Jim Gaffigan Plays Life for Laughs

Jim Gaffigan buried in toys
Photographs by Mary Ellen Matthews

The comedian and five-time father spreads joy from the stand-up stage.

In the mid-’90s, Jim Gaffigan was a young copywriter working at Ogilvy & Mather, the giant New York City advertising agency. He suffered from a fear of public speaking that was so acute, it was causing alarm among his colleagues. He had been the class clown back home in rural Indiana. But now, called upon to voice an opinion in meetings or to give a presentation, his pale skin would turn bright red and he’d stammer, tremble and sweat, appearing to be in the full throes of a panic attack.

A colleague suggested that taking an improv comedy workshop might help him manage his anxiety. He followed that advice and felt so in his element trading quips, he went on to enroll in a seminar in stand-up comedy. For the final class, each student performed a stand-up set. Those few minutes changed his life.

“It was amazing,” he says. “I felt this power and this control. Those were my ideas I brought on stage, they were funny and they were making this roomful of people laugh.”

The Family Guy

Today, Jim Gaffigan, that once jittery ad writer, is one of the top comedians in the world. With his wife, Jeannie, as his writing and producing partner, he has created a comedy empire built around his profanity-free, self-effacing humor that centers on his frenzied life as a food-loving father of five. There have been platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated comedy albums; international tours; five Netflix comedy specials and two best-selling books (Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story).

Jim Gaffigan with guitarJim is one of only 10 comics to sell out New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He has starred in hundreds of TV commercials, performed on Broadway and—a thrill for the practicing Catholic—even opened for Pope Francis. This year, he’ll appear in six movies; the roles range from the voice of Peng, the rebellious goose in the animated comedy Duck Duck Goose, to co-starring opposite Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts in the boxing drama Chuck. And the album for his Netflix special Cinco drops on June 13 (just in time for Father's Day).
 
Life, Jim says, “is a pretty established form of chaos.” He is chatting the morning after his family has returned from a trip to Puerto Rico. Jim sniffles, coughs and sneezes. He, Jeannie and the kids—Marre, Patrick, Michael, Jack and Katie—have been trading a cold for weeks, making the four-day excursion especially challenging.

It’s amazing the power a baby has over a parent. There is nothing that exists in the universe that can be as difficult, make you lose as much sleep, smell as bad and still be so loved. Once on the road, I drove past a serious skunk smell, and my only thought was ‘I miss my baby.’ —Jim Gaffigan

In Puerto Rico, they hiked, surfed and snorkeled. “All the stuff you want to do on a family vacation,” Jim says. “It’s exhausting and it’s expensive, but you cherish those moments. It wipes away some of the parental guilt. Just time with our kids is precious.” As Jim has said, “In those last moments of my existence, I’m not going to be sitting there going, ‘I wish I had done another Netflix special.’ I’m probably going to be thinking about whether I was a decent father and husband.”

Parenting Is Paramount

That’s why last August, just days after the final episode of the second season of The Jim Gaffigan Show aired, Jim and Jeannie announced they were ending the acclaimed TV Land series. The sitcom was based on their own lives—a stand-up comic and his wife who live with their five kids in a two-bedroom fifth-floor Manhattan walk-up. (In real life, the Gaffigans resided in just that type of apartment until 2013, when they moved into a converted four-bedroom loft.)

“We were working 18-hour days, often leaving for the set before the kids woke up,” Jim says. “The show was incredibly fulfilling creatively, but it was just not a sustainable lifestyle. It came down to: We just can’t do the show and do the parenting thing to our five young kids the way we wanted to. We didn’t want to outsource our parenting.”

Deciding to call a halt to the show was a big and difficult decision, but Jim says, “So much of my journey has been about rediscovering my priorities. I’m not the same man I was 10 years ago or five years ago.” Today his biggest priority and his greatest challenge is, he says, “making sure our kids are the best humans they can be, empowering them to find their dreams and setting them on a path for happiness. I’m somebody who’s very lucky to have found this job that gives me such happiness, so I feel an even greater responsibility to help my kids find their happiness.”

