Jim Gaffigan on His New Show’s Long Road to TV

the_jim_gaffigan_showAfter over a decade of creative work and several years of network negotiations, The Jim Gaffigan Show has finally found a home. The new series premieres tonight at 10pm on TV Land, with each episode re-airing Thursdays at 8pm on Comedy Central. The show is a labor of love for the veteran comedian Gaffigan and his work/life partner, Jeannie. The husband and wife duo have worked closely together for years to create what the public knows as Jim Gaffigan’s trademark persona. The Jim Gaffigan Show is, for all intents and purposes, an autobiographical look at the couple’s New York City life with their five children. I talked to Jim about the new show, he and Jeannie’s working relationship, and his efforts to evolve as a comedian while staying true to his roots.

This show has been a long time coming. I read that it’s been in development for the last three years.

It even goes back to the year 2001-2002. My wife and I wrote an animated version of the show about our life raising kids in downtown Manhattan. We weren’t even married and didn’t have kids at the time. But for the past couple of years, we had a script deal at NBC, followed by two rounds with CBS. CBS really liked it and it tested well, but the single-camera thing doesn’t fit the traditional format of the four-camera sitcom. I didn’t want to do that. We were presented with the option of doing the show we wanted at TV Land. I was like, “I don’t care where the show is, as long as we have a budget and the authority to do what we want.” That was what was important. Having gone through the network model, the studios, the notes… Jeannie and I knew that we wanted to do the show we wanted to do. I know that sounds kind of basic, but believe me, in TV, doing a show where the personality of the show is authentic to you is not something to take for granted.

That makes sense. The show is very autobiographical. To think that you might lose some of that creative control could feel like you’re giving up too much of yourself.

Yeah. I’ve learned this over the years. I remember when I did a show called Welcome to New York where I played a character named Jim Gaffigan. I would pitch the writers lines and they would say, “I don’t know if he would say that.” I was like, “I know I would.”

Why were you so insistent on keeping it a single-camera show?

The reason was that I don’t enjoy watching four-camera shows. I’ve acted in four-camera shows and I’ve acted in single-camera shows. It feels more like acting. It’s a more rewarding thing to do as an actor. Jeannie and I wanted to do a show that we would watch, that would appeal to us. We live in this Golden Age of dramas and even the comedies that are very good today… I don’t even like how comedies are lit. They’re lit like a grocery store. I wanted it to feel more authentic. I wanted what we do to be more situational-based rather than what we might have seen on Friends, like the reality of these people never working. I’m not saying we need to see people leave to go to the restroom. But it’s a basic comedy premise: the straighter the setup, the better the punch. If it’s more grounded in reality, the better the payoff. The behavior doesn’t have to be as ridiculous for it to be funny.

You work closely with your wife, Jeannie, on this show. What’s your working dynamic like?

It’s hard to describe. We’ve been working together on books, standup and the show for so long. It’s like any other writing team, but I’m married to her. I’ll come up with an idea, she’ll improve on it, and hopefully I’ll improve on that. The true value of having your writing partner be your wife is that no one has a greater interest in a Jim Gaffigan project succeeding than Jeannie Gaffigan.

You have some great cameos in the first few episodes, especially from the standup world. Fred Armisen, Jeanine Garofalo, Dave Attell. Who else can we look forward to seeing?

Let me put it this way: Fred and Jeanine are playing characters. But there are a lot of cameos that I don’t want to bring up because some of the jokes rely on the fact that these people appear. If I bring them up, it might get more people to watch, but it could also weaken the surprise.

In the few episodes I watched, I noticed that there are no cuts to you doing standup. It’s clear that you’re a career standup, but we never see you performing. Will that show up later, or did you make a conscious decision to leave it out?

That was very much a conscious decision. The networks, going back to CBS, would say, “We would love to see Jim doing standup.” If the premise is based on my life when I’m not on stage, I don’t think we need to to show that. There’s nothing wrong with Louie, or Mulaney, or Seinfeld doing that. But the public has seen my standup. They can consume it when they want. Some of the stories are inspired by standup jokes, but the jokes are inspired by life. It’s a back-and-forth.

With your family being a key part of the show, are there any things from your real life that are off limits as creative fodder?

No. Every comedian has — I would hope — this same approach on censorship: everything can be made fun of. Nothing is off the table. It’s a core belief in standup. Some of the more awkward things that happen do inspire the stories. Did you see the Bible episode?

Yeah, and I want to go deeper into that in a bit.

Well, that’s inspired by my insecurity of being known as a Catholic, or a Christian. I lived across from the church that I got married in for fifteen years and never went in it. I understand the point of view of how people feel about certain topics. There’s a scene in that episode where I say, “I just want to talk about avocados.” It really comes down to that. The fact that I’m this guy that talks about food or being lazy… I don’t want to do anything that’s going to interrupt that.

The line I liked from the Bible episode was when you were talking to your wife and you said, “I don’t want people to think that I believe in God.” Then she replies, “But you do believe in God.” I think that’s an interesting representation of who we are as people versus how we want to be perceived. I can only imagine the scale to which that is blown up when you’re a public figure.

Oh, absolutely. It’s very strange, though. I remember one time I was doing Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies podcast. He was like, “You would never go on Anthony Jeselnik’s show.” I was like, “Why wouldn’t I go on it?” He said, “Because you’re The Clean Comic.” I’m like, “What would that have to do with anything?” As the comedy world grows and becomes increasingly fragmented into different types of comedy, what people don’t realize is that most comedians — whether they’re David Cross or Carrot Top — we’re all on the same team. I think there’s this mystique from the Borscht Belt that comedians resent each other and don’t like each other. In reality, everyone is kind of rooting for each other. I would go on Jeselnik’s show. I’m not going to go on and not be myself, though.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when it comes to things that you’re in creative control over — your books, standup, the show — you want to keep consistent in being clean and not going too blue. But when you get involved in other projects, I don’t think you’re totally opposed to that kind of stuff. For instance, in the movie Away We Go, you play a role that is very salty. That character has some pretty negative viewpoints and he curses. You’re not above doing that for the sake of art, right?

Yeah. If you look at the show I’m going to be touring with this summer, it’s a new hour. You’re always challenging your audience. I could only talk about food. But I remember in my last special someone said, “The guy who supposedly only talks about food just talked about cancer and made a rape joke.” I want this new hour to be as funny as ever, but you can’t do the exact same thing and expect the same results in standup. You have to evolve. I do feel that I’m getting better at it. Things that I couldn’t talk about before, that I couldn’t articulate, I can discuss now. When you talk about clean or not, some of it is a calculation of whether or not you can follow yourself. If I got really filthy, my audience wouldn’t be thrilled. But my calculation is: what do I talk about after that? Can I talk about binge watching television after that? If I’m up there for an hour and fifteen minutes, dissecting minutiae, or laziness, or gluttony, it’s hard to shift to something salacious. It doesn’t make sense from a narrative structure. Once you bring up something really dark, it’s hard to go light. People think it’s about censorship, but it’s never about censorship. Like what Jim Norton does on stage is incredibly authentic and very consistent. I don’t want to get all Gladwell/10,000 hours, but it’s about voice and consistency, figuring out what works and finding ways to push the envelope while maintaining a consistent point of view.

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