For TV's Gaffigans, Church Is a 'Miracle' On-Screen and Off

Writer, producer, and mother of five Jeannie Gaffigan on how faith feeds her family's comedic calling.
For TV's Gaffigans, Church Is a 'Miracle' On-Screen and Off
Image: Efren Landaos/Press Line/Splash/ Newscom

It’s the dead of summer in southeast Texas, and the humidity in Houston feels thicker than cotton candy. Despite the heat, though, thousands of fans have crowded into an outdoor amphitheater to hear comedian Jim Gaffigan riff on the challenges of raising his five children. Strolling around the stage in his trademark relaxed fashion, Gaffigan quickly takes to joking about stairwells, the possibility of whether Jesus multiplied pretzel bread, and, to no one’s surprise, Hot Pockets. “My favorite is the breakfast Hot Pocket,” he quips, “because I can’t think of a better way to start the day: ‘Good morning! You are about to call in sick.’”

Gaffigan is one of the most successful working comics in the business. His last two albums, Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe and Obsessed, were each nominated for a Grammy. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, and his television program, The Jim Gaffigan Show, is midway through its second season on TV Land. As if his plate weren’t full enough, he’s also currently in the middle of his nationwide Fully Dressed tour.

But while Jim may be the one on stage, his one-man set isn’t the work of just one man. Behind the scenes stands Jim’s wife of 13 years, Jeannie. Not only is Jeannie the mother of those five children at the center of Jim’s jests, but she’s also heavily involved in her husband’s career, working with him on his stand-up material and serving as a writer and executive producer on The Jim Gaffigan Show. One could even make the case that Jeannie is the secret ingredient to Jim’s exploding popularity. Without her, the world just might have a few less jokes about childbirth. Or donuts.

The Gaffigans are also devout Catholics, and they’re heavily involved in their local New York church. Church even has a starring role in The Jim Gaffigan Show, where the storylines often weave back and forth between the family’s fictional congregation and its priest, Father Nicholas (played by Tongayi Chirisa). The show’s treatment of church life isn’t over-the-top or too preachy; in fact, it feels disarmingly authentic.

Earlier this month, Jeannie talked with The Local Church about her faith, the Gaffigan family, and the role the local church has played in both. Here’s what she had to say:

By all accounts, you’re more than just a supportive spouse—Jim called you his “partner” at a recent stand-up show I attended. You write material together. You’re also an executive producer on The Jim Gaffigan Show. How does this artistic partnership work?

We’ve always worked together, even prior to us being in a very serious relationship. It kind of evolved when Jim and I met each other in New York. We were neighbors. Jim was a stand-up comedian, and I was producing theater for urban children. I really thought Jim had a lot to offer my company, so I asked him to come run a workshop for kids. Jim was, just as this happened, offered his first TV show, so he said he needed some [acting] coaching.

We made a barter agreement where he came in and worked with my company, and I coached his acting. He would do what he did during the day, I would do what I did during the day, and then after dinner we would meet and work on our projects together. Our relationship centered around work. It’s not like we had this very normal marriage, and then all of a sudden started working together; it’s always been that way.

Let’s talk a little bit about the newest project you’re working on together. I really like The Jim Gaffigan Show, and I especially love the local church angle. What made you want to create this together?

For a long time, Jim kept being approached to do a TV show, but the thing about TV shows is that they’re very, very time-consuming. At this point, we already had a big family, and we already figured out a way to make a living doing stand-up comedy together. We had a pretty good thing going. Yet, at a certain point, it’s sort of like, “It’s either now or never. We either do a TV show now, or we’re not going to do a TV show.” So we came up with a lot of different ideas and talked with a few showrunners.

It was funny because Jim had this fascination with the priesthood. We wrote a screenplay years ago about a guy (played by Jim) who was engaged to be married, and all of a sudden wonders if he’s been called to be a priest. We also have this wonderful neighborhood rectory with priests from all over the world—there are Spanish, Chinese, and English priests. One day, Jim went to the parish house in the rectory to speak with our priest, and he observed this very comical exchange between the clergy. Jim thought, “This would be a good TV show.”

As we started to do the outline for it, I realized that we have to write what we know, or it’s not true. If we’re doing this together, we have to write about our life in New York with the kids. But it took many different lives before it wound up here at TV Land.

You and your husband seem pretty open about your Christian faith. Can you talk a little bit about your faith journey? How has your church helped you in this process?

First, I have to say that I’m not a perfect angel; I’m not always a “Shiite Catholic,” as Jim likes to call me. I had my own time when I didn’t attend mass, and when I tried to go my own way—but that stage where I felt like I didn’t need God in my life didn’t last very long. Things started happening where I realized, “Oh, I really need God in my life. I can’t do this by myself because I’m screwing everything up.”

I attribute this to my mother—I don’t think you can get through one conversation with her without her talking about God. She is a big mentor to me. As a teenager and a young college student, I told her, “Oh, you’re wrong about God.” But it soon became very clear to me that God was a strong, driving force in my life.

And Jim? I once read that you were a big influence on helping him get involved in church again after you met.

Jim had been raised a “cultural Catholic.” He knew the outline—you go to church, you follow the commandments—but he really had no sense of spirituality at all.

A few years into our marriage, when our third child was on the way, I began to realize that this wasn’t good enough for him. He wasn’t really happy. He was involved in a show he didn’t want to be involved in; he was involved with people he didn’t want to be involved with. He felt trapped.

