How Jim Gaffigan learned to say no to network sitcoms

Fifteen years ago, Jim Gaffigan was yet another young stand-up comic riding the conveyer belt from the comedy clubs to a network sitcom in the wake of the success of Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Tim Allen, and more. His CBS sitcom “Welcome to New York” was designed as a vehicle for him, but somewhere between the start of development and when it hit the air, the focus shifted to co-star Christine Baranski, an Emmy winner for CBS' “Cybill.” It turned out to be a good showcase for neither, and produced only 13 episodes before calling it quits.

That wasn't the end of Jim Gaffigan, sitcom actor, but for a long time, it was the end of Jim Gaffigan, aspiring sitcom star. He took jobs on other people's shows (“The Ellen Show,” “My Boys”) and largely focused on his food-obsessed comedy act (like his famous routine about Hot Pockets). Given how well the different phases of his career were going, trying to develop his own sitcom again seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

But for the past five years, Gaffigan and his wife and producing partner Jeannie have been very patiently trying to make it happen again. “The Jim Gaffigan Show” was originally developed at NBC, then filmed two different pilots at CBS, and tomorrow night at 10 debuts on TV Land. (Several episodes have already appeared online, and episodes will also rerun on Comedy Central.) It's another autobiographical sitcom about a stand-up, with Gaffigan playing himself, Ashley Williams playing Jeannie, and Adam Goldberg and Michael Ian Black as their friends. The fictional Gaffigans also have five children (when the development process began, both real and TV Jim only had four), albeit younger ones than the Gaffigans currently have in real life, and much of the series is filmed in real New York locations that Gaffigan frequents, like Katz's Delicatessen.

There are some bumps in the early going, since TV Land is using the second CBS pilot (co-written by Gaffigan and Peter Tolan, with a lot of network input) as the debut episode, while another episode is adapted from the script for the first CBS pilot. But Gaffigan and Williams are enormously likable together; as Gaffigan tells me, it was a high priority to make sure that TV Jim and TV Jeannie genuinely enjoyed each other's company, and that pays huge dividends in the show's overall warmth and its ability to play with various familiar sitcom tropes (the anniversary surprise gone awry, trying to impress the head of a new preschool) and not have them feel like something you've seen a thousand times before. And Gaffigan's commitment to offering up a real flavor of New York – and not just its pastrami – gives it an invaluable sense of place.

Last week, Gaffigan and I spoke about his early sitcom days, why he was prepared to stay a hired gun forever, why Jeannie (who played his wife on “My Boys”) isn't his co-star, and a lot more. 

I've been doing this long enough that I was at TCA for the first “Welcome to New York” press conference. Considering the arc of your acting career since then, what do you remember most about that first job? 

Jim Gaffigan: It was this incredible opportunity by Rob Burnett and David Letterman and Worldwide Pants. I came up with this idea, and I hired this writing team that was very talented, and then essentially, I got boxed out of any writing. And then I was a hired gun. I was burned from the creative process, and viewed it as, ” I love to act, I'll be the hired gun.” So then I worked on “That '70s Show,” and “Ed,” and “Ellen,” and “My Boys,” and guest starring on a bunch of things. And what I learned is that I have to find creative fulfillment. And the creative fulfillment of writing with my wife and executive producing is what it's all about. It's probably something I should have known a long time ago. Comedians going on stage by themselves with the material that they wrote is a no-brainer, but, yeah, this has been a long journey. Jeannie and I, working on this show, and going through two rounds at CBS, and before that, a round at NBC, I'm grateful that we ended up at TV Land, and had the autonomy that we did. I think it's a better show. We learned a lot during the process. In the end, that autonomy and point of view is what I think makes shows so good and unique. The committee shows, they might be financially profitable, but they lose something.

How did you and Jeannie first talk about doing this show? 

Jim Gaffigan: I got done with “My Boys,” and it was one of those things where I would have a line or two in an episode, but I was on set a lot. I kind of resigned myself. I go, “TV, I'm just spoiled by stand-up. TV doesn't have the appeal to me. I love acting, but…” So I turned down a couple of pilots. I was always acting, doing “Bored to Death” and “Flight of the Conchords,” but the idea of a show was something that my manager and agent were bringing up: “Look, you're a comedian. Every decade, there's a comedian that has a show; why wouldn't you go for it?” I think it started when I was doing this play, “That Championship Season,” and (“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator) Phil Rosenthal came to see it. He sat down to dinner with Jeannie and I, and he really sold us on the idea of doing a show. That it could be this rewarding process. And we didn't even end up working with Phil Rosenthal! He more or less communicated to us, “Stick to your guns.” We wrote a script, and he was like, “This is good. You don't need me.” Then we sold that to NBC. But I think going through that network mill was educational for me. Now I'm much more willing to say, “I'm not doing that.” I don't feel a sense of guilt or am afraid I'm going to upset people if I don't want to do that. And there's mistakes we've made along the way, and now I sit there and I think in scenarios, like Garry Shandling, Roseanne. You gotta sit there and do the show you want to do. Otherwise, it's going to get a little muddy.

What were some of the things, whether at NBC or CBS, the executives wanted you to do that you wouldn't have wanted to do had that version of the show gone?

Jim Gaffigan: Look, our pilot, which is about (Jim offering to get a) circumcision, is very much a network idea. And when we were at NBC, some of it was NBC and some was a studio we were working with, where they wanted this “inciting incident.” It's work for people, but it's not organic. I don't know how to describe it. Stand-up comedy, there's rules of how to tell a joke, but you need to learn them and forget them, so they're in your bones. So there was something about the network model is, there's a lot of fear in how network comedies are created. “Oh, we want to be able to test well, we want to get the back 9 picked up, we want to get picked up for a second season.” Jeannie and I approached all these episodes with the possibility that this could be it. So even the conventional stories that are in one or two of our episodes, I don't know if we would go that conventional. I don't have anything against some of these big networks. They're successful businesses. If we were on CBS right now, I don't think we would have been able to do some of the storylines. We're a single-camera comedy, it's hopefully far more situational humor than even the cadence of a CBS comedy.

You and Jeannie have worked together for years, and she's produced several of your stand-up specials. How has the process of writing this show together been?

Jim Gaffigan: Well, we've never argued once! No. It's a very long process, and I actually think that writing episodes is probably our partnership at its best. But the process is we will each come up with ideas. Occasionally, we'll even think of ideas. There's a pretty vicious process it has to go through. We would come up with an idea, and go, “Oh, that seems like a four-camera idea.” Or “How is that unique to my point of view, or New York City?” So there were some ideas that I think, Jeannie and I, even the Bible episode, she was like, “That's a season 4 idea.” And I don't care. I give the audience a lot of credit. The idea of developing episodes, there's resistance. You have to be able to fight and explain why an idea's important, rather than fulfilling a quota. Because we wanted to make sure, with each episode, we felt passionately about the stories. We knew from having gone through this, it's a long journey with these stories. I'm not just talking about editing, but about rewrites. A guest star might do something different, and that could influence how the narrative goes. We ensure that the story is very interesting and compelling to us. I consider myself a big fan of television. So I'm not somebody who just wants to churn out episodes, that's for sure.

Was there any talk at any point of having Jeannie play the TV version of herself?

Jim Gaffigan: Yeah, the initial version at NBC was kind of a scripted comedy/reality show, where we would play each other. Then when we went to CBS, it was really not even an option the first go-around. And after the first pilot at CBS, it became apparent that it was really helpful to have that person behind the camera from our team. Because nobody cares more about Jim Gaffigan than Jeannie Gaffigan. And nobody knows me or knows my comedy better than her. So it was revealed that it was invaluable. And then it turned out also, Jeannie really enjoyed it. That's not to say that she's not an actor and not talented. It's just like us ending up at TV Land. I don't know that if we'd started in development, I doubt I'd have developed at TV Land, but we have a budget for a network show on a cable network, and we have the autonomy to do the show that we want. And I don't think we could do that anywhere else.

And I take it she had final say on casting TV Jeannie?

