The Passions of Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan
“It’s like, you know, is it St. Augustine who said ‘the best way to convince someone is by an example rather than telling them’?” muses Jim Gaffigan as he sits in his home office in Manhattan. His wife and writing and producing partner Jeannie has just stepped out to welcome their five young children home from school, and Gaffigan is trying to describe the couple’s “non-preachy” approach to their Catholic faith. After briefly pausing to consider that he might be out on a bit of a theological limb with the Augustine reference, he tries to backtrack for a moment before finally giving up and admitting with a self-deprecating laugh, “He didn’t say that!”
Granted, the doctors of the church may not be his stock-in-trade; but make no mistake, Jim Gaffigan has turned thinking out loud into a very successful career. On topics ranging from God, marriage and fatherhood to bacon, Hot Pockets and overeating, the 51-year-old’s eccentric brand of observational humor has made him one of the most popular stand-up comedians working today. Audiences pack theaters across North America, Europe and Australia to see him perform. His five comedy specials are Netflix staples, and “The Jim Gaffigan Show” ran for two critically acclaimed seasons on TV Land. His two books have spent multiple months on the New York Times best-seller list, and he was even tapped to open for Pope Francis in 2015 at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia.
The couple has produced comedy specials, best-selling books and five children. They even survived a brain tumor. What have you done lately?
It is an impressive résumé that will soon include the release of his most significant dramatic film role yet. “Chappaquiddick” (due out April 6)—in which he co-stars alongside Jason Clark and Ed Helms—tells the story of Ted Kennedy’s infamous car accident in 1969, in which Kennedy’s passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died. It is a story of power, privilege and corruption from a half century ago whose contemporary parallels in politics and the #MeToo movement are impossible to ignore.
The Inner Voice
Onstage, Gaffigan—who grew up in a small town in Indiana—exudes a Midwestern normalcy akin to his comedic forebear Bob Newhart: the perpetually put-upon, middle-aged, middle management, slightly dim American everyman. As with Newhart, those externals are deceptive and mask a keen intelligence and a sharp sense of the absurd. Nowhere is that more apparent than when Gaffigan thinks out loud during his stand-up sets using his signature “inner voice”—a running, critical meta-commentary that he regularly sprinkles throughout his act. Delivered with the high-pitched, breathy tone of a disapproving aunt, it is a disarming and hilarious device that enables him to be both comedian and critic simultaneously: “I would like everyone to feel comfortable. That’s why I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.” “He better not!”
Anointed the “King of (Clean) Comedy” by The Wall Street Journal, Gaffigan, like his friend Jerry Seinfeld, does not curse in his act. “I felt like I wasn’t done writing the joke if I was relying on a curse word,” he told the Journal’s Don Steinberg in 2013. After moving to New York in the early ’90s, the Georgetown University graduate worked in advertising and spent years honing his comedy chops on the club circuit. “I went through a lot of different styles of stand-up. I did impressions; I did voices. I was angry up there. I was silly. And I kind of settled in,” he said.
Anointed the “King of (Clean) Comedy” by The Wall Street Journal, Gaffigan does not curse in his act.
The search for his own authentic comedic voice received an immeasurable boost in 2000 when he met and started a creative partnership with the director and actress Jeannie Noth. A Midwest native as well, Noth—the oldest of nine—had studied directing at Marquette University and was running a not-for-profit theater company in New York at the time that produced Shakespearean plays with inner-city teenagers. Her proficiency as a multitasking whirling dervish was evident even then. Jim asked for some help producing a CD of his stand-up act; Jeannie began recording him in the New York clubs and soon started offering performance advice. “Jim was working a little more blue at that time,” says Jeannie, “so I would say ‘instead of saying that, what if you use this expression?’”
Jim understood early on that his future wife was a force to be reckoned with. Before they began dating he saw Jeannie direct 100 children in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at St. Patrick’s Youth Center in New York’s Little Italy. “These were inner-city children, some of whom could barely read; and it was a hip-hop version!” he recalls. “She was on a bullhorn directing, ‘All right you guys, come out now!’”
“They were damn good, too!” Jeannie interjects.
“I was like, ‘Okay, this woman’s crazy, but there’s nothing she can’t do.’”
“It’s Not Something You Solve”
In a field like stand-up, which is dominated by solo performers with distinct and often fiercely independent voices, the Gaffigans’ collaboration is unique. Spending time with them and seeing them finish each other’s sentences, it becomes clear that the boundary between their creative partnership and their personal lives can get blurry. “Dating and work were the same thing,” says Jeannie of their early days together. “Right away I was like. ‘I’m busy; you’re busy. If we’re going to date we need to be working on something together.’”
They were married in 2003, and after their oldest child, Marre, now 13, was born they would bring her along to shows. Jeannie would be taking notes on Jim’s set while their daughter slept on the couch in the venue’s green room. Their creative dynamic has the feel of an ongoing conversation in which their material is forged and refined through a continuous back and forth. It’s a dynamic that they have had to adapt continuously, given the demands of their family. “The partnership has changed every year depending on how many kids we have and what age those kids are,” says Jim. “There used to be times when the kids were in bed after the show and we’d do some writing. Well, with five kids, they’re not all going to bed [at the same time]. Bigger kids, bigger problems. We are literally stealing moments to write.”
