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The Jim Gaffigan Show
Jim Gaffigan stars in and created The Jim Gaffigan Show, which he now runs and writes with his wife, Jeannie.
TV Land

How to make sure your marriage can survive making a TV show about your marriage

Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan have five kids and make TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show. Here’s how they do it.

"You work with your spouse?!"

It’s the horrified question Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan hear more than any other, probably. You might know Jim Gaffigan from his much-loved, hugely successful standup comedy, beloved both for its ability to be family-friendly and still wildly funny and for his various paeans to food. (Yes, he’s the Hot Pockets guy.)

But you likely don’t know just how closely he works with Jeannie. The two spend much of their professional lives together, having written books and collaborated on a character Jim played on stage together. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that they’re raising five children.

Samsung Hope For Children Gala 2015 - Arrivals
Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Samsung

But the real centerpiece of their professional and personal lives intersecting is TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show, which returns for its second season on Sunday, June 19. The two run the series together and have written many of its best episodes as a duo. Even when I talked to them for this interview, they were dealing with last-minute changes to late season two episodes.

What’s fascinating about this is the way the two are trapped in a never-ending cycle of watching versions of themselves. Jim points to his real self, his standup self, and his TV self, each of which is slightly less aware than the last, and Jeannie is played by someone else (Ashley Williams) in the TV version of her life. Navigating all those versions of their lives requires two people who are in exact creative sync.

The series is filmed in the same vein as something like Louie or Girls, with ample use of Manhattan locations and lots of famous guest stars who drop by for an episode or two. And its star ensures the series maintains a certain level of cachet.

And yet it’s deeply autobiographical and tied to some of TV’s oldest traditions. After all, it’s a show about a lazy married guy with five kids who’s trying to navigate the weird pitfalls of modern life, a type of sitcom that has existed literally since sitcoms were invented. The series was even originally developed for CBS, bastion of TV traditionalism, before landing at TV Land.

No one’s going to claim The Jim Gaffigan Show is reinventing television, but the series appears to delight in walking a narrow path between the familiar and the out there, in finding the space between the niche and the mainstream and then thriving there. And the Gaffigans are loving every minute of making the show sing.

That’s why I caught up with the couple at the recent Austin TV Festival to ask them how they blend the personal and professional, how they build off their own reality for TV reality, and why TV Jeannie needed to be played by someone "kooky."

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Jim Gaffigan Show
Many of Jim Gaffigan’s most famous standup routines involve his love of food. That’s in the show, too.
TV Land

Todd VanDerWerff

My wife and I work in the same field, so I understand being married and working together, and even prefer it. But a lot of people would hate working with their spouse. How do you maintain healthy personal and professional lives?

Jeannie Gaffigan

We're still figuring it out right now.

Jim Gaffigan

The relationship we have has always been collaborative.

Jeannie Gaffigan

And honest.

Jim Gaffigan

We've written books together, and even this play on Broadway. Now it's at a point where I'm virtually completely codependent. It's like, "Do I wear this shirt?"

Jeannie Gaffigan

Everything [we do] is through Jim's point of view, because I know it so well, but I think it's great to be able to do this show because other points of view can come into play against Jim's.

One of the greatest things about being married and doing this show together is that there's not that extra wall of, "I don't really know how to say this to you, but," because there's none of that. When you are working with somebody for the first time, there's much more, "How do I negotiate a way to say this in an inoffensive way?" We're completely not afraid to offend each other.

Jim Gaffigan

One of the advantages is we both have the same self-interest in this.

Jeannie Gaffigan

There's no hidden agenda.

Jim Gaffigan

After this show, we don't have an expectation of doing another show.

Jeannie Gaffigan

We're not working on this show so we can get another job.

We’re in the trenches, trying to make it very clear what the point of view is, make our fans happy, make them tell their friends, and also make a really beautiful experience. Our director of photography is amazing. He's just a brilliant artist of how he photographs New York and makes it a visually entertaining thing.

Everyone in our crew, from the grips to the wardrobe to makeup, really, they're our audience. They're funny, and we want to make them happy, and they want to make us happy. We're big television fans. We love dramas. You saw "The Trial" [the season’s second episode]. There's a little familiarity with that [sort of courtroom drama].

Then you can see our departments were 100 percent with us there — the colors, the locations, the way things look.

Jim Gaffigan

We also are fortunate, because of the [financial independence afforded by] standup. In this, we're not motivated by money. We're not motivated by ego.

