiddick”: A

 

Capsule Reviews

READY PLAYER ONE

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn

Length: 140 minutes

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Rating: PG13

Easily Spielberg’s biggest crowd-pleaser since the 2002 combo of “MInority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can,” “Ready” imagines a 2045 America in which everyone is obsessed with a Virtual Reality universe called The Oasis and follows a team of young adults racing an evil corporation in a competition that can control society and win them $500 billion. Exciting and funny with tons of heart, this is a guaranteed blockbuster.  Grade:A

UNSANE

Stars: Clare Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

Length: 98 minutes

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

Soderbergh veers between commercial blockbusters and odd experiments, and his latest falls frustratingly into the latter camp. Shot entirely on iPhone and edited on a $15 app, this thriller about a woman who finds herself unwittingly trapped in a mental hospital has a solidly Hitchcockian first half before becoming laughably ludicrous and ugly in its second.   Grade:C

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

Stars: J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins

Length: 110 minutes

Directed by: Andrew Erwin, John Erwin

Rating: PG

This may be a faith-based indie film, but it’s hard to dismiss thanks to a star-making performance by Finley and a possibly Oscar-worthy turn by Quaid in the true story of Christian-rock singer Bart Millard and how his rough relationship with his dad inspired him to write the biggest-selling Christian hit of all time. This utterly transcends the sappiness of its genre.  Grade: A

GAME NIGHT

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams

Length: 100 minutes

Directed by: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rating: R

A very funny and endlessly inventive comic mystery that follows three bland yet highly competitive suburban couples who find themselves racing against time to save one’s brother when their game night takes a comically dangerous turn. Bateman and McAdams are a match made in heaven, an onscreen team who need to do many more films together. Grade:A

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon

Length: 109 minutes

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Rating: PG

This embarrassing misfire reveals why it took 50 years to film this timeless children’s-lit classic: it makes no sense on the big screen, especially when the novel’s Christian allegory is ground into New Age claptrap. Pretty to look at, but utterly incomprehensible and boring. Oprah Winfrey really needs to demand better hair and makeup: she looks like RuPaul crossed with an Oompah Loompah.   Grade:D