Jim Gaffigan Finds Fun in the "Absurdity of Humans"

The comedian and actor lampoons corporate competition and ruthless marketing with his role in 'Unfrosted'

Photo: John P. Johnson / Netflix

BY Vish KhannaPublished May 3, 2024

During a transitional scene early on in Netflix's Unfrosted, Jerry Seinfeld's new satirical film and directorial debut about the invention of Pop-Tarts in 1963, the head of the Kellogg Company flips through a newspaper and, skimming an article, idly says, "Huh, Vietnam — that seems like a good idea."

The aside makes it clear that, beyond the Pop-Tarts product placement, Unfrosted is a story that has fun with history while also setting out to be a sharp comedy about marketing, advertising and consumer susceptibility and manipulation.

"Yeah, absolutely," Jim Gaffigan, who plays Edsel Kellogg III, the head of Kellogg's, agrees. "And also, how humans are idiots."

"I don't know if I gained any additional perspective," the comedian adds, speaking to Exclaim! in a telephone interview. "But I do think that this rivalry between Post and Kellogg's — you could replace that with any other corporate kind of competition. I don't know why humans have this tendency to get caught up in that competition."

In the star-studded, cameo-rich film, Seinfeld's character, Bob Cabana, is essentially an R&D man working for Kellogg's, whose fiercest cereal rival is Post, led by a duplicitous CEO played by Amy Schumer.

Competition ensues to determine which company can crack the code of creating a viable, portable, "shelf-stable" cereal treat, and a breakfast food Cold War develops. Kellogg's entry, Pop-Tarts, poses a threat to everything from the dairy industry (represented by Christian Slater's surly milkman) to the brotherhood of cereal mascots (led by the comical Hugh Grant as a disgruntled, classically trained actor cast as Tony the Tiger).  

Ultimately, both companies mostly care about who can create something that will fool the public into buying something unhealthy first, and the film fixates on how marketing is often a tool to create new generations of suckers — but, sometimes, the suckers catch on.

Their idiocy can then evolve into dumb anger, reflected in Unfrosted when even the January 6 insurrectionists are mocked for being duped to storm a building without really thinking about what they're so up in arms about.

"I don't know what the inspiration behind it was," Gaffigan says of the riot sequence that Seinfeld and his team wrote. "But I interpret it as this real fermentation of anger, and that it can come out in so many different ways when people think that they're being slighted.

He continues, "I think it really is a commentary on the absurdity of humans. There's not a single character in this movie that doesn't come across as foolish, which I think is a characteristic of even the television show Seinfeld, where everyone's kind of guilty and everyone's kind of a buffoon."

For Gaffigan, it was a particular pleasure to work with Melissa McCarthy and the "Taste Pilots," a ragtag Oppenheimer-esque squad of thinkers and inventors played by comedic actors, including Thomas Lennon who portrays a German immigrant who suspiciously shares many of the same, rumoured attributes as Adolf Hitler.

"I think that there is something about the pacing," Gaffigan explains. "There is a pacing to this comedy where there's an efficiency behind it. But I do feel like every character is kind of an exaggeration."

Gaffigan says he first really befriended Seinfeld when he was a guest on the latter's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and the pair later shared the stage at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. As stand-ups, each tends to partake in absurd, observational comedy about the silly and unnecessarily frustrating aspects of life, which include many bits about mass-marketed products that prey on our laziness and stupidity.

For Seinfeld's part, his target goes beyond the hyper-consumerism of our current society, as his advocacy for comedy-over-everything clumsily derails his own promotional cycles by joining the ranks of aggrieved comics, fielding questions that find him attacking "P.C. crap" and some boogeyman "left" that apparently won't tolerate edgier jokes and network sitcoms. (Although the long-term presence of cable shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and younger network shows like Abbott Elementary and A.P. Bio prove otherwise.)

The tone of Unfrosted draws parallels to the later seasons of Seinfeld, a show widely considered to be one of the greatest sitcoms ever made. When co-creator Larry David left the show in 1996, Seinfeld and the writing staff oversaw a tonal shift. David's penchant for using his own and other writers' lived experiences for outlandish plot fodder imbued the show with an earthy grittiness. With his departure, that rawness was still present, but the storylines also became more cartoonish and exaggerated.

Seinfeld's Peter Pan complex, in which he clings to the silly, beautiful innocence of youthful discovery, means that Unfrosted, too, is bright, colourful and joke-laden with sight gags and so many humorous one-liners, you can miss them as you're still processing previous ones. Like a lot of his work, it's meant to be fun and airy, but it's also steeped in a fed up are-you-kidding-me incredulity and cynicism.  

Although Gaffigan's signature bit about Hot Pockets in his stand-up, and Seinfeld's predilection for taking aim at the faults of society, don't make their participation in a film about Pop-Tarts unexpected, it's worth pondering why there's such a market to make and see such movies in the wake of similar stories BlackBerry, Nike, Cheetos, Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls.

"I mean, that's a good question," Gaffigan says. "I think it really comes down to a particular point of view surrounding these things that happen to be brands or products. The reality of AIR is that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players that [ever] played. It's not just the product — it's the product within the context of our culture or social norms."

He continues, "I think Barbie was really unique in that it took something that was considered relatively passé, and it was Greta Gerwig's point of view that was so refreshing. I think it's less about brands and more about how they could be stories."

Gaffigan agrees that the line between "storytelling" and "branding" can be a fluid one, and that the tale of Pop-Tarts might be benign, but it's ultimately about capturing the attention and imaginations of a specific consumer: little kids.

"This isn't the case necessarily now, but when you used to watch some kids' TV shows, there would be commercials targeted at your kid," he observes. "You're like, 'Well, they're too young to be targeted by a commercial.'"

Reflecting on Unfrosted's joke-filled meditation on the power that capitalist messaging and media manipulation has over humanity, Gaffigan remarks, "If you really want to overthink it, Pop-Tarts is one of those things that started the true targeting of children. Now, there's vapes and even social media platforms that mean a different thing to an adult than it does to a kid. It's a fascinating thing."

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