Behind the Hot Pocket

Meet Jeannie Gaffigan, the quiet powerhouse behind ‘The Jim Gaffigan Show’

For years, Jeannie Gaffigan worked in the background to help her husband become a household name. Their new television series establishes her as a vibrant comedic presence

Photo by Melissa Lugo

It was a sticky July morning in New York City, and Jeannie Gaffigan started her day the way she usually does, which is to say frenetically. She saw her children off to two different day camps, met with a contractor, conferred with her assistant, went over the post-production schedule for The Jim Gaffigan Show—a new TV series that Jeannie wrote and produced with her husband, comedian Jim Gaffigan—crafted a social media promotion for the show, helped Jim prepare for a television appearance, and then came to meet me at a restaurant in Noho.

By that point, it was only 11 a.m.

Somehow, even when she is doing little more than sipping on coffee in a rustic Italian joint, Jeannie practically radiates kinetic energy. She is wide-eyed, chatty, and unyieldingly enthusiastic. She is also the mother of five children, who now range in age from 11 to two years old. Until recently, the entire Gaffigan clan lived together in a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan. To say the least, Jeannie is not daunted by mild chaos.

But working as the executive producer of The Jim Gaffigan Show, which premiered on July 15 on TV Land, has ratcheted up the hectic pace of Jeannie’s life. “I didn’t understand that it was going to be 80-plus hours per week for three months, and my kids were going to have to come to the set, and my house was going to have to be like Downton Abbey,” she said. “I had people picking up kids from all over the place.”

Even prior to filming, The Jim Gaffigan Show had been a painstaking labor of love for Jim and Jeannie. The show was optioned by NBC and piloted twice for CBS—neither network picked up the series—before it moved over to TV Land. The premiere of The Jim Gaffigan Show marks the birth of a project more than 10 years in the making, but the new series is momentous for another reason too. For the first time in a very long while, Jeannie is emerging as a distinct figure in her husband’s comedic enterprise.

For years, Jeannie has been a quiet collaborator on the endeavors that have made her husband a household name. Jeannie co-wrote and executive-produced many of Jim’s hit comedy specials—like Beyond the Pale and King Baby—and co-wrote his best-selling books, Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story. She channeled her comedic sensibilities into Jim’s voice, helping cultivate his brand as a father, a die-hard food enthusiast, and an all-around genial guy. While Jeannie worked in the background, Jim became the king of the clean comics: comparing the taste of kale to bug spray is about as racy as his act gets.

To casual observers, the arrangement between Jim and Jeannie might smack of antiquated gender norms—a woman sets aside her own ambitions to further her husband’s career­—and Jeannie is aware of that. But she wholeheartedly pushes back against this assessment of her professional choices. “People are curious,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Why did you give up your career? You gave up your career to do this.’ Which is kind of a traditional thing, and it’s kind of looked down upon. And I absolutely disagree. I think a team is the most amazing thing that you can be on … I’m really against the idea [that] I gave up anything.”

Jeannie didn’t always appreciate the importance of players who operate outside of the spotlight. She was born in Milwaukee, the oldest of nine children, and was raised toappreciate the great players of the stage and screen. Jeannie’s father was a theater and film critic, and her childhood was steeped in outings to repertory theaters, viewings of classic films, and trips to theater festivals in Stratford, Ontario. Jeannie was enthralled by it all (“How could you not fall in love with that art?”), and eventually started a Masters degree in directing at Marquette University. While she was still a student, Jeannie also interned at a repertory theater in Milwaukee. As she immersed herself in stage-work, Jeannie found herself growing restless with her academic pursuits. So she quit her Masters program and moved to New York.

Once she arrived in the city, Jeannie threw herself into the acting scene. She joined a theater troupe and a sketch group, took improv classes, and even tried her hand at stand-up comedy. She moved into an apartment in Nolita, on the same block as an up-and-coming club comedian named Jim Gaffigan. They would see each other around, but got to talking after they bumped into one another in a Korean market on Mott Street. “I knew he was in the arts community because he was in a sketch group, and I saw him perform,” Jeannie said. “I was like, ‘He’s really good.’”

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To pay the bills while she pursued an acting career, Jeannie took a job running after-school theater programs. This gig ultimately inspired her to found Shakespeare on the Playground, a not-for-profit theater company that produced Shakespearean plays with inner-city teens. “I really wanted Jim to get involved,” Jeannie said. “I think he just wanted to go on a date with me … I had, at the time, a kid in my [theater] program who was kind of this big kid, and he was a little bit of an outcast, but he was really, really funny … He was shy, because the kids made fun of him. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get Jim to do a workshop?’”

Jim agreed to participate in the project, but he needed Jeannie’s help in return. CBS had asked him to develop a pilot for a comedy series called Welcome to New York, in which Jim would play a weatherman for a fictional morning news show. “He came to me and said, ‘My pilot just got picked up at CBS,’” Jeannie recalls. “‘And I have no idea what I’m doing.’” They started working on scripts together, and Jeannie eventually became Jim’s acting coach. The series was short-lived, but it spawned an electric sort of partnership between Jim and Jeannie. She began making suggestions on his comedy routines, supplying him with the occasional joke, and producing comedy CDs on his behalf.

