Jim Gaffigan is literally too white for television. When I walked into the hair and makeup trailer camped at 24th and Lex last week — where he was filming a scene for his new TV Land show, The Jim Gaffigan Show — he was seated in a chair while someone plastered what looked like mustard (it was dye) on all of the hair on his head, including his eyebrows, beard and mustache.
“They have to color his hair so you can see it on TV,” his wife Jeannie remarked. “He’s too white for TV.”
True to Midwestern stereotype, Gaffigan, an Indiana native, is exceedingly polite. Before I had a chance to unpack my computer and get my recorder going, he asked if we’d met previously (we had), inquired about how many steps I’d taken that day after noticing the Fitbit on my wrist, and offered to feed me…
“Can I get you a cheeseburger?” Gaffigan asked, a partially eaten cheeseburger sitting on the table next to him. “They’re delicious. I’m happy to get you one if you’d like one.”
After I got set up, I talked to the Gaffigans about the new show — which Jim co-writes and co-produces with Jeannie (who also co-writes his stand-up material) — and why the couple decided to put a full episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show on his website recently, even though the series isn’t set to debut its 11-episode inaugural season until July 15. We also talked about how Jim first tried comedy in the hopes of becoming better at giving advertising presentations, among other things.
Oh, and I took Jim up on that offer of a cheeseburger when we were done with the interview. It was, indeed, delicious.
At the risk of sounding like I’m blowing smoke up your ass, I watched your new show and I really like it. I would set my DVR so I could watch it regularly.
Jim: Well, that’s what Jeannie and I wanted.
And, obviously, you guys obviously feel pretty confident about it to release an episode online two months ahead of the actual premiere of the show. Tell me your thinking behind this.
Jim: Well, this show went through the network development roundabout. Now, there’s over a hundred people on this crew working on this show that are great — and I’m a great guy for saying that — but it became very apparent that Jeannie and I are going to have our hands in everything, and that includes getting people to eventually watch it. I think that we live in a day and age where when people hear the term “half-hour comedy,” and it’s not necessarily a positive connotation. And the internet has been very good to us, with helping us sell books that we wrote, comedy specials that we worked on, etc. So, we kind of came to this thought of, “Why don’t we just get it to people?” without the bureaucracy of a corporation or commercials or anything like that. So, we wanted to put it on our website and it took some convincing but the people at the network understood that in order to get viewers we’re going to have to entice people to take that extra step to set their DVR, like you said, or set aside a Wednesday night to watch it. So, Jeannie and I, we’ve been selling tickets on our website for a while, and social media is a pretty big part of our everyday life, so it made sense.
Well, it’s great that the network was cool about that.
Jeannie: By the way, the show that we leaked is not the pilot episode.
Oh, it’s not? I just presumed that it was. Well, it works great as a pilot.
Jim: We kind of expected to hit a certain demographic (his existing fans). It’s not a demographic where people ask, “We’ve never heard of Jim Gaffigan… who is he?” We didn’t have to set up every single character. This was for people who are already sort of in-the-know.
Jeannie: This is an episode that would generally air mid-season, once everyone is established. Jim was like, “Why should we sell our audience short? They’re going to get it. They’re going to understand who these people are. Let’s just get right to the meat of the show.”
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Jim: Like I said, the internet’s been very good to us, and if you want the best recommendation, for me, it’s people who I follow on Twitter. If people say, “Check out this Jimmy Fallon tribute to David Letterman,” I will watch it if my internet peer group — some of them I don’t even know — asks me to. I like their sensibilities. So, that’s something that’s really interesting about this whole experiment. So now, after a few days, I think we have around 130,000 people who have watched the full episode and those are 130,000 people that, over the long weekend, if someone says, “Hey, Jim Gaffigan’s got a new show coming out,” they can say, “Yeah, I saw it!” and hopefully they’re going to like it and say so. There hasn’t been much negative feedback. I mean, Jeannie was so excited when she found someone that didn’t like it.
Jeannie: And they didn’t even not like the show exactly. It was a comment that went something like, “Well the music in the show is very urban.”
It’s funny that you mention the music, because I thought that the beatboxing between scenes was an interesting choice.
Jim: That’s Reggie Watts.
Ah, excellent choice.