In a field like stand-up, which is dominated by solo performers, the Gaffigans’ collaboration is unique.
As their family grew and Jim’s stand-up career took off, they would adapt by scheduling his tours during spring break or summer vacations and by traveling with the whole family on a tour bus. “Sometimes for the summer tours we did like 30 days straight,” Jim says. “It was all this balancing act...how can we do stand-up and not be away from each other? And it’s a constant [challenge].... It’s not something you solve.”
Their shared work ethic, a love of comedy and a measure of self-control enable their collaborative process to function smoothly. “I don’t consider writing comedy work,” says Jim. “I consider sitting on a plane work; I consider the bureaucracy of everything work.” For Jeannie, it is important that creative differences do not spill over into their personal lives. “It takes a great deal of self-control not to go down the ‘You’re just like your mother’ path,” she says, “because then it morphs into a ‘married couple fight’ rather than two writers with a creative disagreement.”
Their writing partnership reached a watershed moment with the debut of their sitcom “The Jim Gaffigan Show” in 2015. After developing the show for five years with several near misses on network television, the couple decided to produce it at the cable channel TV Land. The show was a fictionalized version of their lives as a comedian and his wife who are practicing Catholics living with five young children in a small apartment in downtown Manhattan. (The Gaffigans lived in close quarters in New York’s Bowery neighborhood for many years but have since moved to a more spacious loft space nearby.)
“The Jim Gaffigan Show” was a fictionalized version of their lives as practicing Catholics living with five young children.
The decision to move the show to basic cable was based on their desire to create a tone and comedic point of view that reflected their actual lives. “It’s our unique spin about how we incorporate our faith into our comedy, our children, our real story,” Jeannie told the AV Club. Capturing that tone required the couple to produce and write every episode. It was an extraordinarily ambitious enterprise that was not only funny; it actually yielded a fascinating magic trick of sorts.
In the show, the fictional Jeannie (Ashley Williams) is a stay-at-home mom whose best friend Daniel (Michael Ian Black) is a gay man who is a constant presence in their lives and an eternal irritant to Jim (played by Gaffigan himself). She is deeply involved in her local parish, and their young African priest (Tongayi Chirisa) is a frequent visitor to their home. Jim’s closest friend, David (Adam Goldberg), is a Jewish atheist comedian who is on the prowl to bed every attractive woman he sees. Their great feat in all this was that, somehow, the Gaffigans were able to create a world in which being a practicing Catholic in a downtown New York arts culture was not a “problem” that needed to be dealt with or solved. There was no sense of an embattled or hostile alienation from the world around them—or judgment, for that matter. Faith was simply integrated into their lives, an unremarkable fact on the ground.
“That’s probably why Jeannie and I had to write all the episodes,” says Jim. “Because otherwise it turns it into a bar joke. I mean, ‘A gay man and a priest and an atheist walk into a bar’? We didn’t want it to be about that. The reality is, in our lives, having friends who are atheists or have different viewpoints makes our lives rich.”
The truth is the world the Gaffigans portrayed on their show is simply an amplified comedic version of the messy and complicated lives that most American Catholics—and people of all faiths—unconsciously negotiate every day. What is astonishing is not that they pulled it off but that we do not see that reality reflected more regularly in popular media.
After producing 23 episodes, the couple decided that they needed to shut their passion project down in late 2016. In what might be the world’s first truly honest example of “the desire to spend more time with their family,” Jim and Jeannie realized that with both of them working 80-hour weeks, neither of them was acting as their children’s main caregivers, and that needed to change. “I knew we could do years of a really great show,” says Jeannie. “But when we look back, are we going to say, ‘You know what, we did a really great show but we neglected our family?’ Or do we say, ‘This was a great thing in our life, and we have so much more we can do that we can tailor-make to our family’?” Immediately after their decision to stop, they were onto their next adventure, Jim’s stand-up special “Cinco.”
In his stand-up routine, Jim has famously—and affectionately—referred to Jeannie as a “Shiite Catholic” for her level of devotion.
Their ability to create the nuanced sense of faith of “The Jim Gaffigan Show” is due in no small part to Jim’s own journey. In his stand-up routine, he has famously—and affectionately—referred to Jeannie as a “Shiite Catholic” for her level of devotion, but his own story mirrors the experience of many Gen Xers. “I went to a Catholic high school, a Catholic college; but for most of my 20s I would probably identify as an agnostic. I probably went through a couple years where I was a rebellious atheist. So I empathize with their point of view. I understand that,” he says.
Jim’s sense of faith today is clearly very personal and not easily articulated except to say that he is not interested in holding himself up as a model Catholic. (There’s a decent chance that in his fumbling of the St. Augustine quote earlier, he was really trying to quote one of Jeannie’s favorite lines from St. Ignatius: “Love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.”)
