Jim Gaffigan: Being true to himself for laughs on new comedy

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — On Jim Gaffigan's new comedy series, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," the popular standup comic plays a comic named Jim Gaffigan.

Like the real Jim Gaffigan, he's married to Jeannie, an attractive woman he readily admits is out of his league (played by the attractive Ashley Williams). They plus their five children are squeezed into a two-bedroom walkup on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

On the show (which premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT on TV Land) Jeannie is cool, capable and kooky, which makes her perfect for Jim, who reigns as a serial bumbler with a food fixation.

All autobiographical? Check, check, check, says Gaffigan.

"I DON'T know what I'm doing! I'm NOT pretending!" he declares, his voice taking flight into his trademark squawk for emphasis. "I'm not in a fat suit and pretending to be lazy — I AM fat and lazy, and you know what? I wish I could be fatter and lazier.

"And I AM married to a hot woman," he adds, noting the real-life Jeannie by his side. "This is not some network-formula show! This is reality!"

With his droll summation, Gaffigan has dipped into his standup act, which explores his version of the Freudian Id (which, left to its own devices, he argues, "would have us lying in bed eating bacon all day").

But in person Gaffigan, 49, is not what you would call oversize, nor, considering his multiple duties on his new show, could anyone accuse him of sloth.

Even so, as Jim and Jeannie join a reporter at a neighborhood cafe (where all enjoy a snack of crispy artichoke hearts recommended by Jim), the Gaffigans validate the authenticity of their funny new show. No wonder. They conceived, wrote and produced the show together — and made sure it captures their uniquely dizzy world and comic vision.

Things were different 15 years ago with Gaffigan's first series, a CBS comedy named "Welcome To New York." Jeannie, whom Jim had started dating a few months earlier and who had experience in theater education, agreed to be his acting coach. But he had minimal input in shaping his character.

"I couldn't even pitch lines," he recalls. "The executive producers would tell me, 'I don't know if your character would say that,' even though I was playing someone named Jim Gaffigan!"

"Welcome to New York" had a swift demise, but the partnership between Jim and Jeannie only deepened as they went on to co-produce his TV standup specials, and wed in 2003.

His acting career also flourished, with appearances on "Ed," ''That '70s Show" and "My Boys," but such supporting roles tied him down with little screen time to show for it — and scant creative freedom.

"There's nothing that compares to the control of standup," he says. "Working for an hour-and-a-half a night, you get rather spoiled, especially with a growing family. I could eat dinner with our kids and then go to work."

But network interest in an autobiographical sitcom led Jim and Jeannie to reconsider series TV. It just might work: A self-portrait of their family, steeped in New York's chaos as they scrambled to stay true to their Midwestern values — including their Catholic faith.

"It's an important element in our lives," says Jeannie. And it provides more grist for the comic mill, as in the episode when Jim by chance is photographed clutching a Bible, which he fears will jeopardize his comedy cred.

"We decided, 'Our life is very weird and kind of interesting,'" says Jeannie. "And we know how to write it — so we were adamant that we had to have some kind of control."

The project migrated from NBC to CBS, then found a home at TV Land, where "The Jim Gaffigan Show" now becomes part of that network's new, hipper initiative (also evidenced by "Impastor," which debuts after Gaffigan's show).

"At TV Land, we could do exactly the show we wanted to do," Jim says, and, with Adam Goldberg and Michael Ian Black signed as regulars, they set to work on the four-month shoot.

"The fact that we were shooting in Manhattan was enormous," says Jeannie. "We could have our older kids (aged 11 to 4) come to set after school. And our youngest, Patrick, we cast as the show's 2-year-old."

Meanwhile, ensuring the show looks true-to-life was as important to the couple as making sure the characters and stories ring true. Ninety percent of the show was shot on location, including Gaffigan haunts like the legendary Katz's Delicatessen.

And the Gaffigans' apartment, though a studio set, is a real-deal clone of their own fabled residence (only recently vacated for roomier digs).

"As a hands-on producer," reports Jeannie, "I was saying, 'No, wait, we need more crumbs on the table because it's too clean for a family with five kids having dinner."

Got it: Accuracy, not just laughs, is being served. But having said that, it was time for Jeannie to go. She and Jim had to pick up the kids.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore