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How Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan Took Control Of Their Lives For A Show About Their Lives

How Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan Took Control Of Their Lives For A Show About Their Lives

Every step of a television show’s life cycle is cause for celebration or commiseration. And “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” an affable family sitcom starring (surprise!) comedian Jim Gaffigan, has had both in its history. After a long and complicated development run, the series finally found a home at TV Land, which was more than supportive of the show based on the lives of Gaffigan and his wife Jeannie, who are raising five kids in the heart of New York City. And yesterday, TV Land announced that the series would return for a second season, promising even more family-focused antics.

READ MORE: Darren Star On How TV Has Changed From ‘90210’ to ‘Younger’

Below, Indiewire was able to ask the real-life Gaffigans how the show came together, why Jeannie isn’t playing herself and what goes into making a series that basically can be described as “artisanal comedy.”

So I just wanted to start by asking about the genesis of the project. What inspired you to create a show inspired by your lives?

Jeannie: Well, we have a really funky life. There’s stuff about us that’s really not a normal existence. We have this big family in New York and all that, but there’s also stuff that’s really relatable, you know what I mean? Stuff about families, stuff about single friends. I feel like everyone has these common experiences, but mixed together it’s always been a kind of interesting idea to us.

Jim: I would also say that Jeannie and I… We’ve been acting and doing stuff on TV for a while. And the option of doing a TV show has been in existence for a while. And we were kind of reluctant based on our experiences, in that… I mean, look: Stand-up comedy is very rewarding. Jeannie and I also wrote these books: very rewarding. We have enormous amounts of control. And my experience in television is: I’ve had a good time on “That ‘70s Show.” And “My Boys,” I would say, like, three lines an episode — but it wasn’t as rewarding as stand-up. People have always wanted us to do — not everyone, but networks — networks have always wanted us to do–

Jeannie: “When are you going to do a TV show?”

Jim: But there was a lot of resistance. We never wanted to do a four-camera one. And we also wanted to do something that fit our tone and–

Jeannie: —and we’d have a little creative control over.

Jim: Yeah. Because we witnessed first-hand the bureaucracy. Going even way back to “Welcome to New York,” I played a character named Jim Gaffigan, and there were times when I would wanna say a line, and they would say, “I don’t know if your character would say that.” And so, what’s so appealing about this experience is not only is it a show that, as Jeannie mentioned, that’s very personal to our point of view — as all these stories are inspired by our lives, and it prompted us to write these stories — but it’s the authority that Jeannie and I have. It’s not an ego thing, but we don’t have to compromise our sensibility for a network. We’re not chasing the back nine or dealing with the normal bureaucracy of a TV show.

Jeannie: And also, our whole background is producing these big comedy specials. From the intro film to the final cut, to the material in between, we’ve had complete authority over what jokes make it in, what audience reactions do or don’t make it in, and so it’s something that’s in our wheelhouse to be executive producers. We’ve seen it a lot with our friends, who are really brilliant comedians, when they get through the bureaucratic mill and come out with their TV show, their comedy is watered down. It’s obviously been noted to death. We’ve experienced it first-hand. Like with Jim saying, you know, “Your character wouldn’t say something like that,” when he is the character and it’s his point of view. Some people can really thrive in that environment. I think for comedians it’s a really tall order and that’s probably why some comedians choose to go the cable route. In the network world, until you have a hit you can’t really have that kind of power. It’s more of our background to tell it like we want to.

Yeah. I interviewed Darren Star a couple of months ago about his experience working with TV Land, and of course, he’s coming from a different place than you guys, but he was really happy with it. They were very supportive and very hands-off.

Jeannie: Right.

Jim: Yeah. That’s how it was sold to Jeannie and I. Obviously, this show did two rounds at CBS, and there was a studio, so there was a lot of bureaucracy.

Jeannie: And it was like that three years ago, with NBC, with a version of it.

Jim: Yeah. There was this bureaucracy, but that was part of the appeal. We sat down in a room, and essentially, we were told, “Do the show here, you can do the show you want. We trust your point of view.” It’s weird, because some of what Jeannie and I are doing is…in some ways, I don’t know why we waited. I understand the reasoning. I mean, there were times when our managers would bring up doing a TV show, and we’d be like, “No thanks. I’d rather work at McDonald’s than work on a cable network and get paid nothing.”