Jeannie Gaffigan

Or making 100 episodes.

Jim Gaffigan

We're motivated by making the type of show that we want to make.

Jeannie Gaffigan

That we want to watch.

Jim Gaffigan

Yeah, it's flattering to be on a panel at some television festival, but that's not why we did the show. Each episode is rather personal. We just shot an episode where I feel like there's some stuff in there that I think only my brother's going to think it's funny.

That being said, I've been doing standup long enough and we've been writing long enough that when it’s point of view–driven and personal, it can translate to a lot of different people.

Jeannie Gaffigan

We're doing a lot of memories and flashbacks and things that I feel like there's something for everybody in there. You don't have to have been a kid in the '70s or the '80s to understand these details. If you've seen [the season premiere], each character goes back to the moment they felt like they knew what they wanted to do. We had a lot of fun with those scenes, and the people and the characters, and trying to give something to everybody.

The Jim Gaffigan Show
The cast of The Jim Gaffigan Show.
TV Land

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you build divides between, "This is work life, and this is home life"? Or do they inevitably bleed into each other?

Jeannie Gaffigan

Back to the old marriage thing! They bleed in.

Jim Gaffigan

They bleed in.

Jeannie Gaffigan

Much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of some people around us.

Jim Gaffigan

On the surface, people go, "You know, I would never be able to work with my husband." "I'd never be able to work with my wife." One of the things that drew us to each other is this. Doing this is hard. It's way too hard. But Jeannie and I love doing this stuff.

Jeannie Gaffigan

We love working.

Jim Gaffigan

When we go home and we're working after our kids are in bed, I mean, work is the wrong word for it. This is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Jeannie Gaffigan

It's our life. We're telling stories that are personal to us, with characters that are heightened versions of us. We just can't figure out who else would be able to do it. Yeah, we're working with each other. And sometimes it's not ideal, because when does the work life [end], and when does the relaxation start? Even if we're in Austin, we're like, "Oh, we've got to go through those edit choices, and we have to look at the music."

It’s not like you can shut the door and say, "Now I'll have a conversation with my husband that’s not about work." At the same time, who else is going to know this world as intimately as we do and be able to communicate it to our departments and to our audience?

If something looks like fake, like green screen of New York behind us or whatever, it's going to pull us out of the moment. Or if someone wakes up in the morning and they have, like, tons of makeup on, that bumps me out of shows. "Didn't the executive producer tell the makeup person to tone down the lip gloss when they're waking up out of bed?"

Things take you out, whether you're aware of them or not. There needs to be someone there who wants to really, like, refine and polish all these moments, and your departments have to be behind you. Every person on that set is a part of the show.

The Jim Gaffigan Show
Ashley Williams plays the TV version of Jeannie Gaffigan.
TV Land

Todd VanDerWerff

TV Jim is a different person from real Jim. How do you decide how far you can push him in terms of being a buffoon, while keeping the show both funny and realistic?

Jim Gaffigan

There's real Jim, there's standup Jim, there's TV Jim, and it's all destroying the IQ as we go along. But we strive to keep it all grounded in reality.

Jeannie Gaffigan

There's some grounded, vividly real Jim in every episode, and that allows us to go to these crazy places. If you saw, for instance, "Ugly" [the season’s third episode, in which Jim attends a casting call for a character described as "ugly"], that is a real thing in our life, and real conversations that we have about, "Well if you do this, this could lead to this other thing." And then the next scenes can go crazy.

Jim Gaffigan

The straighter the setup, the better the punchline, right? If it's grounded in reality, then you can go the distance with it.

Todd VanDerWerff

Jeannie, your character is played by an outside actress, Ashley Williams. How do you balance playing to Ashley’s strengths as an actress while keeping that character recognizable as you?

Jeannie Gaffigan

We’ve started writing for Ashley. In the very beginning we were writing a character, and then she brought stuff to it. Then we were like, "Oh, Ashley will be so funny doing this."

For instance, when Jeannie on the show gets catcalled, my attitude about getting catcalled was very different.

It was very, "I'm going to show this person." But we thought it would be really funny if Ashley came up with a comeback that was really bad. She's really funny at [over-enthusiastic], "Here's something great that I'm going to say to this guy," and the reactions of the two funny guys in the room being like [sarcastic], "Yeah, that's great. You should say that."

That’s where we’re playing to the strengths of Ashley. The situation is Jeannie Gaffigan; the character is [what] Ashley Williams has developed. It's not Jeannie Gaffigan the character; it's Jeannie Gaffigan the situation. It's a lot of fun to write for Ashley.

