Jeannie Gaffigan Talks to Verily About Collaborating, Comedy, and the Awesome Chaos of a Big Family

This inspiring comedy writer and mother of five is a refreshing modern role model.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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This inspiring comedy writer and mother of five is a refreshing modern role model.
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Welcome to our interview series in partnership with Empowered Women, a nonprofit advocating for women to live a fulfilled life as they define it. We’ve teamed up to interview inspiring women who are forging their own paths and living what it means to be an empowered woman. Join us as we meet a new woman each month.

Jeannie Gaffigan has helmed numerous successful comedy tours, coauthored a New York Times bestselling book, and created a hilariously relevant TV show, The Jim Gaffigan Show, now completing its second season. With her husband, Jim, she writes and produces the series, which is based on the couple’s real life living with five kids in Manhattan.

But don’t mistake Gaffigan for an in-name partner only. Most Americans only know her as Jim’s affectionately named "Shiite Catholic" wife, but behind the scenes Gaffigan plays an active role in Jim’s comedy. Not unlike when she worked on her husband’s specials King Baby and Obsessed, her influence is all over his latest ventures. From writing copy, executive producing the TV show, and show-running Jim’s Fully Dressed comedy tour—not to mention taking care of the couple’s five children—it’s clear that the Gaffigans are a real partnership in action.

The powerhouse duo first met when Jeannie and Jim were living on the same block in Manhattan. Jeannie was working with a theater company and a sketch comedy group, and Jim had just been cast in an acting role. When he asked her for acting pointers one day, a professional friendship was born. The fifteen years that followed saw a collaboration in far more than professional work.

The fruits of those nonprofessional parts of life are a big feature in the Gaffigans’ comedy. The kids surely haven’t slowed Jeannie down; on the contrary, she has the palpable energy of someone whose power grows with every new role added to her plate. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t experience exhaustion and overwhelm just like the rest of us. What follows is a glimpse into her modern and inspiring outlook.

Mary Rose Somarriba: Did you grow up thinking you’d be a comedy writer, or was it something you encountered along the way?

Jeannie Gaffigan: I actually started off in theater rather than stand-up comedy, but I always gravitated toward the comics. One of my favorite plays is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a major comedy. That was my favorite Shakespearean play, and I actually staged it many times and accentuated the comedy of it. Even in Romeo and Juliet there are really great comedic parts, and I took advantage of my gravitation toward finding in these tragic stories, a comic relief.

MRS: We seem to be hearing a lot of tragedy in the news these days. What would you say is the value of comedy at times like these?

JG: Over the years I've learned a lot and grown a lot. And I was with Jim during the tragedy of 9/11. About three days into the recovery efforts, Jim said, “I have to go to the comedy club and do a spot.” And I thought, are you kidding me? This is not the time. There are tanks driving around; you have to show your ID to go anywhere. But Jim said, “This is the time to do it.”

When I saw people flocking to the comedy clubs, I realized we need that moment of community and communication with other people. Because we all share those joys of life together alongside the tragedy, it allows us to lift them up in despair.

We hear this from fans of The Jim Gaffigan Show, too. A lot of the followers of our show write to us about how it brings them joy when their parents had a diagnosis with cancer, when things are not funny at all but still the humor in the show connected to them, whether it be silly like about everyone loving cake or more personal like Jim’s fear of cancer. You’d think that was not an appropriate thing for people to hear, but you’d be surprised how the human spirit is resilient. The human spirit needs a little comedy to get through these times that are incredibly difficult. I think the gift of laughter is a really important part of navigating this world.

MRS: What have been some of your biggest obstacles along your professional path?

JG: I can’t think of any obstacles besides simply gaining the knowledge of stand-up comedy. Obviously when you decide to start touring and doing stand-up you are forced to make some decisions like, can I stay here and do plays, or do I leave and travel with a stand-up tour. I had to make a lot of decisions—you can’t do both things. You can’t do stationary things in NY, but I had the opportunity to make the choice. And I did make the choice to make these CDs because I thought that God was leading me to do at that time.

If I hadn’t done that Jim and I wouldn't have made that connection. We couldn't do both and have our relationships survive. It came down to: If I do this, I have an opportunity all for myself; or if I do that, then I am a part of a team. That obstacle was one I had to do a lot of heart searching for, but it was ultimately easy to make.

MRS: How about in the world of TV producing?

JG: When I was working as executive producer of a comedy show with Jim, it was just the two of us working together. You have one other person to battle your ideas with, then you try them out and see if the audiences are laughing or not laughing; if not we change the joke, we grow with our audience.

With TV, we have hundreds of people involved. For me, the challenge here is to make sure we retain our common voice even though it's not just the two of us involved in it. So being the executive producers of our own TV show is pretty much where we need to be. On other shows we worked on,  not having authority and not having that voice was a challenge. Have you ever seen an actor or comedian with a great voice, but then you see them on a certain TV show and you’re like, what happened to them? Too many decisions are made by committee, so we had to maintain creative control—in a really fun way. We can’t go work for someone and give them all our material.

MRS: What advice would you give to young women pursuing a career like yours? 

JG: One of the pieces of advice I'd give women is that we’ve been told our whole lives it’s a weak thing to be joined up to somebody, whether it’s a husband or a friend, and we’re sold subliminal messages that we have to be 100 percent on our own. You do have to be 100 percent, but when you are faced with a collaboration experience and you’re 100 percent there, don’t be afraid to go into that collaboration; it’s not going to make you weaker, it’s going to make you stronger.

I think what was holding me back was thinking I couldn’t be on a team—that I’d somehow be giving away my own power. That connection between two people and two artists? Don’t be afraid to honor that connection. You have to be 100 percent yourself and confident in yourself in order to be a part of team. In that case, there’s no subtraction happening; it’s 100 percent plus 100 percent makes 200 percent.

MRS: It sounds like you’ve found a good balance.

JG: Yes. Because I've been able to do this and have five children—because I was willing to take a step into the background and produce from behind the scenes—I feel amazingly empowered. How many people are able to have this success and have a large family? Because I was willing to contribute as a part of a team, because I didn’t have a problem having my husband be out in the front while I’m behind the scenes, I was able to gain so much. We are equal partners in the show. I have one person I have to pass ideas through, and he has one person he has to pass ideas through, before we pass things to the network. It works great for us.

MRS: I can imagine with five kids and a job like this, you can feel drained at times. What do you do to help fill yourself up?

JG: I think that on the one hand, I’ve been drained and exhausted by being a really hard worker and being a very active mom; it’s like burning the candle at both ends. On the other hand, it’s really exhilarating and empowering and has opened a whole new aspect of passion and humor in my life. Maybe 3 years after our relationship started we got married; we had our first child 4 years into our relationship. It wasn’t until 6 years in that we finally incorporated our children in our comedy. At first we didn’t want to alienate people without children. But pretty soon it just became this undeniable thing, just the most incredible part of my life. With kids, even in your exhaustion, there’s humor.

I started tapping into the humor of the kids and coping with the kids in a dry, sarcastic way. I found that anyone can tap into the comedy of how it feels—when all you want to do is be selfish and then you’re faced with the kids. I have to wake up really early and these kids want to do really selfish things like eat. People can relate, and it brings so much joy that it doesn’t alienate because everyone comes from families.

MRS: Humor in child-rearing is right. I was just telling other Verily editors about my daughter’s tantrum when she found out the stripes come off when she licks a candy cane.

JG: Everyone can share the experience of these things. Just last night, we ordered a pizza with pepperoni. My son is 3, and he doesn’t like pepperoni so he took it off and put it on the side of his plate. My brother ate a piece of pepperoni from his plate that he was discarding, and he started having a tantrum. He doesn’t even want the pepperoni, but he can’t bear someone else having it.

At moments like these, like when your kid is spitting up on you, you could sit and say “being spit upon sucks,” or you could be like “this is really funny.” Everything has two sides.

MRS: Is pepperoni boy your youngest?

JG: Yes, my youngest is 3; my oldest is about to turn 12. Now she’s my executive assistant.

MRS: It’s amazing how even for those who have lots of kids, as kids grow up, they can become so helpful. Speaking of family, it reminds me of how Nora Ephron famously said, “Everything is copy”—everything she experienced, however bad, provided inspiration for writing fodder. Is everything copy for you?

JG: We haven’t really had anything that we’re like, no, we can’t talk about that, and every single episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show has an element of something that has actually happened.

Thank God we have not had any major crisis happen in our lives; from what our family has experienced, though, everything has this comic side to it, even things that are a little more tragic. In the beginning of season one of The Jim Gaffigan Show, Jim is struggling with whether he should get a vasectomy. Jeannie introduces to him that she’s pregnant, and they’re thinking about having six kids. Later, there’s a scene in that pilot episode that Jeannie finds out she’s not pregnant after all, which leads to her having a serious conversation with Jim. She’s really disappointed; he’s disappointed, but he tries to make her laugh, and it's so memorable. I think people have been there with their spouse before; they want to have a baby, but it doesn’t happen or maybe it goes wrong, and this is not a funny time in our lives. We find a way to have such a moment in every show, where there’s a connection that may touch somebody's heart even with comedy.

So far nothing has been completely made up in the show. But we may take a little license in heightening the moment to be more dramatic than what the situation actually was.

MRS: This comedytragedy dynamic seems to be coming into play again.

