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Interview: Jim Gaffigan Talks Family, Food And Dad Is Fat

By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on May 10, 2013 3:00PM

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Comedian Jim Gaffigan swings through Chicago on his tour to promote his first book Dad Is Fat, a collection of humorous essays on raising his five young children. Gaffigan spoke with Chicagoist Thursday about his creative process with his wife Jeannie, the idea of "clean" comedy, his regional roots and Chicago's comfort foods. Enjoy our chat, then read an excerpt from his book, available at the bottom of the page.

Chicagoist: Let's start with the book. What made you want to sit down and write a book instead of standing up and talking.

2013_5_10_gaff_book.jpg JG: Well some of it is I always want my standup act to appeal to everybody in the room, and when I started standup, and I would see people talk about their kids and their wife, and I'd always cringe a little bit, like, 'I can't get a date, I don't know what you're talking about.' In recent years, I'm almost kind of censoring myself, not letting my act become that of the guy that talks about the kids. But with Twitter, I started to post some tweets about my kids, and I ended up compiling a bunch of what I thought were interesting comic ideas that my wife and I thought could mix up into, hopefully, good essays. So that's what we do. We just kinda put together a book proposal, and it ended up turning into this book.

C: Now your wife has always sort of been your writing partner, right?

JG: Yes, yes.

C: And how does that work out?

JG: You know, it's a strange thing. Obviously, comedians rarely have writers, and if you do it's usually a sign of laziness. My wife and I, we've just been doing everything together. I was very reluctant to even pitch lines to her when we were dating. It's like a secret weapon to have someone who is on your side. She comes from an acting and comedy background and has an advanced degree in directing, so we wound up doing a lot of writing together. It's just a great process. It's very much a conversation that's ongoing.

C: Is it more like a conversation, or a first-draft, second-draft editorial?

JG: With the book it was definitely draft thing and discussions, but standup it's more of a conversation. She'll see me do my act and has ideas, and we'll discuss those ideas over a glass of wine and be editing as I'm doing my shows. With the book, I'd write an essay, I'd give it to her, she'd look at it, turn it into something readable. Then we'd have a conversation about how to expand the different topics. In different essays, it feels more observational, like when I talk about kids and candy it's really kind of an observational viewpoint on the topic of candy and kids, as opposed to some point of view stuff about being a dad where I feel completely overwhelmed and unequipped. Some of that, she was more of an editor. And some of the stories, we shared them together, so she would remember details and have ideas on what was working and what wasn't working. She had a big hand in the book, that's for sure.

C: And your kids, are they now contributors? Like joining the family band contributing to the creative process?

"I never wanted to be the Dad Comic."
JG: If there is an idea for a joke, I might bring it up at dinner. But my oldest just turned nine, so their ideas and some of the sarcasm might be lost on them. It's weird having a parent that makes a living making jokes is probably not the best influence on a 7-year-old boy, but it's interesting. They definitely understand that comedy and being funny is of value in our family, and it's how Mom and Dad make money. I did a kind of funny video where my kids did a mock book chat, so they occasionally will do stuff with us, but it's nothing like getting them into show business mode, that's for sure.

C: Let's go back a little further now. You're from Northwest Indiana, right?

JG: I am. I'm from outside of Gary.

C: So do you have any connection to the Chicago scene or emotional connections to the area?

JG: Oh, very much so. I grew up trying to convince my friends to go into Chicago, for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, and Chicago is where my brothers and sisters, now in the suburbs. I have a brother in Chesterton, which is where I grew up, but my sister lives in Chicago, my brother lives in Burr Ridge, and I had another sister who lived in Barrington for a while. And Northwest Indiana, we're kind of like the forgotten cousins that are right there. I like telling people in Chicago I'm from Indiana, and they always say, 'Where is that?' And I'm like, it's 10 minutes away! And they go, 'Isn't that the road to Michigan?' I'm like, yeah, well technically it is.