I’m fortunate that I can make a living doing stand-up. We have five kids. We’re not these single people who can disappear for 80 hours a week for three-fourths of the year. We have to prioritize our time. There’s been a strange occurance of it being the right time for us to get this authority, but also having gone through the notes and the studio and network bureaucracy and just people talking about syndication. It’s like, I don’t care about syndication. I care about making a show that Jeannie and I would want to watch. We are in a golden age of dramas. And I think that the way comedies are made– They’re made from a fiscal responsibility, rather than a point-of-view responsibility.

So this is you guys taking the premium drama approach to a comedy?

Jeannie: This is an ideal situation. We’re right now in post, so we’re taking a break from post to talk to you. We have to get these stories, and this adventure that we’re having with each of these scripts, into 20 minutes and 30 seconds. So when you watch a drama, they have pauses — I mean, a love drama — the natural things that happen in the silent moments. And we understand the power of the pause in comedy too. But, ideally, we didn’t shoot this like a standard sitcom at all. There’s a lot of long lenses; there’s a lot of cinematic aspects to it, without losing the comedy. What we don’t have — in the luxury of a drama — is the time.

Jim: I mean look, I love “Bloodline,” but we’re working within a four-act structure. We were talking about how there’s a two-minute break you have to deal with. It felt like there’s things that make it…the task of doing “Silicon Valley,” a show where you don’t have commercials in the middle. It’s a different task. It’s why, I don’t know, those Netflix shows, they have a step up. You can watch them when you want, and there are no commercials. So.

Jeannie: We have to be very conscious of act breaks. What is the best time in our story? We obviously wrote it with the TV Land clock in mind, so we obviously wrote it into a four-act structure. But now that we have the material, it’s like, what is the best time to cut out of this and come back to it? What’s going to keep everyone still in the moment of what just happened? Which is a problem that every network television show has. And, obviously, the commercials are what pay for the show. We really want to honor those sponsors too and make it great for them too, and make people want to stick around and find out what happens next even though there’s going to be a huge break in the middle of an action. It influences not only our writing — which it did from the get-go — but also our editing. We’re really handcrafting these episodes.

I like that as a way of looking at it. It’s artisanal television.

Jeannie: It is.

Jim: It’s also rather exhausting. This process of doing this…it’s interesting, because I was shocked when I learned that other comedians didn’t even edit their specials. I was shocked when I learned that certain people don’t even go into the edit. As an actor, the reason actors don’t want to watch their own material is because they’re not going to agree with the take that was used. When you’re given the opportunity to make these decisions, it’s great but it’s also very exhausting. So when we sit there, going over wardrobe, or going over how the shot’s laid out, or going over–

Jeannie: —who’s sitting in the background and what neighborhood and who’s crossing by and what they’re wearing. I mean, we’re really into this, really deep. Jim is approaching every single episode like it’s the last episode we’re ever going to shoot in our lives.

Jim: Yeah.

Jeannie: There will also be a lot of things [when] we’re in the edit going, “Wait, we didn’t get that?” We’re learning from our own mistakes every day, and growing as artists every day. But we’ve always been like this. All of the specials that we’ve done over the past 10 years, we’re at an editing facility in New York and we came in and people here knew us, because we were still living in the edit in our specials too. So, now it’s not just Jim, an audience, a microphone and a backdrop. It’s many locations and many great actors. We have a great cast, Adam Goldberg, Michael Ian Black, Ashley Williams, Tongayi Chirisa. Watching this ensemble and how the Jim character is the central figure, and how he deals with these characters in New York, these are really compilations of real people that we’ve lived our whole lives with. We’re really focused on making this something that’s enjoyable for people to watch just like we do with our comedy, and I’m hoping we’ll have the same result.

So I want to ask the quasi-obvious question, which is, Jeannie, what led to the decision to cast Ashley Williams as yourself? As opposed to playing the role yourself, is really what I mean.

Jeannie: Luckily, this has turned out really well. With Jim in all the scenes, I don’t know who would be watching it. No one knows Jim Gaffigan’s point of view, besides Jim Gaffigan, better than Jeannie Gaffigan and what we’re accomplishing after coming up with all these scripts. And I think that no matter who is directing — because we have different directors all the time — the constant is the writing and the cinematography. The director of photography is always the same. And the writers are always the same.

