Follow GuyMacPherson on Twitter

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Jim Gaffigan interview

Here's a chat I had with Jim Gaffigan over the phone last month. He was calling to plug his upcoming show (which has come and gone) but we also talked at length on his latest book, his working relationship with his wife, and his "first bus" theory of comedy writing, among other things.

Jim Gaffigan
September 5, 2014

"I like the idea of hitting people after you've hit them. There's nothing funner than laughing and then you have to laugh again before you can catch your breath."
– Jim Gaffigan

Guy MacPherson: Hello, Jim?
Jim Gaffigan: Yes, hey. Thanks for doing this interview, by the way.

GM: My pleasure.
JG: I recognize that name. Have we talked before?

GM: Yeah, we've talked twice before.
JG: All right. But wait a minute, you're in Vancouver and we've talked twice before just about Vancouver?

GM: Yeah.
JG: Wow, that is crazy. So then we talked when I was doing that Late Night Comics of Letterman show, right?

GM: That's right. With Jake Johannson and Eddie Brill.
JG: Oh, that's amazing.

GM: And I think I met you after that show.
JG: Okay. It's so funny because I have a horrible memory but I was like, 'I recognize this name.'

GM: 2005 was when we first talked.
JG: Yeah, that's a million years ago. You just do Vancouver? Or do you sometimes do Toronto?

GM: Nope, just Vancouver.
JG: All right. Oh, you know I also have a book coming out in October? Food: A Love Story.

GM: Another one.
JG: Another one.

GM: And you write these yourself.
JG: Yeah. I mean, I write everything with my wife.

GM: Yes, I knew that. But does she get credit on the book cover?
JG: No, she doesn't. It's a strange predicament. If the point of view of the book is this out of shape, pudgy blond guy, then I don't think it should be from both of us. But the good thing is I'm doing a TV show where she's totally getting credit, where she's an executive producer and I'm an executive producer. So that balances that a little bit.

GM: What is the TV show?
JG: It'll be called The Jim Gaffigan Show on TVLand next June.

GM: A sitcom?
JG: It's going to be a single camera comedy.

GM: Nice. You got it going on.
JG: It's all going on.

GM: She may not get credit on the book, but you make it clear in interviews and stuff that she is your writing partner.
JG: Yeah. Logic would tell you that if it's Food: A Love Story by Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, you're going to have a different expectation. But Food: A Love Story by this one guy, you have a certain expectation: Oh, Jim Gaffigan is obsessed with food. Whereas my wife, we worked on this book together and there were plenty of times where she's like, 'I completely disagree with this.' So it's not her point of view, the book. It's her kind of turning some of my dribs and drabs of a madman into a more readable essay.

GM: Kind of like an editor or second set of eyes?
JG: Yeah, but her comedic writing value is pretty significant so I don't want it to feel like she's just an editor. Essentially I'm trying to not get in trouble.

GM: This is your second book, right?
JG: Yes, second book. The first one was Dad is Fat. That was about me being the father of five young children. And this one's Food: A Love Story which is all about why I'm fat.

GM: I see a theme here.
JG: Yeah. A big, fat theme.

GM: How do you find the time with five kids to write two books, let alone travel. Although travelling you can get away from them.
JG: It's very much a balancing act. It's one of those things where I used to romanticize laziness, just doing-nothing days and now they're just a fantasy of doing nothing. But the reason I find time is it doesn't feel like work. I mean, it's definitely a grind and there's a lot of late nights, but I was excited to write this book. Food is something that I've been writing about for 15 years so a lot of the elements were there. It's like standup: After hopefully being a pretty decent parent all day, the idea of going out and doing a show at 8 or 9 o'clock at night would seem unappealing but I enjoy it so much, I look forward to it even if I'm tired.

GM: What are the age ranges of your kids?
JG: Ten, eight, five, three, one. The one-year-old will be two on the 27th.

GM: And don't you still live in the same apartment?
JG: We moved. We moved from a two-bedroom I like to say to a one-bedroom. But no, we moved to a much bigger place.

GM: Still in New York?
JG: Yeah.