C: Well, it is the "Crossroads of America," which means you don't get out of the car.

"You can't really eat a deep dish pizza and go for a jog afterwards."
JG: Northwest Indiana, nobody wants Northwest Indiana. Indiana doesn't want Northwest Indiana. They look at Northwest Indiana as the loud, obnoxious cousin, and Chicago looks at Northwest Indiana as the loud, obnoxious stranger.

C: So did Chicago play any role in getting you into comedy?

JG: I went to this small high school in Indiana that Chris Farley went to for like a year, so he had gone to do Second City, so I think that the possibility of being a comedian or being in the entertainment industry was made more real by his success. Second City probably had an influence of comedy as cool and tangible. I grew up in a town where the closest thing to the entertainment industry was a marching band, so Chicago, you know how said that I used to try and get my friends just to drive into Chicago, and they were very reluctant. Chicago was rather intimidating. I always wanted to come to Chicago, but I could never convince anyone to come with me. And then I went to college on the East Coast.

C: So how do you manage five kids, writing a book, touring and your acting gigs? How does that all work out? Do you move around a lot? Do you bring your kids along?

JG: Yeah, when I do longer tours, like on a tour bus, we bring all the kids on the tour bus. So during the summer, we'll do a tour that'll start on the West Coast and drop us off at our apartment in New York. At spring break, we got picked up and we went down to Texas, and last spring break we went New York City to Mount Rushmore and back. It's definitely a balancing act of making sure that you don't get lost in just touring. Here I am on this book promotion, and I'm going to be out of town on Mother's Day. I'm very lucky because I get to do theaters, so I can usually leave Saturday morning and return Sunday morning. I can just do a show or two and come back as opposed to working at a comedy club where you're there sometimes Wednesday to Sunday night.

C: So do you have any more acting projects on the horizon?

JG: I did a pilot for CBS about a lazy dad who's got five kids and is married to a woman who can do everything. That's a long shot, but we'll find out next week if that happens. I did that with Peter Tolan, who did Rescue Me and The Larry Sanders Show. It's like the Cubs going to the World Series, it's like you'd love for it to happen, but you're not holding your breath, you know what I mean?

C: What about Broadway?

JG: I did a play on Broadway called That Championship Season, and it was amazing, and I loved it. The amazing thing about that was it ended up being more time-consuming than doing standup because the strange thing about standup is I can eat dinner with my kids, get them to sleep and then go out and do a spot. When you're doing a play, you need to be there an hour or two beforehand, there's two shows on Wednesday and Sunday. I loved it, but it's definitely, it's a ride. It's also got to be the right role. I had an amazing role in That Championship Season where it was meaty and it was something that it was a challenge every day to do it. I don't know, I think standup I'm very spoiled by the option to change what I do all the time if I want. That's what was difficult about this book. The whole book is about being a dad and all these different topics, mostly observational topics about the different aspects. I had to work on that, all these different topics, and really get the essays to the point where they were good. I didn't want to just turn something in. Even when I was approached to do a book a couple years ago, the people that pitched it to me, they said, 'Look, you can just meet with a ghost writer,' and I was like, 'I don't want to do that.' It's kind of icky. I knew that I wanted to do it all, Jeannie and I would do it all, but I also wanted it to be of a certain quality and something that, if I was going to sacrifice all this time, even if nobody bought it, I'd be like, 'that's something I'm proud of.' I know it sounds corny. I mean, you're a writer, you get it, right?

C: Yeah.

JG: If someone picks up one thing you've written, you want them to go, 'Wow, this is pretty good.'

C: I have one more question on future projects. Will we ever see "Pale Force" again?

Pale Force was a series of animated sketches Gaffigan did with Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The superheroes blinded their nemeses with their paleness and shot laser beams out of their nipples.
I don't know, I think NBC owns that! I'm gonna be on Conan on Monday, so I don't know, I should probably bring that up to them. I thought that was really funny the idea of going on a show and doing a cartoon where you just made yourself look good and the host look horrible. It's just a confidence that Conan's got that he's just that generous. Because you know, the dynamic of most late-night talk shows are, don't even talk to the host in between. And Conan is like, 'Go ahead, you can make fun of me.'

