The hilarious, true-to-life comedy of Jeannie Gaffigan

For Her’s exclusive interview with the wife of Jim Gaffigan, and co-writer and producer of The Jim Gaffigan Show on juggling creative work, faith, and five kids.

Jeannie Gaffigan. Photo by Melissa Lugo

Jeannie Gaffigan is taking a little breather. But that doesn’t mean a spa day for the award-winning comedy writer, director, and executive producer for her comedian/actor husband, Jim Gaffigan. Instead, this Monday morning, she’s savoring the past weekend, when she got to have uninterrupted time being soccer fan, chauffeur, and playdate coordinator for her five young children (ages 12, 11, 7, 5, and 4). “Five kids is never a restful time,” she laughs, but for Jeannie it appears to be soul-boosting.

Recently, Jeannie and Jim made the bold decision to walk away from the critically acclaimed The Jim Gaffigan Show, which was loosely based on their current life in New York City. In the show and in real life, Jim is a successful stand-up comedian, they have an unusually large number of children for New York, and they’re practicing Catholics. It’s an incongruous mix and the perfect hook for a different kind of edgy and charming comedy.

The Gaffigan family. Photo by Corey Melton

But, after two seasons (five years, including development) and great reviews, conventional wisdom was suddenly bucked: Jeannie and Jim decided the show was over. What had once worked well for everyone in their family wasn’t working anymore. Jeannie had joked their home resembled Downton Abbey for all the outside help they needed to care for their children. While that’s a typically funny Gaffigan-esque take on the situation, it didn’t sit well with them. “The show, as wonderful as it was, took way more time than a newborn baby. When you start losing balance within your family, it’s time to reassess.”

A hilarious parenting fail & a turning point

It wasn’t a decision they made lightly; as Jeannie says, “I always struggle with a million plans and high expectations of myself.” But Jeannie found that meeting all demands meant functioning on as little as four hours sleep per night: “After a while, you become a really angry, crabby person.” There might be some mishaps too. Like the time when one of the youngest Gaffigans was invited over to a playdate with a school friend who has a unique name. Busy with work, Jeannie asked a close family caregiver to make the arrangements. It all seemed to go smoothly until Jeannie got a call from another child’s mom. Now, follow closely here: This mom-on-the-phone’s child happens to have the same unique name as the other child who is friends with another Gaffigan child. The caregiver had mistakenly delivered the wrong Gaffigan child—to the wrong friend. Oops.

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Parenting fails populate millions of family legends and lore, but it sometimes takes a while before everyone can laugh it off, even when you’re a professional comedy writer. Besides being horrified at the mistake, Jeannie had to let go of a little pride. “Ego can get so involved, and I always want to get an A+. As a mom, you often feel like everyone’s watching, so you take these things really personally. You just have to let go of wanting everyone to like you and trying to be supermom.” It helps too when you have the good humor and authentic support of others—Jeannie and the other mom have shared several laughs about it.

Taking it on the road

Blips aside, Jeannie has pulled off not just one but seven cross-country road trips with the children while Jim performs his stand-up shows. As they wind their way from point to point in a big rock-star-style bus for six weeks, Jeannie makes sure they stay at hotels with swimming pools along the way. Even though she co-writes with Jim and produces each gig, on every trip Jeannie also maps out each destination’s features like zoos, museums, and theme parks and gives the babysitter the day off. She and the kids spend the day at play, and then later, after dinner and baths, Jeannie heads over to Jim’s show.

On the surface, it sounds a bit glamorous and definitely fun. But, hang on, even for the fun-loving Gaffigans, isn’t that kind of hard for her to keep the good times rolling for six weeks and still be the creative, go-getting achiever too? “It is hard!” Jeannie exclaimed, yet she wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s exhausting, but when else can you do something like this?”

It’s not our style to get on Facebook Live or Twitter to extol the benefits of praying with our children.