GM: How long does it take you to write a book from start to finish?
JG: I would say Dad is Fat came out I wanna say May 2012 and they made an offer I think the second week it was out for another book. And I had always thought of doing a food book. And again, I had tons of notes on different food topics, just as a comedian. So I'd say it took me a good year to write it. Dad is Fat was 260 pages and I think this one's 360. And my expectation was that I was going to cut a bunch of stuff, because when you write things you're like, 'Well, this is completely overlapping.' But stuff didn't overlap. So I have an essay on cheese and I have an essay on crackers and I remember saying, 'Well, maybe I'll get rid of one of these.' But there wasn't an overlap. I mean, I definitely cut some stuff but I thought there was going to be more cuts but it ended up where I didn't need to, if that makes sense. Do you know what I mean? But you know as a writer, there's things that you like about certain things you write and things you like about other things you write.

GM: And cheese and crackers go together.
JG: Yeah, they do.

GM: You can't have one without the other. Was there any crossover from your act to the book?
JG: Yes. Very much so. For instance, there's an essay on bacon, there's an essay on hot pockets. But in standup, there is a focus on efficiency and getting to the nub of the joke, whereas in an essay all the pieces that didn't even fit in to a topic, such as doughnuts, I could include in the essay. Do you know what I mean? If I write like ten minutes on bacon, my bacon chunk in standup might only be six minutes but I still have those other four minutes. Or there's some stuff that I've written in standup, that I've tried in standup, but for different reasons it wasn't working or I didn't like the way it was going but it makes a great essay. I have stuff about sushi that I tried a couple years ago that makes a great essay that I don't know if it'll be standup. And then also I had this whole thing going way back about going out to dinner. Once I did that as a topic in my standup, I would come up with other observations about going out to dinner but I'd already done the topic. So it fit better in the essay than starting another topic. I think I had 20 or 30 pages on salads alone because there's different salads: there's the taco salad, which I kept kind of working on over six or seven years but it still never ended up in my act. And then there's an essay portion on the salad bar, there's an essay portion on how mayonnaise can turn everything into a salad. Obviously when you write a book, you read it so many times. It's just insane. You see my personal view of an attitude toward a food item, hopefully it's funny but it's a little bit – when I consider how I've written about cheeseburgers over the past 15 years, you realize there's just an insanity to it. There's also something very universal about it.

GM: Well, I'm thinking now with how food shows are so popular and books, the foodies will love it.
JG: Yeah. I didn't end up using this comparison in the book, but the foodie thing is, I'm an everyman food lover. I don't consider myself a foodie. Just like I like the Grateful Dead but I don't consider myself a Dead Head because I don't have their knowledge. A foodie will dedicate time and research an item whereas I'm much more of 'I'm coming to Vancouver. Where should I eat?' I'll ask like four or five people or I'll bring it up on Twitter and then I'll follow that one suggestion. I'm in town for one day. But I'm not on a never-ending journey to find unique dishes. I'm seeking gratification. And I'm a bit of a tourist even. If I'm in Montreal or Ottawa, I'll have to get poutine but if I'm in Calgary someone might say, 'You gotta go to this doughnut shop,' then I'll find that doughnut shop. But other than that I won't find this secret barbecue place that no one's ever heard of.

GM: You're known for long chunks on one topic. I love it when someone exhausts a topic rather than just giving me a taste of it, to use the food analogy. If you're doing five minutes on stage, how much does that translate to the page? It seems really substantial on stage. Is it substantial in book form as well?
JG: In the essay form, it's much longer and it's a different puzzle. In standup, the shorter distance it takes for you to get to the joke is better. But in an essay you take your time and you can weave in other observations that don't necessarily have to be singles. I had six minutes on bacon and there was all this other material that I never did on bacon that maybe was too similar to another observation or it would just lead down to a tangent. But if you're doing an essay on bacon, you can go down every tangent you want. Hopefully that made sense.

