Jim Gaffigan says you've got to stay true to the inner voice.
The comedian hit full stride around four years ago, about the time he purged his act of profanity and quit suppressing the countervoice that's become his trademark. The running commentary on his own jokes often sounds like Dana Carvey's Church Lady is parked on the front row.
The two steps were related, says the 40-year-old who does his first Las Vegas show as a headliner today at Mandalay Bay.
"The voice in the head thing, the inner voice, is something I've more or less done for seven years," he explains. But he never attempted it on a high-profile showcase such as "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" because "I thought it was too weird."
But now it has become a big part of his act, and not coincidental to his decision to lose the occasional cursing that wasn't crucial to what he calls a "soft sell" brand of comedy.
"The inner voice kind of encompasses the most conservative and most PC social norm," Gaffigan explains. It's funnier when it isn't disapproving of things that might really "offend a greater group of people."
If the voice doesn't have to comment on "more generic" things such as swearing, "there's more precision and I think it's funnier for the inner voice."
Working clean helps keep Gaffigan's comedy as diverse as his parallel acting career. He says his current good fortune -- including a role on the TBS sitcom "My Boys" and last year's Comedy Central special "Beyond the Pale" -- is "a confluence of a bunch of things. In the entertainment industry, it would be considered a bunch of small things."
But they add up, including soft drink commercials and a series of animated "Pale Force" Web shorts with O'Brien. "It's like all of those combined almost equal being a real name," Gaffigan quips.
But he is quick to add, "There's an enormous up side. My stand-up is not something that only works for college kids or the heavy partiers or married folk. It kind of works for everybody."
He shares his manager with Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White, whose distinctive styles draw specific audiences. Gaffigan's fans have as little in common as people who consume Hot Pockets, the subject of his signature routine.
When Gaffigan hangs out to meet fans after his shows, his manager is always happily surprised to see "it will be the Goth kids next to the married couple with two kids next to the group of teenaged girls. I don't think people are necessarily coming because I'm on 'My Boys.' "
Gaffigan's career has been more chameleonlike since David Letterman's production company developed a sitcom for him, "Welcome to New York," in 2000.
"Letterman and that show changed my career," he says. After years of journeyman stand-up work in the '90s, "I was very lucky to have that situation and that opportunity."
But his comedy has come a long way since then. "I feel like I keep getting better," he says. "I didn't go into stand-up or acting from a performer family. I went to college (to study) finance. It probably took me seven or eight years to get over stage fright.
"I feel like my act keeps expanding," he adds. "I incorporate some of my unique weirdness that seems to work on a broad scale."
Acting and stand-up both have their pros and cons, he explains. Stand-up has an immediate payoff, but involves travel and late nights. Acting is the "antithesis of a meritocracy" and "auditioning for something is one of the most insane things in the world to do. But acting on a set is a great thing."
Gaffigan heads to Los Angeles right after this weekend to shoot another season of "My Boys"; his wife, Jeannie, occasionally appears on the show as his TV wife, and the two are writing a screenplay. He also has a part in a movie drama, "Stephanie Daley," that goes into independent release April 20.
"I'm very busy and I'm secretly a lazy man," he says.