To state the obvious, Jim Gaffigan is a wildly popular comedian. He has over 2 million followers on Twitter, has released four standup comedy specials (his most recent is “Obsessed” on Comedy Central), is a Grammy nominee and a New York Times best-selling author, and has traveled the world making people laugh…but that doesn’t mean he’s immune from feeling under the weather every now and then.
“I feel like I’m dying—you know? There’s a difference between being sick and feeling like you’re dying,” Gaffigan deadpans to me at our early-May photo shoot at Little Missionary’s Day Nursery on the Lower East Side, after admitting he’d been fighting a mysterious combo of allergies and a “flu-thing” for the past few weeks (on top of helping his wife plan a Harry Potter-themed combo birthday party for their two daughters). “And I feel like I’m dying. Right now. This is my last interview. I’m dead.” I assured him I didn’t take the responsibility of his “last” interview lightly—and fortunately for fans awaiting future stops on his current 50-city “White Bread” standup tour, his ominous prediction proved to be a false alarm.
Those familiar with Gaffigan’s comedy will recognize his seemingly-dramatic diagnosis as part-and-parcel of his signature brand gallows humor. Of course, the 47-year-old funny-man is also the father of five kids—10-year-old Marre, 8-year-old Jack, 5-year-old Katie, 2-year-old Michael, and 1-year-old Patrick—and in his debut book, Dad Is Fat (a New York Times best-seller released last spring), he makes no secret of his belief that toddlers breed “incurable” germs that inevitably effect the entire family (for those keeping score: that’s a family of seven who, until recently, was living in a 2-bedroom walkup on the Bowery).
But germs aside, Gaffigan also makes no secret of the fact that he loves the adventure that is fatherhood—especially since he’s blessed with a notably amusing brood (that’s his daughter Katie and son Michael snacking on doughnuts with their dad as they pitched in at our cover shoot). So the fact that he and his wife and collaborator, Jeannie Gaffigan (who executive produces his specials and serves as his writing partner), have been working on a sitcom project about a New York dad-of-five who happens to be a comedian, is hardly a shock. [Editor’s note: many details were still under wraps at press time.]
Since first garnering nation-wide laughs with his now-legendary Hot Pockets bit in the early aughts, the Indiana-bred Georgetown alum has made the shift from food-funnies to family ones and back again (look for his second book, Food: A Love Story, on shelves in October), while still keeping his comedy from drifting into one-shtick “dad comic” territory. And if “Obsessed”—with its reminder that “not liking doughnuts is wrong”—is any indication, we have a feeling that Gaffigan, in all his grouchy glory, is perfectly primed to have the last laugh (both on stage and at home).
There is this sense of accomplishment with the completing of a special—but the individual jokes are what make it exciting. The newest joke is always the exciting thing. When I was doing the doughnut jokes, I was thinking: “This is something that is going to resonate, because it’s a guilty pleasure that we all indulge in.”
We liked the jokes about “kale propaganda.”
The irony about all the kale jokes is that obviously I’m very sincere in my point of view, but there is a part of me that [knows] obviously there are delicious versions of kale—I just think, generally, ugh, you know? Some of that was inspired by that kale that’s freeze-dried. It’s called “Vampire Killer.” They dry-freeze it and they cover it in spices—and we’re all supposed to eat kale, so I was eating it. And I’m eating it like: “This is what we have to do to kale to make it appetizing!”
Speaking of appetizing, you’re working on your next book, Food: A Love Story. How’s the writing process going?
It’s such a huge commitment. I think that [with] Dad Is Fat, Jeannie—my wife—and I, worked on it off-and-on for a couple years. We compiled notes over the span of our five children. But the Food one is every single food item in existence, and finding my point of view on it, and then finding jokes that I’ve done over the span of my specials and turning those into essays. The premise is just my point of view on food. I’m not a foodie, I’m just kind of this gluttonous kind of every-man.
So, you’re collaborating with your wife on this book too? Do the two of you enjoy working together?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. That’s invaluable. I mean, we do everything together. Like with the essays in the books—her involvement is enormous because turning some of my drips and drabs of a madman into an essay is really her forte… We collaborate on just about everything, so it’s kind of the only way we know. And there are definitely, you know, disagreements, but it’s kinda fun!
You’re also working on an as-of-yet-untitled sitcom project—about an NYC dad of five, who’s also a comedian—right now.
Yeah, we shot a pilot. And we shot it a second time around. The first time, we actually shot here at Little Mish. So, we shot this pilot, which Jeannie and I worked on with Peter Tollan, who did “Rescue Me.”
Do you see yourself writing more books, or turning more towards TV?
It sounds kind of corny but, the creative fulfillment is really the thing that I’m pursuing. Whether it’s writing a book—though we’re in the middle of writing a book, so right now I feel like I’m never going to write a book again. But I love acting and I love standup. I will always do standup—it’s about what’s fun.
You’ve been very open about using your family as inspiration for your work. How do you determine what moments will make it into your act and books?
I think Twitter has a big influence over it. Like, I’ll think: “This will be a funny tweet”—say, Katie would say something at breakfast that’s funny, or another one of my kids will do something funny—then I’ll just post it on Twitter. Then it might lead to a larger idea. Something I wanted to do with Dad Is Fat, as a comedian, [was that] I didn’t want to just be the “dad comedian.” So the book was a great outlet for a lot of these ideas. I wanted my standup to be something where you could be 26 or you could be 60 and it was something that—whether you did have kids or you didn’t—it would be relatable. Because when I started doing standup I would see comedians who would talk about their wives and their kids and their husbands, and I would be like: “I can’t even get a date, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Have there been any aspects of fatherhood that have been very amusing that you didn’t expect would be so?