C: Let's talk about new media. You and some other comedians, like Louis C.K., have done those $5 downloads, strictly through the internet specials. How is that changing the delivery process? And is that giving you more freedom?

JG: Yeah, I think it's definitely providing some new freedom, but I think in the case that it's always changing. I did the $5 download and then I was approached by Netflix a couple months after I did my download, and what Netflix offered me was like a ridiculous amount of money compared to what I'd ever been paid for a special, so with the internet $5 download and with Netflix, there's still part of me that feels as though, maybe there are some people who still haven't seen that special because not everyone can afford Netflix. And not everyone is going to make the journey to my website to buy it, and I do want people to see the special, so I don't know. It'll be interesting. I'm almost done with my next hour, but I don't know what I'm going to do. I would imagine I'll do the $5 download, but I think there's also, I'm not opposed to putting it on Comedy Central or some other network just because it's a great way for people to be educated on your style of comedy and your point of view, so I don't know. It's interesting.

C: So did Twitter feed into this plan for the book? You hinted at that earlier.

JG: I think Twitter had a big impact on me doing this book because I had all of the groundwork for topics on parenting that I don't think I would've explored had there not been Twitter. Some standup, I just wouldn't want to talk about kids and their attitude on candy, or the things I don't have in common with my kids. I wouldn't want to go down that road in my standup act. I never wanted to be the Dad Comic. I wanted to be an observational guy where a 20-year-old or a 50-year-old could identify with my material. Twitter allowed me to talk about parenting in short snippets and find out what I really wanted to say about it, which is that I'm a dad who had no idea what he's doing.

C: And has that found you some other dads who have no idea what they're doing?

JG: I'm an observational comedian, so I'm talking about it from that point of view. One of the essays is about how being a father is like being vice president of the family. You're part of the executive branch, but usually your responsibilities are just ordering pizza. The mother is like Bill Clinton healing the pain, and you're like Al Gore telling everyone to turn off the lights. It's just a strange position for a man. We're these Type-A personalities that are going to get the woman, and then once they're pregnant you're like, 'Alright, what do I do? I don't know. I'm kind of confused.' So I don't know, it was fun to write about that stuff.

C: Returning back to Twitter, there was that recent controversy over something you said about nail polish.

JG: I think that's a classic example of a non-scandal-scandal. I wrote a tweet afterwards saying that the internet was sarcasm's graveyard. But my tweet was, I think it said, 'Dear ladies, I hope you enjoy getting your nails done because not a single man notices that you got them done.' It was done in response to the fact that my wife had just gotten her nails done, and she showed me them, and I remember thinking to myself, 'I don't really care.' And so I did a tweet, but I think that people assumed that my tweet was somehow saying that women only do things for the amusement of men or to seek the validation of men, which I think is pretty absurd given that I've never really, hopefully, have never said anything misogynist before. But I think that there's something funny about how people see into things when it's not necessarily there. And I even did a tweet afterwards where I said, 'Look, I want to apologize if my edgy nail tweet made people angry.' And I was obviously being sarcastic because I didn't think it was that edgy of a tweet, and people misinterpreted that, too. It was kind of a fun thing because there was people that were outraged but most of the people that were commenting on it were enjoying the outrage. They were just like, 'This is hysterical that people are that sensitive about some really mediocre tweet that really is not sexist at all.' It was interesting. And it's one of those things that keeps rearing its head. I remember when I got a Google alert that it was on E! online or whatever, and I remember thinking, 'Wow it's a slow news day when like a food comic comments on nails.' And then I was on The View, and they brought it up, but they were laughing about it, too. Obviously you don't want someone to be upset, but it's just like, you don't necessarily understand how they can make that leap. People are sensitive. I'm sensitive, too, but that seems kind of silly to me. I don't know. Were you offended?