Jim Gaffigan: Jeannie definitely, there was no doubt in my mind, there's many arguments that I think I could win on a creative standpoint, but I was not going to be the person who picked Jeannie Gaffigan. And we were not going to go into a network test that Jeannie Gaffigan was not thrilled about. The process of finding someone to play Jeannie was almost like a math equation. You have Jim, who's kind of this id guy, rather lazy, who explores his laziness. The woman, his partner, can't be somebody who is finger-wagging. I think people have seen enough of that, or experienced enough of that. The wife also can't be somebody that the audience feels sorry for. And we don't want them to feel sorry for the kids. So we needed somebody with an energy and a resilience built into her personality. So we auditioned every woman between 30 and 45. What was amazing about Ashley was the energy and the likability. I remember in selling her to CBS, saying, “This woman could come at Jim with a chainsaw and still be likable.” She was perfect on that note. No one feels sorry for her, no one's worried about the kids. We also wanted Jim and Jeannie to be a couple that liked each other, but not a saccharine, they're kissing each other hello when they haven't seen each other for an hour. But a couple that enjoys themselves. I think Jeannie and I enjoy each other.

How successful is TV Jim compared to you? On “Louie,” he's less successful than the real Louis CK. 

Jim Gaffigan: The TV version of Jim is definitely a bunch of IQ points dimmer than the real Jim. I would say he's less successful than me, but there are people that recognize Jim in the show. It's not that far off, because I can also walk through NYC and no one will talk to me, and I'm kind of goofy looking. And other times, a lot of people will know me. I always describe it as, if I'm on an airplane, people in coach know who I am, and people in first class have no idea.

You're a clean comic whose work is family-friendly, and that's always been your brand. With this show, are there any stories or sources of humor where you and Jeannie have said, “This is the show and not the stand-up act, so we don't have to be bound by the same rules,” or is your assumption that your fanbase will be coming to this, and thus there are certain lines you can't cross?

Jim Gaffigan: I think comedians do what they do and then get credit or criticism. This show, when we were at CBS, I think they wanted it edgier than we were delivering it. And I was like, “It's not necessary for us to get super raunchy.” And that's not a question of morality for me. And I've been on some shows. “That '70s Show” was raunchy at times. For me, it doesn't matter if it's raunchy or not. It just matters what is the sensibility and point of view. This show airs 10 o'clock at night. Adam Goldberg's character is a bit of a degenerate. So he's saying things that some would consider inappropriate or not politically correct or whatever, but these are things that I still feel if a 14-year-old saw it, they wouldn't be freaked out. It's nothing compared to what's on network television. I remember I saw the pilot for “Two and a Half Men,” and there was an ass-eating joke in it. When I worked on “That 70s Show,” there was some really funny, gross jokes. It's a sensibility thing. I'm an adult. Some of my favorite comedians are dirty. What Jeannie and I write is more situational-based than the most shocking thing that someone could say.

So you do a running gag in one episode where one of your kids has drawn a picture of your penis, but we never actually see the picture.

Jim Gaffigan: Yeah. And a great example would be, in the pilot, when he finally goes into the office to see Fred Armisen and Fred pulls down the chart (showing the male anatomy), everyone – Sony and CBS – were like, “We want to see the chart!” And I'm like, “You don't want to see the chart. You know what the chart looks like. No one needs to know what a penis looks like. We all know.” So the humor is not the drawing, or the chart of the penis. The humor is the fact that Jim feels uncomfortable that his son has, in preschool, drawn a picture of his penis. The humor is that Jeannie, who came along to Jim's vasectomy consultation, is put in a situation where she doesn't want to have this conversation with her kids. There are people that come to my stand-up shows that think it's a little too racy. There are some people who come to my stand-up shows and think I'm politically incorrect. I think both of them are wrong, but it's not going to change what I do. But Jeannie and I are doing a show that we would want to see. I think there's a place for really bawdy stuff, I think there are great filthy comics. It's just not necessary for me to curse if I'm talking about steak.

Is there a rider in your contract that requires at least one scene per episode to be filmed at Katz's so you can have the pastrami?

Jim Gaffigan: No. Katz's, we all know “When Harry Met Sally,” and from a production standpoint, it's authentic New York. But what's amazing is that it's still owned by the same family, but it's also a large place. So you can get cameras in there. We wanted this to look and feel like New York, and there are a lot of great, authentic, but small New York places where you go, “They paid $40,000 to shoot in this restaurant and you can't even tell it's not a stage.” What I love about Katz's is not just the pastrami. The family that owns it is authentic New Yorker. And we kind of chase that in this show. It's not just this backdrop. It informs Jim's obsessive eating.