Jim: The writers being Jim and Jeannie.

Jeannie: So it turns out, you need that third eye. Who’s going to police the police? We’re both in it. Going back to the version of this at NBC, Jim and I were playing Jim and Jeannie. When we went to CBS…CBS is much more of a star-focused network. They were pitching names of people, who were Academy Award winners, very well known actors. We saw all those people, and we were not going to offer it to anyone. A lot of these people are offer-only, but we really believe that an essential character on the show needs to have a chemistry read, at least with the lead character. We saw over 200 actresses for Jeannie because we couldn’t find the right energy. We’re not trying to imitate the real Jeannie Gaffigan because the Jeannie Gaffigan on the show is not Jim’s right partner. I mean, it’s a show about Jim Gaffigan. So the character of the wife is more connected to the family issues. We have someone else connected to the entertainment issues. It’s not the exact same thing, but we need someone who seems to work.

I think what Ashley Williams, who has been in a recurring role in “How I Met Your Mother,” when she came in, she came into the audition with so much energy. One of the things about Jim and I, and the five kids and the whole New York thing, and Jim sort of representing the Id of a guy who just wants to go back to bed, it really occurred to us that we need someone with the kind of energy level that the real Jeannie Gaffigan has. When Ashley Williams came in, she just came in as a ball of energy, and she had a big backpack, you know, it’s not like, “Oh, it’s believable that she has five kids.” It’s a bit believable that someone like her would take on having five kids in New York City, like I did. It’s a certain type of personality that’s a little bit kooky and she has a little bit of quirkiness to her too. She has the energy, she’s quirky, and, also, she is frickin’ adorable. Having that dynamic — when Jim and Jeannie fight — and the conflict is really funny, so when they fight over something, like a pizza or a bagel or who the friends are or whatever…when they have a conflict, it’s really real, but Ashley is so cute, we always joke that she could come at Jim with a chainsaw and people would find it adorable. No one wants to see real hatred, but people who love each other fight.

Jim: It’s also, having seen so many actresses audition for this… Jeannie and I have worked on this together, but the core of our relationship is we like each other. I think a real easy way for it to go is to have it be the wife finger wagging at the guy, or the wife being this kind of fisherman’s wife, just never-ending nagging–

Jeannie: —or the perfect supermom, who has no flaws.

Jim: And we didn’t want to do that. My character, my comic persona, is very much a lazy guy, or a guy who’s seeking laziness. We also liked Ashley because she had tons of energy, and we didn’t want people to watch the show and go, “Oh no. We’re worried about the kids.” [laughs] “This guy is lazy and this woman is angry.” It is balancing out the mathematics of the show, and that’s where Ashley’s ability came in so much. There’s all these mathematics that we engaged in in the casting that hopefully…we’re Catholic, so we had a priest in there, but Jim represents…

Jeannie: The reluctant Catholic–

Jim: The reluctant Catholic, so then we didn’t want to frighten people off that they’re religious freaks. In Jeannie’s real, everyday life, she has tons of gay best friends. We wanted Michael Ian Black to play the quasi-mother-in-law role that serves as reinforcing Jeannie’s too good for Jim. Rather than having it be a mother-in-law, we have it be Michael Ian Black. He’s so funny. Half the lines, when Michael and Jim get into it, they’re all improvised, really.

Going back to the concept of working on every show like it is the last episode you will ever get to make, from the standpoint of a creator, what do you think that strategy gives you?

Jim: It’s very important. Believe me, I am a lazy guy. I burn weekends. There is an approach particularly with comedies — not all comedies — but there is this approach of searching out syndication. It’s like getting the back nine. What happens is that when people think long term rather than short term, quality ends up suffering. I know that some of the time we spent in editing is not the time other people would spend. But it makes a huge difference. Also, we’re treating it not just like the last episode, but we are treating each episode as if it is the only episode someone is going to see of this show. It’s really important because we are not going for syndication. We are not going for the back nine. We are going for 10 or 11 episodes that will define the series.

Catch up with “The Jim Gaffigan Show” online via TV Land or Hulu now.

READ MORE: ‘Difficult People’ Star Julie Klausner on Who She Won’t Mock and What It Means to Be Difficult

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