Jim Gaffigan

When we were casting Ashley, the mathematics of it is that we needed someone with the energy and the brightness to be with this sloth, so that people wouldn't be concerned about the kids and wouldn't feel sorry for her.

Jeannie Gaffigan

That she wouldn't be a nag.

Jeannie Gaffigan

She wouldn't be so together that people were like, "It's just that standard nagging wife and the dumb husband!" We didn't want that.

Here's two things about Ashley and [me] that are very similar. We have a similar energy, and we're both kooky. When I saw her kookiness and her energy, I was like, "I buy it."

She's kooky enough to have all these babies and be trying to handle this New York lifestyle. She's strapping on backpacks, and she has that can-do attitude. She is tough with him, but you understand why they love each other. She enjoys how funny he is. Those elements are very similar between us, and then we write toward her strengths.

Jim Gaffigan

There was a moment when we were selling Ashley to the network, which was CBS at that time, I said, "This is a woman that could come at Jim with a chainsaw and people would still like her."

Jeannie Gaffigan

Because she’s adorable.

Jim Gaffigan

There's a brightness to her. I'm a low-energy guy, so it had to be an energetic person who was likable, who you'd believe would have five kids.

Jeannie Gaffigan

Who's strong.

Jim Gaffigan

And strong. That was the mathematics there.

The Jim Gaffigan Show
Jim has a revelation in The Jim Gaffigan Show’s second season premiere.
TV Land

Todd VanDerWerff

A husband and wife with kids goes back to the roots of sitcoms on the radio, but this show is presented in such a modern style. How do you find the new material within these stories we’ve heard over and over again, to keep the show feeling fresh?

Jim Gaffigan

When we're going through the idea session, it's got to be a really bold idea, because we have to love it from the outline to the final [sound] mix.

Jeannie Gaffigan

He calls it "the first bus." We know what the first bus is, but we're not going to take the first bus.

We're also really interested in what the guy in the back of the room is going to think of the show, not the people in the front who want that traditional [format].

Jim Gaffigan

We're playing, hopefully, to who we are. We're trying to do a show that we want to watch as a television lover.

Jeannie Gaffigan

We trust our audiences to be smart enough. Today we screened "The Trial," which is an episode that makes the assumption that you're familiar with who the characters are, and how what they say on the stand is going to be funny because you know them. It's like a season 12 episode that we wanted to do now [in season two].

It was very risky to put that out there to people who didn't know the characters, but we trust that people are smart enough to get it, and they got it. It felt really good to hear the laughs coming from people who didn't need to have seen 100 episodes of the show [to get it]. I spoke to people afterward who said, "I have to go back and watch the first season, because I loved the show," which was really great.

Jim Gaffigan

It’s similar to my standup, in that if you looked at my set list, not only does it look like a grocery store list, but it would appear rather nondescript and not that compelling. But it's making the mundane fun. The husband and wife with kids, yeah, maybe on the surface. But it's like you think it's going to be this show, but it's actually this show.

Jeannie Gaffigan

You still see a familiarity that might be a little Dick Van Dyke-y, but then it will go to the next level. It starts as a real story. This really happened, and then obviously it goes to a really absurdist place.

Todd VanDerWerff

The "Trial" episode has a really great sense of empathy, both for Jim, who made a bad tweet while trying to be funny, and then also for the people who were upset with him because of that tweet. [The episode is based on a real tweet that Gaffigan sent in 2013.] It walks the line between the two points of view really well, and I’m wondering how you managed that at a time when debates over political correctness in comedy seem to rage out of control.

Jeannie Gaffigan

We never wanted this episode to be about being politically incorrect. It has nothing to do with that.

Jim Gaffigan

I live on Manhattan. It's probably the bluest island, but I come from Indiana. Most of my friends are atheists, but I happen to be Catholic. There's these two sides of it, and I spent most of my adult life being a single guy. I identify with all these different points of view. I don't think that one necessarily precludes the other.

Even in my standup, if I can do a joke about Jesus that an atheist and an evangelical will love, I find that a [treat]. I think I come from an era of standup where your job is to make everyone laugh, not just a segment of people that are writers at Rolling Stone. You’ve got to make everyone laugh. People that don't even like your appearance, you should make them laugh.

The Jim Gaffigan Show airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on TV Land.


Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy editor: Laura McGann

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