Chris Rock has talked about making so much doing stand-up that he doesn't even have to consider doing a TV show or taking any other job he doesn't want to. I assume given the state of your own comedy career, you're in a similar position.

Jim Gaffigan: Absolutely. But that is also a very powerful position to be in. Jeannie and I also have five kids. So it's not only, “Can we make more money doing stand-up?” and “It's incredible hours.” We don't want to be in the third year of doing the show and find out that our kids aren't getting proper attention. I touch on this in the eHnd. aving five kids, the priorities have changed for me. Yeah, I want to do a TV show, but it would have to be of a certain quality. But in the end, I'd rather be a decent dad, you know what I mean? It's not like I want to compromise on quality. It's that I won't just do the show. Each of these stories, because you're putting in so much time, the stories really have to resonate.

(We get sidetracked here for a moment talking about how many episodes I had seen – four at the time of the interview, and nine of 11 by now – which led to Gaffigan talking about how he's had a hard time explaining what the show is to people who had only seen a few episodes, or none at all.)

Jim Gaffigan: People will be like, “How do you describe it?” And I go, “Well, it's a half-hour comedy about a guy with five kids, but that's not at all what it's about.” 

And the kids are always featured prominently in the opening to each episode, and after that, they're not quite props, but they're often absent or asleep in strollers for long stretches while you and Jeannie are doing things.

Jim Gaffigan: And that's intentional. Different things inform a character. The time lapse of having the kids and showing an aspect of parenting is really important for informing the stakes of the story we're about to tell. So in other words, there's a Plaza episode, where we go there for our anniversary. Because of the five kids, Jim and Jeannie getting away for a night at the Plaza, the stakes are raised, because we've seen the chaos of five kids. Or the juxtaposition of Dave and Jim's life, or Dave and Daniel's life. And we've also aged down our kids. So I don't want to say they're props, but we want the stories to be about what Jim's life is like when he's not on stage.

You and Michael Ian Black have known each other a long time, going at least back to “Ed,” right?

Jim Gaffigan: We did a sketch show on VH1, and we did Sierra Mist commercials. We've always crossed paths. Casting Michael Ian Black was really a no-brainer. It's very rare to have that quick, sharp humor that he has. You do not want to get into a verbal spar with Michael Ian Black. He will destroy you. We also wanted the Daniel character (Jeannie's college boyfriend, who later realized he was gay) to serve almost as a mother-in-law. You know how with the mother-in-law, whoever the daughter marries is never good enough? We looked at some great people for that role, but comedically, there's not many people who can match what Michael brings.

Having been through the experience of producing a whole season, how do you feel it ultimately went? Is this something you want to now keep on doing? Or do you feel like, “We made a season, we can be proud of it, let's go back to our lives”?

Jim Gaffigan: If you would have asked me that a month ago, I would have probably had a different answer. I do not take for granted the fact that we have done something that we're proud of. And that is very rare. I remember when we had the Bible episode on my website, and Adam Goldberg was like, “It's good! It's actually good!” It reminded me of all those shows I've been on, where I have fun acting. But it's not like “Breaking Bad.” You want to be on something good. So we are very proud of a lot of the episodes. And that's why I want you to see these other episodes. Some of the fun is the different types of episodes we get to do. We'll do an episode that looks at stand-up superstition, and we'll do an episode about Jim questioning whether he should have even gotten married and had five kids. There's not many creative outlets where you can do that. It's a hard comparison, because you have such immediacy with stand-up, you work 11 less hours a day, you have complete authority. You don't have to wait for someone to come to set. You're just on stage and you get that creative fulfillment. But I don't know. It is quite enjoyable to do the TV show, but I also hope people find it. We also live in such a fragmented world, where there are good shows. “Broadchurch,” it took me years to finally watch that, and it's not like people weren't recommending it constantly. So I also don't want to do something in the dark. And I also do have five kids and I do have a stand-up career, and Jeannie and I have this incredible authority. There's creative fulfillment, but there's also time value.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at