C: I am chewing my fingernails right now. I've never painted my nails. No, I was not offended at all. I thought it was funny.

JG: We all have friends that get their nails done, and they feel better. And there are guys that like women to get their nails done. There were guys after the fact were like, 'Look, you can tell if a woman is like put-together by her nails,' and I was like, that's more sexist than my tweet.

C: That's probably true.

JG: Anyway, it's probably an indication of why I talk so much about food in my standup. We can all share a common belief in food.

C: That's beautiful. Now your standup is always squeaky clean, is that on purpose, or is that just the kind of guy you are?

JG: You know, I've been doing standup for 150 years at this point, but as I go on in standup, I keep being described as cleaner and cleaner as I do each hour, they're like, 'It's unbelievable how clean,' 'He's the cleanest person in the world.' And then I'll do shows and people will be like, 'You're supposed to be so clean, but you're talking about cancer.' So I don't curse in my act, but I think some of that is I don't really curse around strangers either. If I know someone, and I kind of feel a connection, I'll curse, but I don't know. When I did curse in my act, you know 10 years ago, it usually indicated that I wasn't done writing the joke. I think comedians get too much credit or too much criticism for the style of comedy they do, and they generally do the style of comedy that works for them. In other words, look, I love Daniel Tosh. Daniel Tosh does the type of standup that he should do. Same with Lewis Black. Same with Chris Rock. There's no kind of shrewd calculation going into the type of standup we all do. It's like David Cross is supposed to be doing the David Cross' type of standup.

C: Now before I let you go, I would be remiss to not ask you about food, although I'm sure you're very sick of talking about Hot Pockets and bacon at this point in your career.

JG: Hey, I'm grateful.

C: Just tell me, where do you like to eat in Chicago?

JG: Well I tell you, I just ate at Superdawg. This is the kind of guy I am, it's like I got picked up at the airport and then I was like, ok, what are we gonna eat? I talked about this in my Chicago Theatre shows. I eat mostly like a tourist because I love the deep dish pizza, and all my brothers and sisters are like, 'That's for like people from Iowa. Why are you eating that stuff?' And I'm like, 'Because it's amazing!' My manager will get Lou Malnati's pizza delivered to my house, and they take up 90 percent of my freezer, but I love the deep dish pizza. I love the Italian beef. I'll go to Lou Malnati's, I'll go to Al's or to Mr. Beef's. Chicago is like the comfort food paradise. And I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Someone sent me ... Eli's Cheesecake. I think, I like cheesecake, I like desserts, I like cake. This cheesecake was ridiculous! Like, first of all, they send you it, and it's like someone sent you half a cow, it's so huge! But you know, I come from Northwest Indiana, so I love Schoop's Burgers. Whenever I go and visit my brother Mitch in Indiana, I always have to go to Schoop's.

C: Oh, that's that one on Indianapolis Boulevard near Whiting?

JG: Yeah, there are a couple of them. It's amazing. There's probably some Chicago food that I love that I'm not even remembering at this point because there's so many of them. I did a Friday and Saturday at Chicago Theatre, and on Friday night, I had a sausage pizza from Giordano's, deep dish. And then on Saturday night, I had a sausage pizza from Lou Malnati's, deep dish. Granted, I didn't do anything. You can't really eat a deep dish pizza and go for a jog afterwards. But's it's so good. You have just a layer of sausage. I'm excited because that's what I'm going to have tonight. I'm going to make my brother go tonight. dad

C: Alright, anything else you'd like to add? Anything you'd like somebody to know about your book?

JG: It's not an advice book, it's not a 'I love my kids' book, it's not a 'I hate my kids' book. My wife and I made a real effort to make sure that it's funny. There's not just like filler. It's not just me going on. It's weird when you read a book that's about parenting, and people will just talk about themselves for like 30 pages. I'm like, just get to the funny. Hopefully it's funny.

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan - Excerpt