Jeannie Gaffigan on family and finding her way

By Joey Grihalva

I’ll never forget the time I saw comedian Hannibal Buress open for Louis C.K. at Caroline’s in New York City. Or Ron Funches open for Reggie Watts at Helium in Portland. Or South Milwaukee’s own Jackie Kashian open for Maria Bamford at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.

In each instance it was my introduction to the opener and I instantly became a fan. Comedy (and music) careers can be launched from a great opening set for an established headliner.

That is decidedly not the intention when comedian Jim Gaffigan brings out his five adorable children to entertain audiences before he performs. While the Gaffigans aren’t a “show family,” the children have grown up around show business. This is because Jim works closely with his wife Jeannie and the family regularly travels together.

The first time I saw Jim Gaffigan at the Pabst Theater I was surprised to see his kids come out to Irish dance and introduce their dad. But then I remembered that his wife Jeannie is a Milwaukee-native and his annual run of Pabst shows allows them to spend the holidays with her family.  

In fact, Jeannie is the eldest of Dominic and Louise Noth’s nine children. I attended Rufus King High School with two of the Noths’ daughters and recall Jeannie’s headshot outside the theater director’s office. She was an accomplished actress, director, producer, and non-profit leader before meeting her husband, but the careers of husband and wife would reach new heights once they teamed up.

I spoke with Jeannie over the phone from her office in New York City a few days before Thanksgiving.

A LIFE IN THE ARTS

Jeannie Gaffigan — a devout Catholic — was raised on the East Side of Milwaukee near the UWM campus. Her father was the theatre and film critic for the Milwaukee Journal and continues to write for Urban Milwaukee. Jeannie and her siblings were exposed to the arts early in life.

“It was pretty chaotic in our house. I kind of got put into the role of director-producer pretty early just by default,” recalls Jeannie.

“When we had block parties I would say, ‘Okay, let’s do a number from Grease,’ and rope everybody into doing it. I was a little bit of a bossy big sister,” admits Jeannie.

As a high schooler, Jeannie took to acting but didn’t believe it to be a realistic pursuit after graduation. She was majoring in communications at UW-Madison until a summer job working with young actors pulled her back to the theater. She qualified for a merit scholarship to Marquette University, where she transferred and became a theatre major.

In the 1990s, Jeannie became immersed in the Milwaukee theater scene. When she wasn’t rehearsing and performing she enjoyed seeing live music particularly at Shank Hall and hanging out at Fuel Cafe and Lixx Frozen Custard.

But, while interning with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, she realized that if she wanted to catch a break in Milwaukee, she might need to expand her horizons outside the city.

“It felt like there was a niche group of actors that were always getting work and they weren’t from the rank-and-file interns, they were coming in from New York and Chicago. It  became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee,” Jeannie says of her decision to abandon the directing master’s program and move to New York City.


NEW YORK AND A NEW MATE

Upon moving to NYC Jeannie discovered that her theatre job provided just enough money to pay the rent. Like many aspiring artists in the big city, she hustled work to survive. Jeannie became involved in the catering industry, booking shifts around her theatre schedule. It wasn’t long before she joined a sketch troupe, took improv classes, and became part of NYC’s grassroots theatre community.

She also supplemented her income with freelance artist-in-residence teaching gigs in public schools where arts funding was being cut. This experience inspired her to start a nonprofit, after-school theatre organization called Shakespeare on the Playground.

Around this time Jeannie met Jim Gaffigan they were living on the same block in Manhattan. A neighborly relationship turned into a working friendship as Jeannie recruited Jim to volunteer with Shakespeare on the Playground. In return, Jeannie became Jim’s acting coach for his first sitcom, CBS’ short-lived Welcome to New York. This led to producing a stand-up comedy CD for Jim.

“He was one of the smartest and funniest people I’d ever met,” Jeannie says. “I liked that we had the same work ethic. Also, he’s from a family of six kids, so there was a language that we understood right away. And he grew up on Lake Michigan, but he was on the Indiana side outside of Chicago.”

Over the years Jeannie and Jim’s relationship evolved. They became a bona fide comedy team. She has helped refine and hone his comedic voice, while producing his tours and specials. As a result, Jim has become one of the most beloved comics in the country, particularly among those doing clean material.

CHILDREN AND A NEW SCHEDULE

Shortly after they were married, Jeannie became pregnant with their first child.

“It was a whirlwind. We didn’t really have time to plan a family. We just started having kids and moving our life around them,” says Jeannie.  

The couple successfully brought their first baby on the road. But when Jeannie had two kids in diapers and Jim started doing theaters, Jeannie decided to stay home, which put a strain on their relationship. Around baby number three the Gaffigans restructured.

Longer tours are now scheduled around the kids time off. The family travels in a large tour bus, which provides arguably more privacy than the kids had in the two-bedroom apartment they lived in up until last year.

“People have asked me, ‘Aren’t your older ones at the point where they want to stay home with friends and not go out on the road?’ But I haven’t experienced that yet,” says Jeannie.

“Of course, they fight and argue like all kids, but they really enjoy being together as a group. They’ve developed this camaraderie and I think it’s a testament to how great the whole experience has been for my family.”

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Since Jim is the youngest of his family, by the time he married, all his siblings had their own families and each did their own Christmas. Jeannie’s family still came home to Milwaukee, so that became their holiday tradition.

“Jim was quickly adopted into the family as the 10th kid. He and my dad really get along,” says Jeannie. “They have very similar minds, they like to debate about stuff. And my mom of course loves Jim.”

“The holidays are a time when people have off and want to go see shows. So we used to have to get out of town pretty quickly or at least Jim did to do a show between Christmas and New Year’s. At one point Jim got the bright idea to see if he could do a show in Milwaukee,” says Jeannie about the Pabst Theater tradition they started 10 years ago.

“Once Jim did a show at the Pabst he was like, ‘This place is phenomenal!’ Having played theaters all over the country, the Pabst is definitely the cream of the crop. The employees, the audiences, the venue, it’s all just a terrific experience.”

This year the Gaffigans have merged two of their traditions. An additional show was added to the Pabst run, with 100 percent of the ticket sales going to the Riverwest Food Pantry, where Jeannie’s brother Vincent is the executive director. The family volunteers at the Pantry when they’re in town and saw this as an opportunity to give back even more to the community.

LABOR OF LOVE — EMPHASIS ON ‘LABOR’

The Gaffigans have achieved much success with their stand-up tours, specials, and two best-selling books (Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story), but besides Welcome to New York, the coveted sitcom deal has eluded them until last year.

The TV Land debut of The Jim Gaffigan Show was a decade in the making. Originally optioned by NBC and piloted twice by CBS, both networks passed a blessing in disguise.

The deal the Gaffigans landed with the small cable network gave them full creative control. Like Louie (FX) and Maron (IFC), The Jim Gaffigan Show is a single camera program centered around the titular comic’s real life. It’s a smart, funny show with an excellent supporting cast and tons of heart.

“A lot of times what happens is that a great comedian will get a TV deal and you’ll watch the show and say, ‘Well, this isn’t funny,’ or ‘This isn’t the point-of-view that I know and am a fan of.’ Because it’s been given over to a committee. Other people are deciding what’s funny and not funny, what’s marketable and not marketable,” explains Jeannie.

The Jim Gaffigan Show explores aspects of the Gaffigans comedic perspective that are limited by the stand-up format and highlights Jeannie’s contribution and talents as a writer and producer.

She originally considered playing the “Jeannie” role herself, but realized it would elongate the production, considering she was already a head writer and executive producer. As it turned out, the time and energy required far exceeded their expectations — and that led to their decision to call it quits after the second season.

“The irony is that one of the reasons we wanted to do a show in New York was so we could spend more time with our family, so we wouldn’t be traveling as much. But what happens when you’re writing, producing and later directing a show is that it becomes an all-encompassing life. We were doing 80 hours a week for six months of the year,” exclaims Jeannie.

“If you’re writing a show about being a comedian with five kids in New York City, you have to actually experience being a parent of five kids in New York City, or you’re not going to be true to yourself. At some point I was spending more time with the TV kids. Our family comes first. We’re responsible with raising good human beings to go into this insane world.”

BEYOND ‘HOT POCKETS’

The TV Land show marks a turning point in the Gaffigans’ careers. They are now looking to develop limited-run, episodic projects and are tinkering with the idea of producing other people’s scripts.

Meanwhile, their fifth stand-up special will be released in early 2017 and the couple are currently writing their sixth.

Jim is also being offered more complex roles in TV and film. He is in an upcoming film, The Bleeder, alongside Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Liev Schreiber, and Elizabeth Moss, and has joined the cast of the cable TV show Fargo.

“It’s going to expand the perception of Jim beyond the ‘Hot Pockets guy.’ I think our show is really funny and we talked about Jim’s obsession with food and that’s great, but there’s so much more to him,” says Jeannie.

She is happy with her own career path and rejects criticism that she’s taken a backseat to her husband.

“I have the best of both worlds. I could leave certain things about raising my kids up to somebody else, but that wouldn’t sit right with me. I have this great family, I have five kids, and I’m still able to have success on my own.”

“As I’ve supported Jim so much over the years he’s also supported me. And he completely trusts me to be his third eye. That’s an amazing position to be in because he knows that I don’t have a hidden agenda. I’m in it for life. It’s a pretty great deal for both of us.”

ON STAGE, ON SCREEN Jim Gaffigan will perform four shows at the Pabst Theater December 29 – 31. The Jim Gaffigan Show Season 1 is available on DVD and Season 2 is currently streaming on Hulu.com.

[FULL-INTERVIEW]

WiG
Did you go to Rufus King?

JEANNIE
Yes.

WiG
Okay, right. Because I went to Rufus King and I remember being in the theater director Mr. Mackinson’s office and seeing a prominently placed headshot of one of the Noth sisters.

JEANNIE
That was definitely me.

WiG
Mackinson spoke fondly of you. So you were doing theater back then and I read that you were exposed to theater early on it life…

JEANNIE
Yeah my father Dominic Noth was the theater and film critic for the Milwaukee Journal for like 30 years. I saw a lot of theater and film and we went out to a lot of theater festivals growing up.

WiG
And you have 8 brothers and sisters?

JEANNIE
That’s right.

WiG
And where do you fall in that order?

JEANNIE
I’m the first.

WiG
And what was that like, being the oldest child?

JEANNIE
It was pretty chaotic in our house. I kind of got put into the role of director producer pretty early just by default. I was always really organized and when we had block parties I would say, “Okay, we’re going to do a number from Grease,” and I’d rope everybody into doing stuff. I was a little bit of a bossy big sister.

WiG
What part of town did you grow up on?

JEANNIE
We grew up right around UWM on the east side.

WiG
It sounds like you were doing theater pretty young. When did you have a sense that that’s what you wanted to pursue after high school? What precipitated that?

JEANNIE
I went to UW-Madison and for the first couple years of school you just get your requirement credits going. I didn’t actually pursue theater there at all. I mean I saw theater in Madison and I enjoyed it. But then I was thinking, “Obviously you can’t make a living doing that.” I thought I had to go into something like, you know, my father is a journalist so I  started working on journalism and communications.

In the summer when I was back in Milwaukee I got involved with a theater company working with kids for my summer job. There was a program called the Schneider Arts Academy, which was a privately and publicly funded summer theater program for kids from different Milwaukee public high schools that would have to audition. That was run by Ray Jivoff, who is now with the Skylight Theater. I knew a board member from when I was in grade school at Lloyd Street School and she kind of singled me out and said, “Why don’t you take a job with this company?”  

I started off as a choreographer and assistant director. I found so much joy in doing that. It was something that really made me feel alive. And it started to be apparent that I wanted to pursue more of directing and acting. What happened was that because my father was an employee at the Milwaukee Journal and I got pretty high grades at UW-Madison I qualified for a merit scholarship for the kids of Journal employees. So I got a scholarship to Marquette University, which is a smaller university but had the great theater department. I transferred there and became a theater major.

Everybody who graduated from Marquette at least at the time would then take a minor in philosophy or theology. I hadn’t taken any theology at UW-Madison, so the summer before I transferred I wound up studying at UWM, which was walking distance from my home.  So I really started getting into the Milwaukee scene a bit as a young adult. I discovered that there was  a lot of great theater going on.  

While I was at Marquette I went to do Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival with Milwaukee Chamber Theater. Then right after I got my BFA I continued at Marquette to get my master’s in directing. Then I got an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

When I was working at the Rep it became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee to get into theater in Milwaukee. It felt like there was kind of a niche group of actors that were always getting work and they weren’t coming from the rank-and-file interns, they were coming in from New York and Chicago. It became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee in order to gain experience rather than just be in school. So that’s when I went to New York with really it in mind to pursue this and that’s how I wound up being in entertainment.

WiG
What time period was it when you moved back to Milwaukee as a young adult?

JEANNIE
That was in the mid 90s.

WiG
What did you get up to in Milwaukee? What memories of the city do you have?

JEANNIE
Oh my God, I was working so much. I guess I would go to Shank Hall. I love live music. Milwaukee is great for live music. A lot of times at night I was doing theater,  so I wasn’t socializing that much. But I love live music and I would go to different venues around Milwaukee. I remember Fuel Cafe from back in the day. I liked Lixx Frozen Custard, it was on Downer.

WiG
Can you recall any of the shows you did during high school at King?

JEANNIE
I did a play called “Nuts.” I did “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” I did a lot of one act plays. Mr. Mackinson was fan of one act plays. They weren’t doing mainstage productions at that point. I went to Lloyd Street School for elementary and I remember big kids in my neighborhood being students at King and going to see them in big musicals in the King auditorium. But by the time I got there it was all in the Little Theater, so there were a lot of one acts. I wound up coming back to King in the late 90s to direct “A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Little Theater and that was amazing.

WiG
Awesome. Did you find that when you were doing theater early on that you enjoyed performing more, or being behind-the-scenes?

JEANNIE
I guess when I was in high school it was performing, but then later when I worked at the Schneider Arts Academy I loved being a part of every aspect of the performance; the staging, the costumes, the acting. I felt like as a director you got a chance to play all those roles. I love acting but I think that my niche is directing and producing.

WiG
For a lot of people when they get to New York, especially people from the Midwest, it’s kind of sink-or-swim, in that the city is trying to kick your ass and you got to kick back or get out. How did you find New York when you first moved there?

JEANNIE
I found that I made about exactly the amount of money that I needed for rent, so that was a big eye opener. I was one of those people who vowed not to carry any debt besides my student loans. But the first time I wanted to go home for Christmas I had to put it on a credit card. It was really hard and really expensive to live in New York.  

I found a way to do it by being involved in the catering industry. You could design your schedule around shows you were in. It was the kind of job where you were your own booker. I found a way to survive doing that. Later I got involved with a theater company that consisted of a bunch of graduates from Carnegie Melon. That was also a Milwaukee connection because there was a guy who was an actor who graduated from Carnegie Melon with my brother Vincent. We’d meet in the basement of a church on Monday nights and it became this pretty exceptional theater company. We’d create all these original plays and staged them and performed them and that was really great to get to know the theater scene and the grassroots movement of theater in New York CIty.

Then I wound up taking freelance artist-in-residence teaching jobs at various schools because at that time a lot of the funding was being cut from public schools in NYC for arts programs. So non-profit companies came up with the idea to create a fund for visiting artists, whether they were visual artists or performing artists or musicians, people would do residencies at schools. I got involved with that teaching improv and reading scenes with public school kids. Through that I decided to start a not-for-profit company in the late 90s called “Shakespeare on the Playground.” I would stage plays with middle school kids and I enjoyed some success doing that.

WiG
It seems like you were pretty successful being involved in the more “serious” theater community in New York. When did you start frequenting the comedy scene, the improv troupes?

JEANNIE
Well, I was always involved in improv. That is one of the things that I feel is a really important tool for actors to have. It creates a relationship between the group that’s performing. It’s an exercise in talking and listening. The challenge of acting is being in the moment and responding, truly talking and listening to each other. So improv is a part of every actor’s exercise program. They have to workout that part of their brain. So I was always in improv groups when I was doing theater.

Improv groups tend to be comic based. I got involved with a lot of people in improv groups in New York and eventually got into a group that started writing original sketches. That was called “King Baby.” We started writing and performing comedy sketches in different venues around New York. That’s how I got involved in the comedy scene. But it was just one of the many things that I was doing.

At the exact same time I met Jim, who was a neighbor of mine. I didn’t really know what he was doing but I knew that he lived on my block so we crossed paths a lot.  I think we crossed paths at a comedy club and then eventually we went out to lunch and got to know each other. He did some volunteer work for my organization,  Shakespeare on the Playground. Then shortly after that I started working with him because he got his first sitcom. I was helping him with his acting, sort of breaking down the scenes. kind of a “You work with me, I’ll work with you” thing.

We found that we worked really well together. I was already aware of the fact that he was a comedian. At that time comedians started to produce their own CDs. So Jim said, “Do you think you can produce a CD for me?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to do that, that’s my thing.” So I produced Jim’s first CD. It was a pretty successful endeavor, so I produced the next one. We moved on to DVDs and started writing together, then we got married and here we are.

WiG
What did you like about Jim when you first got to know him?

JEANNIE
He was just one of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever met. Also the fact that once we started working together he had the same work ethic that I did and it is very difficult to find that kind of…it’s difficult to be in a relationship with someone when they don’t have that same thing. Like, “Why do you care so much about your job?” So Jim was the same type as me in that way.

Also, he’s from a family of six kids, so there was a language that we understood right away.  And he grew up on Lake Michigan, but he was on the Indiana side outside of Chicago. So we grew up kind of in the same region. We liked the familiarity of each other and we liked the way that we worked together.

WiG
It seems like family is really important to you, as you come from really large family and it seems like you’re fairly tight knit. The evolution to start a family with Jim, did that happened pretty quickly? Were you both on board right away? Was there any sort of sense of maybe we should wait and keep working on our careers?

JEANNIE
Not really. At that point we had been together and working together for about two years before we got engaged and it was a whirlwind. Right after we got married I got pregnant with my first child so we didn’t really have time to plan a family. We didn’t really think about it. We just started having kids and moving our life around them. It wasn’t something that we thought out or planned, we were just open to it  and now we have this amazing big family.

WiG
So the Pabst series of shows,  how did that first start?

JEANNIE
Jim is the youngest in his family, so when we started dating all of his siblings had their own families. Aside from reunions, where the whole family got together, they all did their own Christmases. But my family still all came home to Mom and Dad for Christmas. So it became a tradition for us to go to Milwaukee for Christmas, which is usually the worst weather possible, but family calls. So Jim really got into that. He was quickly adopted into my family as the 10th kid. He and my dad really get along. They both love to talk about everything, they have very similar minds, they like to debate about stuff. And my mom of course loves Jim.  

The holidays are a time when people have off and want to go see shows. So we used to have to get out of town pretty quickly — or at least Jim did — to do a show between Christmas and New Year’s. At one point Jim got the bright idea to see if he could do a show in Milwaukee so we didn’t have to come in and then go out. That’s how the Pabst started all those years ago. Once Jim did a show at the Pabst he was like, ‘This place is phenomenal!” Everything about the Pabst and the people who run the Pabst is A+. Having played theaters all over the country, the Pabst is definitely the cream of the crop. The employees, the audiences, the venue, it’s all just a terrific experience and has become a part of our tradition.

WiG
Speaking of going out and doing stand-up, I read that you plan his stand-up gigs around the kids time off so you can bring the whole family with. Is that still true?

JEANNIE
Yes, we didn’t really have it together early in our marriage because when I had one baby we just took the baby on tour with us. Then when I had two babies that were still in diapers it became difficult to drag them all over the place. That was corresponding with starting to do theater work. That kind of tore us apart in a lot of ways. We couldn’t really connect because he was on the road and I was still writing and producing with him, but the phone was bad and with the babies and the schedule it was really difficult. Around baby number three we were like, “Let’s restructure this whole thing, so that we can maintain our healthy family environment.”

What we’ve done is the longer tours are scheduled around the kids school vacations. So if Jim does a oner, which is what we call doing one night in the city and then flying out, we won’t travel with him. But if it’s a longer stay we’ll book all those things around the kids time off. That way we can go on tour and give the kids the experience of being with us while we’re working.

WiG
And you get a tour bus sometimes?

JEANNIE
Yes, we tour on a huge Greyhound-sized rock and roll bus with bunk beds. Of course we stop in hotels too and things like that, but we go from city to city with our kids around the country on a big tour bus.

WiG
I was at a Pabst show a few years ago and instead of having a comic open the kids came out and were Irish dancing and being super adorable. It’s very sweet that you do that and expose them to the industry in that way. It makes you think of like the family bands of the 60s and 70s.

JEANNIE
Yeah we get a lot of jokes about that.

WiG
And you got some shows coming up in London. Are you going to bring the family out to England?

JEANNIE
Yep we’re all going to London and we’ve done that before. We’ve traveled internationally with our kids and it’s surprisingly easy. My kids are so travel savvy that it’s kind of scary. I think this year was the first year in the last couple of years that they did not just start taking off their shoes when we get to security. And I’m like, “You don’t have to take off your shoes anymore!” They recently made a rule that if you’re under 12 you don’t take your shoes off anymore. But my kids are so used to growing up in airports that they just instinctively take off their shoes.

WiG
Is your oldest babysitting age yet?

JEANNIE
She could but I wouldn’t leave them alone with her because if something happened God forbid I’d probably be jailed. But she is amazing. One of the testaments to how great the whole experience has been for my family with all the traveling is that we’ve become so close. People have asked me, “Aren’t your older ones at the point where they want to stay home with friends and not go out on the road?” But I haven’t experienced that yet.

Of course they fight and argue like all kids, but they really enjoy being together as a group.  They’ve really bonded in a way between having them come with us on tour,  sometimes they’ll do a fun opening for Jim where they sing a song or dance and introduce him. And they’re not show kids at all, they just do it for dad and for the family. They’ve developed this camaraderie and I think it’s a testament to how great the whole experience has been for my family.  It’s something that happens in an entertainment situation like when you talk about people who are doing movies or TV shows or a play together, there’s just this bonding that happens amongst the group.

WiG
And I’m going to guess that living in your two-bedroom apartment for so long probably brought them closer together.

JEANNIE
Oh yeah, I totally think so.

WiG
Let’s talk about The Jim Gaffigan Show now. I know it was a long journey, as TV shows can be, with different development deals and what not. The fact that you were able to get it where you had full creative control, that seems so rare and lucky in today’s media landscape.

JEANNIE
Yeah that was pretty incredible. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because that’s just the way it has to be. I just feel like we’ve been through so much. You can’t write a show about your life and then give it over to somebody. It’s your life. I think you can be a part of somebody else’s vision and make a great contribution to it. But I think a lot of times what happens is that a great comedian will get a TV deal and you’ll watch the show and say, “Well, this isn’t funny,” or “This isn’t the point-of-view that I know and am a fan of.” Because it’s been given over to a committee. Other people are deciding what’s funny and not funny, what’s marketable and not marketable.

And that’s just the way it is in the traditional paradigm of sitcoms. So us being able to kind of take what we had, which was a  sitcom that was designed for network television and then once we did get creative control we still had the same model but then we could sort of incorporate more of what our audiences over the years have gotten to know and love about Jim’s comedy, we then applied that to the TV show without having people giving notes on it and stuff.

WiG
What were some of your major influences for the show? What are some of the shows that you and Jim really love?

JEANNIE
I can’t speak for Jim, but I grew up watching Seinfeld. So I really liked the different storylines, and the crazy characters, which all revolves around the voice and the point-of-view of the main character. And also how we would go to a silly level after establishing a grounded reality. And that’s kind of what we do in our comedy. So that was one of the influences.

Even some dramas have influenced us. We love dramas, we love our Netflix shows,  the dramas that we follow. Especially in Season Two, and to a certain extent in Season One, there’s a lot of flashback and fantasy sequences, which doesn’t limit us to just the apartment and the way the characters behave in the formula that was created for the show. It gave us a lot of things to go on. That’s another thing that’s great about stand-up comedy, you can have a grounded idea and then you can put it in outer space if you want. It’s about taking it to the next level, and I think once you ground something in reality then the audience will come along with you and enjoy the humor of “What if” this or that happened.

WiG
Yeah that makes me think of different episodes from the show. I’ve been binge watching the first season and I really love it, it’s fantastic.

JEANNIE
Thank you so much. We had a great time doing it, it was really a labor of love.

WiG
For sure. But like you said it was a labor, and it was very labor-intensive. I read that you were working so many hours that you were forming what felt like a family with your production team, but that it was taking away time from your actual family.

JEANNIE
The irony is that one of the reasons we wanted to do a show in New York was so we could spend more time with our family, so we wouldn’t be traveling as much. But what happens when you’re writing, producing and later directing a show is that it becomes an all-encompassing life. We were doing 80 hours a week for six months of the year.

At a certain point it becomes clear that if you’re writing a show about being a comedian with five kids in New York City, you have to actually experience being a parent of five kids in New York City, or you’re not going to be true to yourself. It wasn’t so much a matter of that the kids are going to be traumatized forever because Mom and Dad were both gone 80 hours a week for six months out of the year. It was more about looking ahead at what will happen as the show gets more successful and it won’t be possible to stop it.

If it had gone to the point where I think it was headed, being an established successful show, then you can’t just be like, “We’re not going to do this anymore.” You’re stuck, you’re not getting out. And so I think we have to be serious about what is that going to do to our kids? Because when we went for the live-action TV idea we had four kids and they played the kids on the show in the first pilot. Then they got too old to be the kids on the show.

In the first pilot my youngest at the time Michael was playing the two-year-old in the show and then the next year my son Patrick was playing the two-year-old in the show and the other kids were too old to be in the show. So I ended up spending more time with the TV kids really. At a certain point it’s like, one parent can do that, but if you have five kids you have to take responsibility for your life. I think that every once in awhile, if you look back over Jim and my trajectory of our careers, every few years we regroup and we do something else. We don’t want to get caught in something we can’t get out of, because it won’t be healthy for us as a family. The family comes first.

Now we can plan our next project like we do with the tours. We can plan it around serving our kids first, because we’re responsible with raising good human beings to go into this insane world, and that is our primary responsibility.

WiG
I think one of the things that the show has accomplished is that it’s really sort of brought you and your contribution, your partnership with Jim, more into the public eye. I’m a big comedy fan so I know from listening to old episodes of Comedy Bang Bang and WTF with Marc Maron that you and Jim are a strong comedy team, but I don’t think that was apparent in the public. What I think the show has accomplished is that it has brought that out. I know that sometimes people criticize you, saying things like “She put her career in the back seat for Jim’s,” but to me it’s really important and inspiring that you’re such a comedy team.

JEANNIE
Yeah, I got asked questions several times about how is it that this person who’s like me, a show runner and a director and a writer and a female, how am I not doing either my own project or making the character of Jeannie Gaffigan in the show be more of a superstar. I really think that I have the best of both worlds, because I get to do what I love and keep my family together.  

I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to keep a family together in the entertainment world when both of the parents are crazy workers like Jim and I, is that you just start doing your own stuff and you’re not serving the main goal, which is your family. In that sense Jim is a powerhouse, and I’m not saying that I’m not, but I’m the one who has the babies. That’s just my gender. I have children. I could leave certain things about raising my kids up to somebody else, but that wouldn’t sit right with me.

So I’m able to have the best of both worlds. Here I have this great family, I have five kids, I’m still able to work, I’m still able to have success on my own and be recognized as talented, and I don’t feel like I’m pushing the women’s movement back a million years, because I’ve found ways to game the system, if you will. I can have it all. And I think that if your ego gets caught up in it that’s when you know you have to make decisions and sacrifices in this world to get what you want. If you think you can control your life and say, “You know Jim, I’m actually going to go to Vancouver and direct a series and now you’re in charge of the kids,” that’s not the best decision for our family right now.

As I’ve supported Jim so much over the years he’s also supported me. And he completely trusts me to be his third eye. That’s an amazing position to be in because he knows that I don’t have a hidden agenda. I’m not trying to ride his coattails or to use him as a résumé builder, I’m in it for life. It’s a pretty good deal for both of us.

WiG
As someone who is sort of a recent parent in that I’ve been living with my girlfriend and her two kids for the last year, this show has kind of made me more confident with being a parent and has made parenting cool in a way.

JEANNIE
Well that’s amazing, that’s a huge compliment. And I think because we don’t want to alienate single people or people without kids or people who don’t want kids, we try to mix it up a little bit with the points of view on the show. But at the same time, you write what you know. You can’t think that your life is over when you become a parent, because it’s definitely not.

WiG
Yeah I mean I love the transition and all the new challenges. Just a couple last questions, in terms of where your careers are now, I saw that Jim is joining the cast of Fargo, which is a pretty heavy show. Would you like to see him go into more dramedy, leading man type stuff? Sort of like what Patton Oswalt has done with some of his films.

JEANNIE
Oh I definitely think that’s already started. When I met Jim I didn’t know anything about comedy, I didn’t follow stand-up comedians. And when I met him I knew he was a comedian but that’s not what we start working on. We started working on acting. Because I was coming from an environment of trained actors, Jim was an untrained actor and there was something so genuine and natural about his acting that was just inspiring to me about the level of talent that he had as an actor.  

That’s been true over the past two years and especially now that Jim just did a dramatic role in a Liev Schreiber film called The Bleeder, which is going to be coming out next year. Fargo was actually one of our shows. It’s a very dark comedy drama kind of thing and I really got into Noah Hawley. He’s another renaissance man who writes, directs, produces and does it all, so I automatically want to read what he has to say. One of the things that really inspired me about him as a showrunner is that he welcomes network notes.

And that’s sort of the way that I feel about it. If you put all your heart and soul into something and someone has notes on it, you should be able to defend all of your ideas. There might be something in there from an audience’s perspective that might not be clear. So I really liked hearing that when I read the article and saw the interview with Hawley. So we really got into Fargo and when the Fargo opportunity came along I was like, ‘This is incredible, this is the type of show that is an important move to make. It’s going to expand the acting horizons and it’s going to expand the perception of Jim beyond ‘The Hot Pockets guy.’” Even though I think our show is really funny and we talked about Jim’s obsession with food and I think that’s really great, but there’s so much more to him. There’s so much more that I know about him that I want to share with the world.

WiG
So kind of coming full circle to where you guys started. Last question, what are some of your creative goals?

JEANNIE
Well, we definitely are really excited that our 5th hour special is coming out in 2017.  We’re also starting our 6th hour of comedy. We started writing it because we just filmed and wrapped our 5th comedy special. And I directed and produced that as well. Jim and I had a lot of fun with framing it in a way that is unlikely. We’ve done four comedy specials where we had a fun opening sequence with the marquee outside of the theater and backstage, but this time we got a lot more theatrical and a little more dark with the opening. Just kind of having that ability to be like, “We’re going to do this and not have anyone go, ‘Oh my God, that’s just too weird.’”

It’s just like, “Okay, you can go ahead and do that.” So creatively we want to continue to produce our own stuff. We might want to look at producing scripts that we respond to that are other people scripts. But I think that our next goal besides writing our 6th hour of comedy is probably to develop something that we could do over like a six to eight episode arc. Something with maybe a streaming service, so it’s breaking the model of traditional commercial television.

WiG
Awesome. It sounds like you got a lot going on and you’ve been doing fantastic work and I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me today.

JEANNIE
Thank you so much for the interview. I also wanted to mention that we added another show in Milwaukee to benefit the Riverwest Food Pantry.

WiG
Yeah I saw that, how did that come about?

JEANNIE
My brother is the executive director of the Riverwest Food Pantry, which has become a tradition for us to volunteer at when we visit Milwaukee. And as the whole world knows Milwaukee is constantly in the news in a negative manner because of the intense segregation and the alienation that people feel from each other. Particularly in this political climate it’s important for us to try to make a bridge between cultures. When we come to Milwaukee, like I said, family is the tradition. So we get together with our family and one of the things that we did starting several years back was bring our kids to volunteer at the food pantry, stock the shelves, take people shopping and give people a little bit of assistance.

Since Vincent became the executive director, one of the things that he’s trying to do is that rather than giving people fish, he’s trying to give them fishing poles. He’s started a lot of workshops between job fairs, healthy cooking seminars, stuff like that. It’s just a blossoming thing that’s happening in Riverwest, which is sort of like a bridge between the communities. And so a couple years back my brother was backstage at the Pabst after a show and he’s a huge supporter of us and we’re a huge supporter of him, and Matt Beringer and Gary Witt who are the geniuses behind the Pabst Theater and the revitalization of downtown, they got to talking with Vincent and they started to do some work together to better Milwaukee.  

This idea started germinating a couple of years ago about doing something really special for the 10th Anniversary. It just seemed appropriate to do something to help enrich the culture in Milwaukee and to help bridge the gap between communities that traditionally are separate. It’s a starting point to go along with the refinement of downtown, where they’re developing the river and there’s some really incredible things happening in Milwaukee and we just want to be a part of it and in our own way give back to the community for all they’ve given us.

WiG
That’s great. We appreciate it for sure.

JEANNIE
It’s an important thing that needs to happen and you’re starting to see the results about people caring for their community.

WiG
Definitely. Have a great week and enjoy the holidays.

JEANNIE
You too, Happy Thanksgiving.

WiG
Take care.