We eventually had this big talk about it—what we wanted out of his career, and what we wanted out of our marriage. I told him, “We are growing apart. You’re not happy, therefore I’m not happy. We have to do something different.” So we reached out to a priest. The priest began having meetings with Jim and, very soon, Jim began changing.

He developed a relationship with a priest who was very young and cool and hip and understanding. Jim began telling me, “You know, I wish I had a priest like this in my life when I was a kid. I just remember being in the back of church and my father giving me dirty looks because I [wasn’t] sitting up straight. If I did anything wrong, I was going to hell.”

He had this big revelation about a merciful God who is there to show him mercy. He was there to love him and to guide him—to pretty much be in control. And when things don’t go right, it’s not just like the world is so horrible, but it’s that there’s a guide. There’s a higher power guiding you.

Maybe I had some influence over it, but I can’t take full credit because Jim actually sort of found his journey on his own. When Jim opened his eyes spiritually, all of a sudden he was very much interested in delving deeper into faith. It was great because he really changed his life and started talking to God—letting God guide his situation. And I think that the end result of it was that all these things he felt shackled by in his life—the show he was on, the people he was hanging out with, the people who were in charge—these chains began dropping miraculously. All of a sudden, he was free. And although we still struggle all of the time—in the industry, in our marriage, we have challenges every single day—at that time, everything started turning around, and it became much more a journey led by God rather than chasing money or chasing a career.

We hear a lot of people in the entertainment business throw around the words “God” and “Jesus,” but what I’ve found encouraging about your family is that you’ve committed to being actively involved in your local church. Tell me a little bit about what your local church means to you.

Talk about a great miracle! Out of all of New York City, I wound up finding an apartment right across the street from a church. It just so happened that Jim, who lived down the block from me, was also across the street from the same church. (It’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is now St. Patrick’s Basilica.)

It was something that made my neighborhood a real home for me. It was a community for me. It made New York City not such a scary place to be. With its trees and grass, it was a beautiful structure here in the middle of the concrete jungle. And of course, I went to this church, and when Jim and I were dating, my theater company was based in the youth center of that church. We wound up getting married in the church, having all of our babies baptized in the church, and I’ve always been really close to people who run the church.

To have a place to go every Sunday with our kids, to be a part of a community like this, is really important to us. We have a pastor who’s been there for about seven years and who we are very close to, and we try to work together on ways we can connect to the community and bring Catholicism to them in a more accessible way. I think it’s miraculous that God put this church right in front of our faces.

Recently on The Jim Gaffigan Show, you put together an entire episode about calling that was largely centered on your fictional family’s congregation. The main catalyst is the priest at Jim’s local church, Father Nicholas. Jim learns that Father Nicholas has sacrificed a career in soccer, finance, and modeling to serve his congregation, so he goes on this mini-journey to figure out his life’s “calling.” I thought the episode was better than most sermons I’ve heard on the subject. What made you write that episode?

With that episode, I’m hoping it helps people understand that we were all sent here to serve others. In our comfortable lives, who really wants to put ourselves out there for someone on the fringes of society and do what Jesus wants us to do—to serve other people, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked? There’s a voice in all of us that’s telling us to do this, but we’d really rather not because we’d rather stay in the comfort of our own bed and eat pizza. It’s a constant battle.

In that episode, Jim begins waking up his mind to the fact that there might be something else calling him to a higher purpose—like Father Nicholas at his local church. The conclusion of this story is that Jim thinks that to have a calling, you have to be called to a great vocation—you have to change the world. Of course, the joke is that when he goes to heaven at the end [of the episode], he finds out that his calling was right in front of his face the whole time and he was ignoring it. It’s a very simple calling: he has a vocation that he was given by God, and he ignored it. It’s dark, but it’s a message that we ourselves learn over and over again.

You’re doing a lot, you and your family. You’re on tour. There are books. There’s a television show. You’re pretty highly esteemed in the entertainment community—just look at all the cameos on your show (Will Ferrell, Chris Rock, and Macaulay Culkin, to name a few). What do you feel like your calling is as a family? What is your purpose in all of this?

I think it’s just to be an example. Sometimes I get questions like, “Do you feel like you do this show to evangelize?” I think the modern term “evangelization” has probably hurt Christianity more than any other word has since “the Crusades.” When you hear the word “evangelist” in the world I exist in, people run the other way. It’s the exact opposite of what it’s intended to be.

Our goal is to be a positive example of family and humor. The way we get through our lives is through humor and a relationship with God. I feel like that’s the only reason why I’m telling myself to do the show. Our calling is to write—in a funny way—about the struggles of marriage, the struggles of career, the struggles of parenthood, and to offer that light to others.

I think that it’s very important to bring joy to people. That’s what my calling is: to be an example to other people and to love my family in spite of all the reasons that families fall apart.

The balance for me is to find all of the time that it takes to do it. I do have five kids who are going to take precedence over any show or any other thing I do. We are always going to do things through a window of our parenthood and our family, and not let whatever goal or career or whatever is happening in our lives overshadow the importance of our family to us. Doing the show is a way to do both. We glean our material from our life, our marriage, our family, and our career, and that’s where we can become very involved in all of those aspects and still tell a story to the world. Hopefully, we can make people relate and feel joy.

December
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For TV's Gaffigans, Church Is a 'Miracle' On-Screen and Off