There are so many aspects of parenthood that you just hear as a cliché when you don’t have kids, like: “Ohhh they’re the light of your life and all this stuff…” Or: “Ohhh you cherish all these moments…” but they line up. So, I guess one [example] is that my kids are super-funny and super-entertaining. There’s times when you want to discipline them, but you have to stop yourself from laughing. The title Dad Is Fat is from my now-8-year-old son and the first sentence that he wrote on a dry-erase board. I was terrified of my dad, but [my son] just went: “You’re fat!”
You and your wife are both from large families. How do you use your own childhood experiences to inform how you parent?
I’m the youngest of six kids… I was the youngest kid in every environment so I had no experience with babies or kids or anything, I was pretty ignorant. But Jeannie, being the oldest [of nine], had a lot more experience with babies and little kids. I’m still ignorant. I have no idea what I’m doing.
What do you enjoy about raising kids in NYC?
I love New York City. I love the energy and the diversity that my children are exposed to, and I wanted that for them. I want them to not be thrown when they see someone covered in tattoos or two men holding hands. I wanted them to have the environment of what I didn’t have growing up…you can kind of be yourself and you can be different in New York… I don’t have to worry—at least at this point—about [my kids] worrying that there’s just one way to be a little boy or one way to be a little girl. They see thousands of kids being all different types at the playground.
What are some of your family’s favorite things to do in the city?
I would say Central Park Zoo is so easy. I mean, it’s so easy. Even if you have [a lot of kids]—well, I don’t know if I’ve done it with five kids, but I know I’ve done it with four…and one’s a baby that you have to change its diaper every two hours—it’s just so easy. The kids just love animals! [Also] scootering is pretty important…the scootering thing, even for like a 2-year-old, it gives them independence. There’s definitely anxiety, but I mean, you don’t want to walk with a 2-year-old, you just don’t. They can crawl quicker than they can walk! But New York’s different every season, right? I love going to Halloween in Brooklyn, I love going to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular… Though some of it—with five—it’s just chaos, but it’s a great chaos.
We moved [recently from a 2-bedroom walkup]…so yeah, it’s like three times the size of our last apartment, but it’s still New York City so it’s not huge… But there are so many kids, it’s like, there’s not a room I can sit in, in my apartment, where there’s not yelling. There’s very close proximity to screams.
In your book you mentioned a bus that you sometimes travel in when you go on the road for work. Do you travel as a family a lot?
We try to, twice a year, go on these bus tours. Because, otherwise, if I’m just leaving and coming back—I don’t want to just be this guy who came in for a day or two and then left. So we made a conscious effort to do these bus tours so we can all be together.
Do the kids travel well? Are there any fun trips planned for the summer?
They love the bus! And they love going on trips… Some of it might be the hotels. They share a hotel room—all the kids in one room—but it’s bigger than their room otherwise. And they get to see a lot. Some it might be like, Erie, Pennsylvania, but other times we’ll go to a farm in Oklahoma, so it’s fun… We’re definitely going to do some kind of family trip—you have to, you know? Well, you don’t have to, but I feel like I’m raising a bunch of energetic dogs—you have to get them in a field!
Tell us about your parenting style.
I keep bringing up to my kids that I was a little boy, or I was a little kid, or I was the youngest of a big family—I try to communicate an identification, like I’m not just this authority. There’s what you want to be and there’s what you are. I’m probably considered strict, but I’m also someone who’s pretty silly, I guess.
In your book, you’ve mentioned that you’ve received criticism saying that you’re “anti-family”—how do you react and respond to commentary like that?
You’re going to get criticism for anything—if you want a stupid opinion, just go to the internet, right? But I always thought that [piece of criticism] was funny. You’d think the criticism would be: “Stop talking about your kids!” But, it’s: “Oh, he must hate being a dad!” Which is kind of weird, but, I also think—and I talk about it in the book—if you’re complaining about your kids, it means you’re spending time with your kids. If you’re complaining about Saturday morning birthday parties, it means you’re going to Saturday morning birthday parties. And, parenting is such an enormous task that you have to have a sense of humor about it.
Have your kids seen your standup act?
Yeah, they’ve seen it. I’m lucky, in that I’m considered a clean comic—but there wasn’t some elaborate scheme, that’s just how my comedy comes out—so yeah, they’ve all seen it. And they’ve introduced me here and there…so they have some exposure to it. But there are definitely some of my kids who have no idea what I do—granted they’re 1.
Do you anticipate the reactions they might have when they’re older and read your book?
You know, it’s interesting. My 10-year-old came to a show two summers ago, when she was 8, and she was like: “You’re kinda complaining about being a dad.” And I was like: “I’m not complaining!” I mean, I guess I am…but I’m not worried. The way we wrote that book was that Jeannie and I really did want to chronicle this time in our lives, so that’s some of it. I like to think that if [my kids] were reading it they’d be like: “Wow, they really were doing all this stuff!”…I wish I had that record of what my parents were doing back then.
Mia Weber is the associate editor of New York Family. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.