Jeannie: We collaborated with him on the intro to one of our comedy specials, Mr. Universe, and just the sound of him in contrast to Jim, it’s such a great mesh of two different worlds. If you had Jim sort of doing a jazz-y thing, he’s just too white. But this is about the city and being a fish out of water and I think Reggie’s music elevates that and brings it to a whole different level.
Yeah, it’s arguably set against the whitest person alive, so that’s a good contrast.
Now, I read somewhere that the apartment on the show is a set that’s an exact replica of the apartment you guys live in.
Jeannie: We actually wanted to shoot it in our apartment, but it’s five flights up, and with all the equipment and all, it just wouldn’t work.
One of things that struck me immediately watching the show were the similarities to Louie on FX. You have a comedian living in New York City portraying himself, and it’s sort of autobiographical. But you guys have been trying to develop this show for years, right? Like, long before Louis C.K. was probably thinking of doing Louie?
Jeannie: We did a version of this show that was animated in like 2001 or something.
Wow. Similar premise, Jim living his life in New York with his wife and kids?
Jim: It’s our life story. The fish-out-of-water. The guy from Indiana living in downtown New York trying to raise a traditional family.
Speaking of Louis C.K. and his show, did you also get a “Louis deal” for this one, in that the network is giving you a ton of creative freedom but with a limited budget?
Jim: Our budget is not bad. We make a pretty good living with me doing stand-up. I didn’t have any interest in working 14 hours a day and making no money. That’s not saying I’m chasing money. I’m looking for artistic fulfillment. But I got up yesterday at 3 a.m. to go to work.
And you want to be compensated for getting up at 3 a.m. to go to work.
Jim: Yeah, because there’s a lot of sacrifice going on. We have a lot of creative fulfillment. Jeannie and I have a lot of control. But we did a lot of calculation. You know, I can go onstage with a microphone for an hour a night and make good money versus working all these hours on a TV show. And that’s why we didn’t do the Louis thing with cable. That’s been an option for a while.
In the episode that I watched, a photo of you holding a bible goes viral, and the internet outrage machine piles on. Then, the traditional media outrage machine pounces on it, and it’s very funny, but that’s a very real thing. You’ve seen comedy colleagues of yours that this has happened to.
Jim: Yeah, the outrage machine is real. Whenever I say that the internet has been very nice to us, I know that it can turn on me in a minute. It’s something I’ve worried a bit about. I had a tweet about women getting their nails done and next thing you know I had 800,000 angry women coming after me. You’re bound to be misinterpreted. That’s part of theme we took with the bible story. We were kind of playing on the idea of being outed as a Christian because being a Christian in the entertainment industry is sort of like being gay in the entertainment industry back in the day.
The cameos you guys have in the episode I saw is impressive. Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, Nancy Grace, Rachel Maddow — virtually every major cable news host appearing as themselves on their respective shows — not to mention Chris Rock. How hard is it logistically and legally to pull something like off?
Jeannie: It was a drain.
Jim: It was not the anchors. The anchors I’ve all met. It was connecting on the phone with people at CNN and making it clear that we’re not going to mischaracterize Jake Tapper in a negative way. We went to Fox, and Bill O’Reilly wanted to do it, but Fox decided they didn’t want him to do it.
Someone told me years ago that you were working in advertising and you got into comedy as the result of a dare. Someone dared you to go onstage at an open mic night or something?
Jim: It was definitely a dare.
Jeannie: It’s better than that. He had stage-fright, so he had trouble giving presentations in a room full of people.
That can be a problem when you work in advertising.
Jeannie: Right. So, he took an improv class as a result of having this stage-fright.
In the hope of being a better Don Draper.
Jeannie: And someone in the improv class dared him to try stand-up.
But was it something you’d thought about trying previously?
Jim: When I was a little kid, yeah. I’d always wanted to do it. I remember the first stand-up I think I saw was Phyllis Diller. That’ll tell you how old I am. But yeah, I remember seeing Jerry Seinfeld perform and thinking, “That’d be amazing!”
And so you did it and caught the bug?
Jim: Yeah, I did it and it went well. I worked in finance. There are plenty of people who work in finance and enjoy what they do… I wasn’t one of them. So, I did comedy.
(This interview was edited and condensed.)