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Jim Gaffigan may be talking out of his ass, but his show’s not what you think

It has been a long, long road for The Jim Gaffigan Show. Although the concept technically dates back to an animated idea Gaffigan and writing partner/wife Jeannie Gaffigan wrote for Fox at the turn of the millennium, in the more recent past, the show lived for years in various incarnations for NBC and CBS before ultimately landing on TV Land, that bastion of old reruns that has spent the past few years rebranding as a home for original series. As interminable as the journey was to get The Jim Gaffigan Show on the air, the comedian at the center of the show had plenty to keep him occupied—and successful: popular specials and albums (the last was 2014’s Obsessed), stand-up tours in large theaters, and two bestselling books, 2013’s Dad Is Fat and last year’s Food: A Love Story. So it wasn’t like everything hinged on Gaffigan getting his own show, and his stand-up success made it possible for him to hold out until he could do the show the way he and Jeannie wanted. Just before its July 15 premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with Gaffigan about The Jim Gaffigan Show’s long gestation process, working with his kids, and why he sounds like he’s talking out of his ass.

Jim Gaffigan: Have you seen the show?

The A.V. Club: I have, three episodes.

JG: Because people that don’t watch the show—and it’s not their fault—but they’re like, “Okay, half-hour comedy, on TV Land, I know what it’s like. I’ve seen other TV Land shows. I know Jim Gaffigan is a clean comedian. Okay, I get it.” And I was like, “No, no, no, it’s not like that.” Or then they’re like, “A comedy about a comedian who has five kids? Okay, I know what it’s like.” It’s not like that. So much of the entertainment industry is this strange perception game. Look, I’m the beneficiary of, I think, a positive perception, but if people hear “father of five kids, TV show,” [they think] it’s going to be Full House. And it’s not.


AVC: Or Just The Ten Of Us, from the ’80s.

JG: Yeah, Eight Is Enough.

AVC: This started as a CBS pilot in 2013, then it was redone in 2014, correct?

JG: Yeah, this thing goes way back. It’s been such an interesting journey to witness its evolution, and the education that Jeannie and I have experienced in this. I’ve been lucky enough to be on a bunch of shows, and this was part of the CBS show that was supposedly created around me. I came to the conclusion, I was like, “All right, I’m done with TV. Stand-up is just too rewarding. It’s fun. It’s immediate. I work for an hour and a half. I don’t have to wake up at 6 a.m.” Nothing can compete with stand-up. Then I was doing this play—I’m going to give you the long answer whether you want it or not—and [TV producer] Phil Rosenthal met Jeannie and I after the play and was like, “You’ve got to do a TV show. Your comedy, your point of view is suited for television.”


Jeannie and I worked around an idea with Phil, and Phil was like, “Why don’t you guys just do it?” We went to NBC with this show that was kind of based on our life, and NBC was like, “Great. You don’t have a showrunner, so we’re not going to shoot the pilot.” Then I met with a bunch of showrunners and met [Jim Gaffigan Show executive producer] Peter Tolan, who is a great guy, and so we went to CBS and we did a pilot. But I said, “Look, I want it to be single-camera. I don’t want to do four-camera. I want this to be a show that I would want to watch.” CBS was like, “Great.” I go, “All right, well you guys normally do four cameras. Are you okay with this?” And they were like, “Yes, we definitely want to do a show with you.” We did it. There were some kind of casting issues and stuff like that, so they were like, “Do it again.” This is like, we’re going on three years, and Jeannie and I were faced with the option—like, do we go to ABC? We had a nice offer from ABC. Or do we go back to CBS? CBS is like, “Look, do it again.” Then we did it again at CBS, and the show tested really well, and all along this process, Jeannie and I were learning and understanding what, from a production standpoint, we liked and that worked well. Then CBS bails on single-camera. We had some advocates at CBS, but essentially it came down to, “We’re not doing single-camera,” so the show was not going to get picked up.