He credits learning about St. Faustina and her devotion to divine mercy in his 30s as a turning point for greater openness to moving beyond intellectual questions about God and making the leap of faith. “Cynicism is very comforting,” he says. “Getting caught up in the larger intellectual debate might be constructive on an intellectual level, but is that serving the person you want to be?”
Holy Week 2017
“Am I going to die?” is not a question any 40-something mother of five young children ever wants to contemplate, but it is exactly what Jeannie Gaffigan put to her surgeon during Holy Week in 2017.
Complaining of hearing loss in one of her ears, she was sent to a neurosurgeon who confirmed that she had a brain tumor that was deeply wrapped around her brain stem. Though there was an 80 percent chance it was benign, the location of the tumor around the cranial nerves meant that there was an increased danger that critical functions like speech, swallowing, breathing and facial expression could be damaged. “I liked those odds,” says Jeannie. “I was just very confident I was going to live and be able to deal with it. It was like supernatural…. I didn’t care about having a paralyzed face or any of that stuff.”
In hindsight Jim believes that the doctor was being overly optimistic. The medical odyssey that occurred post surgery, in which Jeannie contracted pneumonia in the hospital and needed to endure a tracheotomy, points to a crisis more dire than she perhaps was aware of. Jim feared Jeannie might die, and with her the life they had built together. “There were a realistic couple weeks where I was like, ‘It might be over,’” Jim recalls. “I’ve had a good run...this might be it. I love doing stand-up, but I’d rather not completely fail on the parenting front. If I was going to be a single parent, that would have to take priority over my career.”
Although Jeannie was desperate to get back home to her children, she could not do so without a nurse on call. Jeannie’s good friend Sister Mary Doolittle, a registered nurse and a member of the Sisters of Life, offered to stay with them. Having been in the hospital for two weeks, Jeannie wanted nothing more than to finally take a shower at home. “One of the best memories of my whole life,” she recalls, “is Jim and a fully habited nun taking me into the shower...and basically hosing blood out of my hair. It was a comedy show.”
True to form, Jeannie’s sickness became fodder for the Gaffigans’ comedy writing.
For weeks after the surgery she was unable to speak or swallow and was fed through a feeding tube. Less than a year later, however, through speech and swallow therapy, her ability to swallow is improving and though she has one paralyzed vocal chord, she is able to speak.
True to form, the sickness became fodder for the Gaffigans’ comedy writing. Jim recalls Jeannie emerging after being in an M.R.I. tube for hours and telling him to write down a joke idea she had just come up with. They began looking at this serious health situation through their own comedic sensibilities.
“I don’t want our brain surgeon to have hobbies,” says Jim. “You want him to be like ‘You know what I like to do when I’m not doing brain surgery? I’m thinking about how I can be a better brain surgeon.’ You don’t want him to be interested in cooking class.” They came up with enough material in the six months after the surgery that it formed the heart of their upcoming stand-up special, “Noble Ape,” which will be released this summer.
“I think it’s so cute,” Jim says with a teasing paternal seriousness while sitting across from his daughter Marre, “how like, she’s 13 but, she still acts like she’s not going to be a nun.” His daughter smiles and rolls her eyes—tacit teenage affirmation that this is part and parcel of being a Gaffigan. Fortunately, with Jeannie about to mark a one-year anniversary since her surgery, they are all able to focus on topics that are not life and death.
For Jim, that means the release of “Chappaquiddick” in early April. Gaffigan loves acting but has not always found opportunities that are right for him. With the role of Paul Markham, a U.S. attorney from Massachusetts and a Kennedy insider, he has landed in a movie that is riveting not simply because of the horrifying episode it recounts but for its relevance to scandals making headlines in 2018.
Markham, along with the Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), were the people Teddy turned to on July 18, 1969, after his reckless driving and failure to report the accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne died. The facts of the story alone are enough to disturb, but Jason Clarke’s ability to embody Teddy’s strange mixture of insecurity and arrogance is downright chilling. The film was shot before our country began its current reckoning with white male power and privilege, but for Gaffigan it is essentially the same scandal, different decade. “[It’s] just powerful people getting away with things,” he says; “it’s money and power.”
Jim admits that “growing up an Irish Catholic American, the Kennedys hold this appeal,” but he also recognizes that it is no mean feat to reconcile two very different aspects of the deceased Massachusetts senator. The man who became a political punchline after Chappaquiddick was the same man who went on to become the “Lion of the Senate” and was a tireless, decades-long advocate for the less fortunate and a leader on issues like health care and disability rights.
While Jim says the events at Chappaquiddick were “horrifying,” he is careful to note that John Curran, the film’s director, always cautioned, “This isn’t going to be a hit piece, and it isn’t going to be an apology” but an interpretation based on the available research. “I think this is an important movie, and good art asks good questions. It doesn’t give answers.” Still, he cannot help but wonder if Kennedy’s record of service after the scandal should be considered in our ultimate assessment of the man. “Did he earn that second chance?” Jim asks. “Because I am somebody who personally has been the beneficiary of second chances. We all are.”
Photos by Bud Glick.