Open-Mic Fright

Jim Gaffigan with microphoneFor a while, happiness was elusive for Jim. The youngest of six children, he had been taught by his small-town banker dad and homemaker mom to think of success as security and stability. “I was very much raised to seek a job where I would wear a coat and tie to work,” he says. “I would do that for 30 years, play golf for five and then I would die.”
 
He followed that formula for a while, graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in finance, and then moving to Tampa, Florida, for a coveted consulting job.
 
“Everyone was, ‘Wow, you got this great job,’ ” he says. “But I was absolutely miserable. I think I always wanted to be a comedian or an actor, but it was just this pie-in-the-sky idea. Where I’m from, no one was in the entertainment industry. My town had a marching band, that was it.”
 
Jim moved to New York City to work in advertising—first on the account side but later as a copywriter—and after the triumph of his first stand-up performance, he began hitting the open-mic circuit. The audiences were far less friendly than his fellow students had been. “It was just misery,” he says. “I stumbled around for five years being really horrible and dealing with a lot of stage fright. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That was my experience. I wasn’t having any positive results but I was just driven to keep doing it.”

Finding His ‘Hot Pockets’

After a workday at Ogilvy, he would take an acting class then do a late-night stand-up gig. He was so perpetually exhausted, he’d catch up on sleep in his cubicle, until the afternoon his boss woke him up to let him know she was firing him.

Right around this time, the comics he had come up with began getting spots on the Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Jim found himself feeling left behind and filled with anger. Until he had a shift in thinking.

With five little kids, there is no ending to bedtime. There is always one awake. [It’s] like they are taking shifts. I imagine they have scheduling meetings: ‘All right, I’ll annoy Dad from midnight to 2 a.m. Who wants the 3 to 6 a.m. shift?’ —Jim Gaffigan

“I remember coming to the realization that, all right, I probably wasn’t going to be successful at stand-up in any big way. But so what?” he says. “Sure I was living in a tiny, crummy apartment. I wasn’t making any money and I had no social life, but I got to do what I enjoyed and that in itself was a miracle.” Maybe, he’d come to believe, there wasn’t a big need for his gentle, observational humor, which was based on the recognition that we’re all flawed—with, perhaps, a few extra pounds in the middle and a secret passion for McDonald’s.

Jim Gaffigan with bubblesStill, he had no interest in embracing the put-down comedy that was more popular at the time. That brought “darkness” to an audience; he wanted to bring “lightness.” “Hear me out here,” he says, warming to the subject. “We all have friends that are really funny and really negative that we get a kick out of. But there’s a fatigue after we hang around them. Their jokes are, ‘Let’s make fun of that guy’s shirt’ or ‘Let’s talk about how we all have a common enemy.’ That’s darkness.” Lightness, he says, is acknowledging our common humanity.

Take the universal appeal of his Hot Pockets routine, the bit that made him famous. “We all have our Hot Pockets,” he says. “Maybe it’s a 7-Eleven burrito or the empanada from the place on the corner. It’s all the exact same thing.”

 
Then, in January 1999, at the age of 32, Jim made the first of what would turn out to be 22 appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman. “It’s amazing,” he says. “Once I stopped being angry and decided I’m going to be happy that I get to do what I want, I met my writing partner, who ended up being my wife, and then my life just kind of bloomed.”
 

He Dreams of Jeannie

“We’re probably going to get married,” Jim said to the then–Jeannie Noth when they bumped into each other at a Korean grocery in their downtown Manhattan neighborhood in April 2000.

“I felt it wasn’t the first time he’d said that,” Jeannie recalls. “It seemed like a little bit of a line.” Still, she found him funny and he pursued her doggedly “in a non-creepy way.” Their first date was lunch in SoHo, and there was an instant connection. Both Jim and Jeannie are Midwesterners (she hails from Milwaukee), and part of a large brood of siblings (Jeannie is the oldest of nine kids).

“Because we both come from big families, there was something very familiar about the way we interacted,” she says. “Like not even asking, ‘Can I taste your food?’ but just reaching into each other’s plates.” Now 14 years after they wed, with five kids between the ages of 4 and 13, Jeannie says with a laugh that she’s discovered the secret to staying married really is just: “Don’t get divorced.