Suitors came around, and one of them was [Viacom Music And Entertainment Group President] Doug Herzog. I talked to Doug on the phone a couple times and it was like, all right, yeah, maybe Comedy Central. He goes, “No, I want to put it on TV Land.” I’m like, “Look, I don’t know where TV Land is on my dial.” I’m the kind of guy who will do stand-up anywhere—I don’t really care about what the coolest place is. I do alternative rooms and comedy clubs; I don’t really care. He said he was overhauling TV Land. I said, “I’m fine with doing this show, but I want people to be able to see it, to sample it.” He agreed that it would air on TV Land and then it would re-air on Comedy Central the next night.


Then we had this meeting and I said, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, if I’m going to turn around and I’m going to convince Michael Ian Black and Adam Goldberg to do this, I need Jeannie and I to have the authority to do the show we want. There’s no studio. There’s an absence of the network bureaucracy.” Doug and Larry Jones, who was the president at the time were like, “Great, just give us 10 of those, whatever you do, whatever you want.” Obviously I’m exaggerating a little bit. Jeannie and I, we wrote all the episodes, and it’s amazing because I can’t imagine dealing with the typical network notes or the typical studio notes. That’s not to say we didn’t get notes, but there was—because of this incredible journey of four years or whatever, and knowing that stand-up was how I made a living—Jeannie and I weren’t beholden to like, “Oh, we gotta get the back nine [episodes]” or, “Oh, we need the second season.” We could do episodes that we wanted, like we wanted, and that was very liberating. We ended up doing a show on a cable network with a network budget, with the autonomy of a premium cable channel.


In this exclusive clip from the episode “Maria,” Jim and Jeannie try to find their friend Dave (Adam Goldberg), who’s out on a date with Jeannie’s sister, played by Meghann Fahy.

AVC: The order was for 10 but you delivered 11 altogether?

JG: Yeah, well it was 10 because we had already shot this episode with CBS and Sony. Jeannie and I approached this—people want each episode to be exceptional, but we treated every episode like, all right, this could be the last episode. Not that they were going to cancel us, but like, I didn’t want there to be [saying], “All right, this is the bottle episode, where they’re all stuck in a truck and they’re just talking.” Jeannie and I struggled to make every story interesting to us. Because we had gone through that network studio process of, “What is your inciting incident? What could we raise the stakes of Jim here?” We had this autonomy to [do] things that, [knowing] the bureaucracy and the network, we would not be able to achieve. We would be shooting something and I would be like, “All right, this is geographically wrong.” People would be like, “What does it matter?” I’m like, “It matters because I’m a New Yorker who watches shows, and it kind of breaks my heart when I sit there and I go, ‘All right, that’s obviously not the lighting of New York City.’ Or, ‘That’s not the geography of this or that.’” There’s something about the detail, the control-freak stuff, that I think works for my stand-up and has worked for the books, that Jeannie and I could really execute.


AVC: What is the writing process like?

JG: I’ll, again, give you a long answer. There are some things that I’ve learned from, like when I first did Welcome To New York, which was an idea I came up with, I hired this writing team and I naively thought, “Well hey, people wrote two shows for Bob Newhart. People will understand my point of view. It’s not that complicated. People knew how to write for Roseanne; it can’t be that complicated.” But the thing is, you can’t expect someone to be a mind-reader. We definitely got help from people [for The Jim Gaffigan Show], like we would run scripts by people, but I knew that the tone and a lot of the dialog would have to come from Jeannie and I. Because we didn’t want this to be joke-driven. Even down to the lighting in the background, we were all over it. Our DP was great, but I was like, “I don’t want this lit like a grocery store. If we’re in a club, it’s going to be dark.” I don’t want camera trickery. This is going to be a single camera. I’m somebody that loves dramas. I’m not saying this is going to be Bloodline or we’re going to use only natural light, but let’s keep it where people get caught up in the situation, like, “Oh, that is the Bowery Ballroom.” Or, “That is Smith & Wollensky’s.” The straighter the setup, better the punch. So the setup is the lighting and the behavior and the wardrobe—it sounds like I’m saying all these clichés, but hopefully it’s there.


AVC: Isn’t the apartment a replica of the two bedroom you were living in?

JG: The set is a little bit bigger than our old apartment. Jeannie and I wrote this animated script for Fox in 2000 about us raising kids in downtown Manhattan. The East Village was a different world then, but it was the same kind of idea. It wasn’t like with five kids and stuff like that, but it had a lot of these elements. Initially when my agents and managers were like, “You might as well do a show,” I didn’t want to do something autobiographical, but I knew that when Jeannie and I tried to write other things, we didn’t know those worlds—but I do know what it’s like to be a comedian and deal with other comedians. I do know what it’s like to be married with five kids in downtown Manhattan and some of the conflict and humor of that. It’s most certainly not a documentary, but these stories are inspired by real-life things. Like the Adam Goldberg character, it’s great that he’s an actor, because the character of Dave, he’s a combination of Dave Attell and and Greg Giraldo and Marc Maron and Todd Barry, but if Todd Barry was playing that character, understandably, he would have been like, “Well, wait a minute, you’re kind of making my character a pure loser, and I’m a real comedian.” But Adam is such a great actor, and he’s already created this character that’s nuanced and specific.


AVC: You weren’t sure you wanted to do something autobiographical, but so much of your material is based on your life. Obviously the TV show, but in Dad Is Fat, you show numerous family pictures in there and you’re talking about your kids by name. The kids were on when you hosted The Late Late Show with Jeannie—

JG: I know what you mean. It’s like, what’s the difference between that and the Kardashians? It’s really interesting, because the original version of Dad Is Fat was not personal. It was very observational. There is the exhibitionist kind of comic, and then there’s the observational. There’s a lot of different types of comics, but I was very much an observational comic, where you would understand his point of view, but you wouldn’t know if the guy had one kid or no kids, was single or married. He might vaguely reference his personal life to get to an observation. The initial version of Dad Is Fat wasn’t personal. We’re in this internet age. Initially I would never show a picture of my kids, but there is something about… I mean my kids are young, too, and it’s weird. I don’t know if you have kids. Do you have kids or no?


AVC: Yeah, I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old.

JG: Here’s the thing, and you’re probably already being exposed to it. You have these ideas on parenting, where you’re like, “I’m never going to let my kid watch TV,” or, “I’m not going to let my kids sit with an iPad and just noodle on it.” There’s this progression; like you aspire that your only form of parenting is going to be you sitting around a room with your kids, reading. You know what I mean? Like you have this romantic notion.

My identity as a father or my identity as a guy who likes to eat, so like if I’m sitting there and I’m dealing with the chaos of my kids and I tweet some humorous observation about my kids, where is [the line] like, “Hey that’s private. You shouldn’t tweet about your 2-year-old doing a Spider-Man thing.” But it’s all blurry. There’s also something of being a performer and sharing what it’s like for what I do and that they would enjoy. So that my kids opening up for me in Milwaukee singing “G-A-double-F-I-G-A-N,” like, there’s part of me that can see somebody going, “That’s just weird. Why would you have your kids do that?” But if you’re a parent and you have these kids that want to do it, what you have to understand is after every time they do it, we always say, “You never have to do that again.” Granted, a 3-year-old is not making these logical decisions, but you can tell when a kid doesn’t want to do something. But I would also say that there is something strange about wanting them to understand what I do. I’m not throwing them out there when they don’t want to do it, but I’m also giving them a taste of it. It’s like taking your kids to a nice hotel—it’s kind of a waste to take a kid to a nice hotel, but it’s also nice for them to see what a nice hotel is like. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s weird.


AVC: It’s tricky to me as a parent and being in your situation. You don’t want to put them in a place where they don’t really have a choice, where they’re just providing material.