JG: Yes. In another episode that just aired called “He Said / She Said,” the entire episode is about Jim and Jeannie fighting, and the arguments we have. It starts off with Jim going to the church rectory to talk to Fr. Nicolas about something, but he has no idea why they’re meeting there. It turns out Jeannie is setting up a couples counseling session. The entire episode recounts them having a fight from different perspectives. In the eyes of Jeannie, he’s a hundred pounds heavier, a million times more selfish, he's mean, and he looks like Jabba the Hutt. But in Jim's version of the story, they have ten times more kids, he has no place to go, there are diapers everywhere. So we’ve taken our license because, yes, we’ve had arguments where everything was irritating to me—like, can you not crinkle that bag so loudly—every single thing was heightened as a negative about the other person. Everything was seen through a filter of red. In the story, like in real life, they have to get on the same page.

MRS: There are a couple more episodes before the season finale on Sunday, August 21. What should readers look forward to in the rest of the season?

JG: I'm really joined at the vein with all of these shows, so it’s hard to pick one episode to recommend. I’m really looking forward to the finale because as an exec producer and showrunner I'm dealing with three shows at the same time. It’s completely overwhelming to have the five kids while I'm working eighty hours a week; it’s crazy. But Jim really wanted me to write the season finale because it's about growing up in Indiana; it's about Jim’s relationship with his father in the 1970s. It’s really an absolute joy to be a part of that, and all of our crew and our cast—everyone—just came together and made it. It’s outside of our normal style, it takes us back in time, and I'm really looking forward to people seeing that episode because it has a lot of funny moments and deep beautiful moments.

MRS: Who came up with the phrase “Shiite Catholic”?

JG: That was definitely Jim. And yes, my faith plays a big part in my life. The way my faith helps me the most is I tend to think I'm in control of everything—that’s my weakness. But we quickly find out we have no control. And if I put all my eggs in one basket I was going to be disappointed most of my life. There's a higher power in charge of most of my life. As in, I'm going to write this book with Jim, and it’s either going to to be a New York Times bestseller or it’s not, but I’ve got to be prepared if it’s not going to be. That outlook applies to everything.

With five kids—with any kids—every day you have a struggle of: Is my kid OK? Will they be OK? I have to put this in the hands of God because I can’t function this way. Personally the way that I can cope with life is to let go of my control and have faith in something higher than myself. And that’s how my faith has influenced me.

MRS: What else helps you recharge?

JG: Sleeping. We left our last day of final work on the show, and the very next day we were going on the bus tour. On the bus tour, it is a totally different story for the mom because I'm on in the morning, I'm on in the afternoon, and I‘m on in the night doing the show, and I also need to protect the performer Jim to make sure he gets sleep. It's an incredible journey being the showrunner for this comedy tour, but as it happens there is no down time. Jim says next year we’ll have to take the kids on a trip to Europe. We’ll go to Ireland to see castles. And I'm just like, I don’t want to plan that trip. You know what would be so amazing—if you could just get a babysitter for one day and I could just not get out of bed. I couldn't even hear the fantasy vacation idea because all I could hear is packing for it.

I joke about sleep, but actually what’s really recharging me right now is to varying my focus. You can get burnt out when you're doing the same thing over and over, year after year, and that’s why it’s so important for mothers to start writing a book or a craft, or even if they don’t have kids, for women to find their caregiving self, can you volunteer, adopt a pet, and so on, find a nice balance. I think it’s recharging to me to be able to vary my roles.

MRS: And you clearly have mastered multiple roles.

JG: Yes, and as a woman, I’d like to add something on that. When I was a single person I thought getting married and having kids was like giving up on life. I think people rebelled against that because that was put forth as the only role of women for so long—dowries, baby machines, and the like. So I felt so resistant, thinking people wouldn't hire me if I was married, and I resisted for so long being part of a partnership.

But in an unexpected way, motherhood as a whole new thing for me, increased my joy. Life became more challenging, and therefore, the quality went up. So I’d tell women, don’t be afraid of motherhood. Don’t fear motherhood, because motherhood is like the flowering of that stem that you’ve been growing your whole life. It’s been such an amazing journey for me to be a mother. I have also supported people through adoption processes, and when they’ve adopted that baby, their entire life has been turned around. So don’t be afraid of motherhood; it’s the greatest joy of my life. It’s increased my art, and it’s increased my love.

Without kids or with kids, if you’re struggling with the day-to-day or if you’re afraid that adding kids will take away, the answer is the opposite. Every child that I've had has brought me a different level of happiness—a higher level—and has made me much more creative and tap into my sense of humor and humanity a step deeper.

It’s important to realize this is a cultural paradox. I'm not saying everyone should be a mother. I'm saying I was afraid of it because I thought it would be detrimental to me as a person to share my life, but it was so amazing. I've seen women able to maintain these incredible careers and have children and a lot more balls in the air to juggle. Rather than weakening, it’s empowering. It's so empowering.

Illustration: Sam Kerr