“I would say the collaboration is such that it’s definitely the classic kind of building off of one another,” Jim told me, when I asked him about the dynamic he shares with his wife. “There is such a familiarity and understanding of a similar comedic point of view. And also, I think, we enjoy it.”

Jim and Jeannie were married in 2003. Once she started having children, Jeannie stopped working on Shakespeare on the Playground and began focusing her resources on her family and on Jim’s comedy. She collaborated with Jim on specials and helped mold his ideas into the essays that can be found in his books. Jeannie essentially operates in the way that many low-profile comedy writers do, which is to say she produces material that is delivered by another comedian. The comedian in question happens to be her husband, and it is an arrangement that suits both of them perfectly.

“I’ve been able to have complete creative fulfillment in this relationship without being the front person,” Jeannie said. “I’ve also been able to have five kids … [I]f I had said, ‘I need to go my own way,’ I would have taken the resources away and split the resources, instead of pooling the resources … I care more about Jim’s career, his material, more than anyone else in the world except him. We’re on the same team, and we’re going for the same thing.”

The Jim Gaffigan Show, however, marks a turning point in the Gaffigans’ joint career. The series bears Jim’s name, but it is rooted in the life that Jim and Jeannie have built together. The show centers on a comedian named Jim (played by the man himself), who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his five young children and his wife Jeannie (played by Ashley Williams, of How I Met Your Mother fame). TV Jeannie boasts an acid-tongued gay bestie (a very funny Michael Ian Black), displays an incomprehensible attachment to her too-small apartment, and proves to be a surprisingly devout Catholic—all of which is true of the real Jeannie’s life. Though she does not appear on-screen, Jeannie becomes a prominent figure in the narrative of the series.

The writing process was collaborative, but TV Jeannie is shaped by the perspective of her namesake. “We give notes on each other’s characters,” Jeannie said of writing The Jim Gaffigan Show with her husband. “But I understand ‘Jeannie’’s point of view, and [Jim] understands ‘Jim’’s point of view. This is all based on our real experiences … You could name any of the topics on any of our shows and I could give you the real example.”

In the early days of the show’s inception, Jeannie planned to take on the role of Jim’s wife. Ultimately, though, she decided that she did not want to place the couple’s pet project in the hands of another producer. “We literally [would have to] do playback of every single scene, which would take twice as long,” she said, imagining a scenario in which she both starred in an executiveproduced The Jim Gaffigan Show. “So how would we do it?”

Instead, Jeannie worked behind the scenes, writing, editing, and creating a world that resembles the one she knows. The main set of The Jim Gaffigan Show is a replica of the Gaffigans’ old apartment (the family recently moved into a more spacious loft), and many of the show’s scenes were shot on location at the couple’s favorite haunts, like Katz’s Deli and Bowery Ballroom. Jeannie thrived on the minutiae of these scenes—she once insisted that the props team scatter crumbs on the table when the faux-Gaffigan children were filming a dinner sequence. It this meticulousness that Jim admires most about his wife.

“She is reluctant to go the easy route, and I think that’s really important,” he said. [I]t’s her passion for details, whether it be deciding on the lighting of a hotel room, or what the extras looked like in the background of a scene, or what the overall arc of the story is.”

The result of Jim and Jeannie’s efforts is a genuinely funny sitcom that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh. The Jim Gaffigan Show is predicated on the comedian-in-New-York conceit, but it does not feature Jim’s stand-up bits and it is sweeter than Louie or Seinfeld. The show is technically a family sitcom, but it mercifully steers clear of the four-camera, laugh-track format. The “Gaffigan” children are also little more than adornments to the narrative and Jim’s signature “clean” comedy—a constant source of self-deprecating jabs in the series—is given some edge. In the first few episodes alone, The Jim Gaffigan Show scores laughs with plot lines involving vasectomies and a child’s penis doodles.

Jeannie is somewhat worried about how this humor—relatively mild, but still a little off-brand—will land with Jim’s fan base. She is also concerned that a different subset of viewers will be turned off by the show’s depiction of the Gaffigans’ Catholicism, which is not a particularly trendy belief set. But Jeannie doesn’t have too much time to dwell on these thoughts: she is currently getting ready to embark on Jim’s upcoming comedy tour, with all five children in tow.

“We don’t want to leave our kids,” Jeannie explained. “We book our tours around their school breaks … [W]e get a big tour bus that has a sleeping car in it, a bathroom, shower, kitchenette. It’s a big, rock-star, country-music-star tour bus with a bunk car that has six bunks with curtains, and they’re like little rooms. Probably more privacy than [the kids] have at home.”

After the tour comes some respite. Jim and Jeannie have rented a cabin on a remote wilderness reserve, where they hope to relax with their children and evade what Jeannie refers to as  “scary phone calls and work.” It’s a nice thought to hold on to while her phone flashes with silent calls, which it did throughout our interview. When our conversation was over, Jeannie gave an effusive goodbye and breezed out of the restaurant, already on to the next task.

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