Job One for a comedian is figuring out exactly who you are, so you can better explain it to an audience. Nobody knows who you are, though, more than the person whose ring you wear and whose towels you share.
The vast majority of Jim Gaffigan’s fans have no idea that they’re also fans of Jeannie Gaffigan. Their experience of Jeannie has been as the patient star of her comedian husband’s many anecdotes of domesticity. The truth, however, is that much of the material put forth by Jim Gaffigan is the product of an equal creative partnership—one of comedy’s all-time most successful married teams–and it’s been that way for years.
The Gaffigans first met in a Korean bodega in New York City. He was grinding it out as a semisuccessful comic, and she was running an inner-city Shakespearean theater workshop for children. Then they started dating.
“As any comedian will tell you, there are many barriers for a romantic relationship, but a sense of humor is really important,” Jim says. “She was this generous, kind, attractive person, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was funny too.”
She was. Within the first year of their relationship, the two began collaborating on Jim’s comedy. What started with notes on Jim’s sets—e.g., “Hit that punchline harder”—gradually became more and more involved. Soon, Jeannie and Jim were working side-by-side to shape jokes into finely hewn audience-slaying artillery. Jeannie’s background involved acting in theater companies and sketch groups, where she would produce shows and build characters. By the time she and Jim got married, though, her job consisted mainly of refining the character of “Jim Gaffigan.”
This past summer, the Gaffigans, now in their 12th year of marriage with five children to show for it, saw the sitcom they created together debut on TV Land. It’s a show about a comedian named Jim Gaffigan, his wife, Jeannie, and their five children, all living in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. While the character of Jeannie, played by Ashley Williams, doesn’t have the behind-the-scenes role the actual Jeannie has in Jim’s life, the actual Jeannie’s role behind the scenes of the show is front and center. (She and Jim are both billed as writers and executive producers.)
The Jim Gaffigan Show, with its familiar yet offbeat vibe and terrific supporting cast, was a summertime hit, and it has already been renewed for a second season. In the lead-up to the first season finale, which airs tonight at 10, and the paperback release of the second Gaffigan book, Food: A Love Story, Co.Create spoke to Jeannie and Jim about the history of their work together–and why it works so well.
Jeannie Gaffigan: We had been dating for a while, and “The Thong Song” by Sisqo was really popular. It was on the radio all the time, and we just both thought it was so hysterical. Jim wasn’t talking about stuff like that onstage at the time, but he made a really funny observation about the song and I made one too—one that would not work for me if I was gonna deliver the joke, but I knew it would really work for Jim. So, he was doing Craig Kilborn’s show, and he called me after the taping and he said, “I did your joke on Kilborn,” and I said, “Oh my god, how did it go?” And he was like, “It killed.” That just felt so great. It was really fulfilling to me in a way that writing for someone else wouldn’t have been.
Jeannie: In the beginning, except for some random jokes here and there, Jim was very guarded about writing stuff. Before I knew how to deal with him, I’d be like, “Hey, what about cars or something general?” and he’d be like, “That’s not the way I work.”
Jim Gaffigan: Standup comedy is a very solitary thing. So it was rather unusual to have a writing partner because it is so driven by point of view, and it’s rare for another person to understand and be able to work within your point of view.
Jeannie: After the Kilborn thing, I started to really learn him, learn his cadence, learn his point of view, and we started building TV spots together. We would do different chunks, like segments of topics at different clubs, to see which one was the best one.
Jim: We’d done CDs before, but shooting Beyond the Pale [his first TV special] was a different beast.
Jeannie: We had a huge team of people, but Jim needed a third eye to deliver what he wanted. So that’s when he told me I needed to be the executive producer of this thing. He said, “You need to be the person that’s my other half,” you know, which is like a marriage. And I was, and that was the special with Hot Pockets, which took off and became its own thing. The material that was in Beyond the Pale had developed over a dozen years, and then suddenly the A-plus stuff was gone and he had to create an entire new hour. So we started from ground zero.
Jim: So we had lots of conversations, like, “What else about bacon?”
Jeannie: Jim’s an observationalist, so he can take something that we see and experience every single day and zero in on a certain aspect of it that is humorous and then beat it to death, go on and on about bacon. And then you have another person there who can make a bunch more observations about bacon in that same point of view.
Jeannie: For [the 2011 Netflix special Mr. Universe], it says “written by Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan” at the top; whereas before, it was “executive producer Jeannie Gaffigan.” And why we chose to do it that way was probably just because at that point, it had become more of an intense collaboration in the writing. Also, my skill set was changing. I had my own thing going on before I got married, but now I have the PhD in Jim Gaffigan, so that’s what I do now, is I produce. Mr. Universe is where we probably made that decision, “Yeah, we both wrote this.”
Jim: Even among comedians, they knew that Jeannie was a participant, but when I would say in interviews, “My wife and I write everything together,” they’d be like, “Aww, that’s cute.” There’s kind of an inherent sexist bent.
Jeannie: I don’t know if it was even that sexist. I think we all probably bring a little bit to the table of how “wife” all a sudden makes you less of your own person. And I think it’s a standard thing. I’m probably guilty of thinking that about people too. But I don’t care if people think that Jim is just adding me to the credits because I’ll beat him with a rolling pin if he doesn’t. I don’t care.
Jim: Putting a cluster of jokes together is just dramatically different than writing a book.
Jeannie: With standup, Jim is the steamroller. He’s like, “That’s not gonna work.” He’s like, “I have the hours onstage to know that,” and I sometimes write stuff that never sees the light of day onstage. Like, there’s this joke about a dog who was wearing a coat, having two coats, a spring coat and a winter coat. And Jim always makes a comment about the one coat and I always write down, “What about the spring coat?” And Jim never does it. But he has the authority there to say what’s not gonna work, what’s gilding the lily. With the books, my skill set is much more of an essayist. And Jim is much more of a set-up/punch guy. So, Jim will write a chapter which will be a series of notes about a topic without the narrative. And that’s where I do my own thing. So Jim writes these brilliant observations and I help make them read like an essay.
Jim: Hammering any jumble of words into readable, compelling essays is definitely not my skill set.
Jim: The learning curve for Jeannie and I during the process of making this show was ridiculous. But there’s not an episode of the show where Jeannie and I cringe, because we wrote and worked with a fine-toothed comb over every single thing, from every line to the extras in the background.
Jeannie: In the standup world, he is doing jokes that are from his point of view, even if they were written by me. But in the show, both our points of view are represented, because there’s actually a character of Jeannie Gaffigan. So how it usually goes is that we’ll break outlines together and write separately. And then we’ll each take an outline and put it into script form. And then we’ll treat it and give notes on each other’s scripts.
Jim: We both make ourselves really defend an idea or a position.
Jeannie: Sometimes we get really intense when we’re fine-tuning it. We definitely act it out. We read the script out loud, assign characters. I always get up and walk around while we’re writing, try to figure out, like, “How is this going to be funny?” Thinking up entrances, exits, things like that.
Jim: One of the many things we learned doing the show is that these stories have to be really personally exciting, not hot topics, not like torn from the headlines—stuff that is personal.
Jeannie: Jim’s standup is somewhat autobiographical, and hopefully the standup and the show feed off each other. They’re both about looking at situations. And our next step is to create 20 situations where we’ll get like thirteen A-pluses out of them, 20 situations that would be compelling to write and compelling to watch in the second season.
Jim: I just got exhausted, just now, from even thinking about that.
Jeannie: Are you sure you weren’t already exhausted?