Although Jeannie is the primary caregiver for the children, Jim bears only superficial resemblance to the hapless dad he portrayed in The Jim Gaffigan Show. In reality, Jeannie and Jim find their collaboration in work and family is the force that keeps them balanced. “If we worked separately, with one person off doing one thing and the other doing another thing, it would all fall apart.”

Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan. Photo courtesy of TV Land

Another myth dispelled from the TV show is that in real life Jim is not the reluctant Catholic that fictional “Jim” is and Jeannie is not the overly-zealous “Shiite Catholic” that Jim has joked about. In fact, it’s Jim who leads them in prayer and initiated the family dinner-table tradition of each member of the family giving their personal thanks for the blessings in their lives. While they’re committed to faith, which is regularly laced into their comedy, “It’s not our style to get on Facebook Live or Twitter to extol the benefits of praying with our children.” That sort of display would feel smug, like they were “trying to come off as being better than others.”

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Despite “emptying the cup” by ending the show, Jeannie is astonished “how fast the cup can fill up again and get out of control.” What resonates strongly with her now is what she calls the power of saying no. “If you lose your focus and all you’re chasing after is power and money or you’re held captive by the feeling you’ll never be asked again, it’s very difficult to say no.” Taking a recent life example, Jeannie felt liberated because she had the proper amount of time and stamina to help one of the children sort through a bad dream late one evening. The simple act of setting aside the soccer registration she was working on to comfort her child meant everything. However, if instead of the soccer registration it was a deadline from an editor, “I couldn’t do that.”

Right now I just want ‘mom’s night in’ so I can read to the children and everyone has their teeth brushed and goes to bed knowing they’ve been paid attention to.

So, they may have won over the professional critics, but what about the toughest critics in town—what do the children think of their comedic parents and the family business? Other than their eldest, 12-year-old Marre, lightly mocking Jeannie for texting “OMG” (“That’s so old, mom!”), “they think we’re all pretty funny. Even if Jim and I are having a fight—and, yes, we do fight—someone will say ‘oh grow up, mom and dad!’’’

“They really understand comedy and drama,” Jeannie continued. Some of the children have acted professionally, but their bosses were their parents. The season finale of the The Jim Gaffigan Show featured Marre portraying her Aunt Pam in younger years and their son Jack (11), playing the young Jim. Maybe the children will all want to be in the business one day, but “we’re not putting them through the audition mill, although I’m not saying that in judgment of other parents that do. I just feel my children will get enough rejection in everyday life with so-and-so not getting picked for kickball or invited to someone’s birthday party. I don’t want their childhood to be about not getting this or that role.”

Reflecting on this moment, after years of high-stakes deadlines, Jeannie and Jim currently have the luxury of mostly self-imposed ones. “It’s a good time to be creative and not get bogged down.” But for them, this is no idle time. They’ve just finished production on Jim’s fifth comedy special, Jim Gaffigan: Cinco, which Jeannie directed and executive produced. “I’m really excited about the opening sequence. It’s unique, I’ve never done anything like it.” Jeannie is also writing a book, the subject tightly under wraps but “not an expose.” Jim is also contemplating several movie offers.

Assessing and reassessing priorities for their family is not a new concept for Jeannie and Jim, but it’s not always easy and they have some guiding parameters. “When it comes to yourself and family, do what works for you and don’t put your family in jeopardy. For me, that means saying no to a lot of nights out. In fact, right now I just want ‘mom’s night in’ so I can read to the children and everyone has their teeth brushed and goes to bed knowing they’ve been paid attention to.” Even more, prioritizing often requires being open to letting go, which isn’t easy for Jeannie who, like many women, feels the tug of frustration and self-criticism when plans go awry. “I’m not perfect and haven’t mastered this,” Jeannie admits. “But I try.”

Ellen Willson Hoover
Ellen Willson Hoover

Ellen Willson Hoover is a freelance writer and former Capitol Hill aide and lobbyist. She writes about travel, healthy living, parenting, and social issues and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and others.

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