Big families are like waterbed stores. They used to be everywhere. Now they are just weird. —Jim Gaffigan

“There are so many reasons in this world not to stick it out,” she says. “But I can’t remove our marriage and our relationship from our five kids. There’s something larger at stake. Everybody has [bad] moments, but it’s important not to let them set you on a course that you can’t reverse. And, we’re not one of those couples who never fight. We fight and argue all the time, about politics, about scripts, about what our kids should do. It’s not vicious but everything is a debate, and it strengthens us as parents and in our artistic and creative endeavors.”

Hitting the Road, Family in Tow

Living in Manhattan with five kids is challenging. Jim and Jeannie don’t own a car and they need two taxis to shuttle across town. Last year, when the family was filmed at a park and then a pizza place for a Father’s Day segment on The Today Show, Al Roker told viewers that a stroller had been accidentally left in a cab during filming.

“Sure, it would be a lot easier if we lived in the suburbs,” Jim says. “But this is the life we’ve chosen.” They had all their children at home (yes, in that fifth-floor walk-up), delivered with the help of a midwife. “It was all my wife’s idea,” Jim says in his comedy special Mr. Universe. “I don’t even like cooking at home.”

By today’s standards, my dad wouldn’t be considered the greatest dad, and I’m sure his dad wouldn’t be considered the greatest dad either. I’m sure my grandfather’s dad would be considered an even worse dad. It all goes back to cavemen just eating their children. —Jim Gaffigan

For five summers in a row, they’ve rented a tour bus and taken the kids along as Jim crisscrossed the country, sometimes doing as many as 30 shows in 30 days. “Balancing doing stand-up and traveling with your kids is really hard, but really great,” he says. The Gaffigan gang plans to travel on Jim’s Noble Ape Tour to dozens of U.S. cities as well as planned international destinations such as Beijing, Tokyo, Tel Aviv and Paris. Tour dates this summer in New Zealand and Australia were recently canceled as Jeannie continues to recover from her illness.

Jim Gaffigan with play guitars“We’re making a good living, so now Jeannie and I are recalibrating things as parents and choosing projects that are going to enrich our lives and our family life,” Jim says. “The comedy I do is very much about a white guy American experience,” he says. “I’ve done shows in Finland and Norway and I don’t imagine I’m going to be a huge hit there. My agents see no value in my doing this international stuff, but I love different cultures, and I think it’s my responsibility to expose my children to different things, so I see the value on a personal level.”
 
He’s working on a joke, he says, about how being a tourist and being a parent are similar. “You’re lost. You’re spending money you’re not really sure you can or should. It’s not an enviable position,” he says. With travel, “We establish this very nice existence and then we go somewhere where we don’t even know where we’re going to get our next meal,” he says. “Like parenting, it’s hugely inconvenient. Both are strange journeys of discovery and absolutely amazing.”

The Calm in the Center of the Stage

Jim had returned from Puerto Rico sneezing and grumpy, getting to his apartment around 7 p.m. It might seem like a night to stay in with a cup of tea, but when Jim got a text from a friend about an opening at a comedy club, he turned to Jeannie. “I might do this show,” he said. Her response, “Please go ahead.” A little while later, he was out the door.

I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another 34 kids to be a pretty decent guy. —Jim Gaffigan

“I’m sick, I’m fatigued, but I hadn’t done stand-up in five days,” Jim says. “It was pretty transformative. It always is. Performing stand-up is my meditation. I’ve been in a bad mood, done a set—sometimes it’s my wife who tells me I’ve got to go—and it’s changed my mood. Or I’ve been way too excited and doing stand-up has balanced me out. “It’s not just about the power you feel,” he says. “It’s about having a conversation with strangers, making them laugh. That improves their experience, and it makes me feel better, too.”

Because that’s what happens when you go around spreading lightness.

Shortly after press time, Jeannie Gaffigan underwent emergency surgery for a brain tumor. Our hearts and healing wishes go out to the Gaffigan family as she continues to recover.


Shelley Levitt is a freelance is an editor at large for Live Happy. Her writing has appeared in Real Simple, People, SUCCESS and many other publications.

From the July 2017 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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