JG: Oh, absolutely. Here’s an interesting thing: So the first time we did this pilot at CBS, our kids played our kids on the show. Again, it’s not that huge of a thing, but it’s like a day or two here and there. They had a blast. They loved it, and they were great. But there was, selfishly, anxiety of making sure my kids are okay when I should be acting. But there’s also, like, shouldn’t they be in school? Then on the other side, I’m like, “Well, my daughter does love doing it. Shouldn’t she be able to do it?” That aside, here’s the other thing: We intentionally made the children younger than our real children in real life. You have a 2-and-half-year-old. When a kid is 2 and a half, you can have a conversation with your wife or partner or whatever, and the 2-and-half-year-old—you’re not ignoring them, there’s just some things they’re not going to understand. Like you can kind of speak in code. But when a kid’s like 8, you can’t do that. They’re participants in the room.


So my wife and I were working on this show, and we have five kids on the show: 5, 4, 3, 2, and a baby. We auditioned all these kids—I mean I don’t know how you audition a 2-year-old; you just pick them up and see if they scream. By the way, young kids are really hard on a set, too. It’s like the AD department is like, “You really need to go on a boat? You really need five children?” And I’m like, “We really do. That’s part of the authenticity of this.” And they’re like, [Resigned.] “All right.” So when you have a 2-year-old and just like running through [the show], they won’t do it. They’ll be like, “no.” You can have grandparents there, you can have moms and all that. We ended up realizing that when we would shoot a day or two on set with the kids that we should just have our 2-year-old, because then our 2-year-old is there all day. By the way, they’re not there all day, but they’re there for six hours. So they’re there with their dad, and their mom is the executive producer. We’re not shooting 22 episodes. We’re shooting 10. Maybe he worked 10 days. He’s not missing fifth grade; he’s missing a 2’s program, you know what I mean? It’s an ongoing discussion for my wife and I. In the end, we’d rather be good parents than have a good show. It’s a constant battle. I don’t know if you deal with that, but you have this responsibility to a child. Typical A.V. [Club] conversation, right? This is totally The Onion A.V. conversation. [Laughs.]

AVC: How has working on the show affected your writing material? Because you usually do about a new album or special every couple years; you’ve done a couple books the past couple years. How do you pick material? Do you decide where it’s going to go, or are you writing to the medium?


JG: I would say that it is writing to the medium. I’m about to go on a 30-city tour, and Ted Alexandro is opening for me, so it’s not going to be a cakewalk—meaning he is a great comedian. I have an hour—it’s not a perfect hour, but it’s a great show. I think people will like it. But they’re different skill sets. Stand-up is something that’s so verbal that I can write onstage and go off on a tangent and it’s just so immediate, whereas the television writing, there’s like a mathematics to the story and the narrative, whereas stand-up I can go off on some absurdist tangent and it can lead me to another pot of gold. But it was fun because Jeannie and I wrote all of these nine—we had the pilot done and we wrote nine of the episodes before we started shooting. We were like, “All right, we’ve got to see what’s going to work, what doesn’t work, what’s our strength.” It’s an amazing process executive-producing a show, that I think the learning curve that Jeannie and I went through was so enormous.

I don’t think one episode defines the show. I don’t know how I would describe it in one sentence. Because if I was just like, “It’s about a guy who is a comedian who has five kids,” it’s like that’s not what the show is about. “Well, it’s about a guy and his wife raising…” No, it’s not about that. The last episode touches on some stuff, and we know our point of view and we know what has worked in these books and what has worked in the comedy specials, but it’s rather fun to witness how different characters [develop]. I mean, Adam Goldberg and Michael Ian Black—it’s pretty fun to have these guys in your lineup, where we know Adam is going to add value, we know Michael Ian Black is going to add incredible value, and the same with Ashley Williams. We’ve got these home-run hitters but if you haven’t seen the episodes, it’s just going to sound like I’m talking out of my ass anyway.


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