GM: There was a comedian in Canada, Irwin Barker, who died a couple years ago. Great writer. Like you, he'd have these huge chunks on, for example, grapes. He said it came from a challenge when someone told him to write about some mundane topic. He would first write an essay. Just a factual essay like you would in high school, then go back to it, add jokes, and trim. That's how he built it. What's your process like?
JG: I definitely don't do the essay version. It's also ever-evolving. For instance, if I get a topic – in my last special I did weddings. Some of it was inspired by this underlying view that weddings are silly, which is a relatively universal concept. Some of it is improvising on stage on the topic. Then I would say I've got two minutes on weddings, what else about weddings are the facts about it? So there's the registry, there's the rehearsal dinner, there's the honeymoon. It's compiling every kind of sub-topic on a topic and then going through and seeing my point of view on it and then elaborating on it. Some of why I stick to a topic is, again, the efficiency of standup is the less time in between laughs... It's kind of like boxing. If someone keeps punching someone, they don't have time to get their footing. So if I have to introduce a new topic outside of weddings, I have to spend some time setting that up. Usually with a comedian people will understand a comedian's point of view and kind of go along with it and have fun with that point of view. But I think there's a lot of value in staying within a topic. I definitely believe that volume is important. And thoroughness. I like the idea of hitting people after you've hit them. There's nothing funner than laughing and then you have to laugh again before you can catch your breath. This is kind of ridiculous, what I'm saying, but some of it is just the style of how it works for me. Some people go for big homeruns; I'm like a singles hitter. I like to hit a lot of singles because there's going to be different jokes that appeal to different people. The power of a tag is pretty important. It's weird because hearing myself talk about it, I'm kind of annoying myself.

GM: The same comic said it's like looking for something. Most people will stop when they find whatever it is, but he keeps looking because he might find something else.
JG: When I write with my wife, I always call it the first bus. The first bus is what people would expect. That might be a sexual innuendo, that might be a sarcastic, sardonic take on something. If you're waiting for the bus, most people get on the first bus but my whole thing is what's the second bus? If comedy is a little bit of the surprise and maybe being a half-step ahead of the audience, then that's where the comedian gains some ownership over the conversation, which is standup. So if you're talking about a topic, for instance crabs, and you don't go immediately to the crabs that we eat is also what we describe an STD, if you save that for later on... So like if you talk about crabs and how you think it's disgusting, even if people immediately went to the STD, they're going to forget it and then you can bring it up later on. 

GM: You hit them with what they know later on for a bigger payoff.
JG: Yeah. It's just like an engaging conversation. Why we think our friends are interesting and why we like certain TV shows is 'This is not what I thought was going to happen.' And there's something kind of gratifying about that.

GM: Does your standup tour have a theme like your book does?
JG: No. I guess I'm on my fifth hour of standup now. And some of it is just trying to be funny and when I do a theatre show, making sure that everyone who leaves that theatre, if I come back to town, they're going to want to come back. I certainly don't take an audience for granted. But I don't really work from a particular theme. It's weird, part of me is always kind of running away from labels: He's a clean comedian, he's the guy with five kids, he's the food comic. The reason my last special was called Obsessed is because I had tried so many specials before that to not talk about food that on Obsessed it was like, alright, I'm just going to talk about food. And I talk about other things, too. So now I'm trying to evolve. Maybe there's a little bit more storytelling. I don't have that much control over what I'm doing. The most important thing is to be funny. I'm not trying to completely reinvent myself. I think comedians get way too much credit and criticism for what they do anyway. I'd love to say, 'Well, this time I'm being much more socially conscious.' The point of it is I'm trying to be funny and get better at it. That's the important thing, I think.

GM: You write your standup with your wife, too. She's your writing partner. I'm sure there are others that do but they never admit to having anyone else work on their act with them. They could never admit it, like it's a weakness or something.
JG: I kind of have the attitude of I've been doing this so long, I don't have any concern about my ability to write material. Someone might think, 'Oh, I betcha his wife wrote that.' You know, I mean, I don't care. If it's funny. But I also know that on that same topic, writing the books that I've written with my wife, I made a point of not wanting to have a ghost writer, which is an option. I didn't want to do that. I want to be someone of substance. If you look at time-value of money, I'm probably making like two cents a book, you know? But also, it's rewarding. And I still have horrible grammar. I'm not saying I'm a novelist or one of the great essayists, but it's still rewarding that I did that, that I have two books on a shelf that I wrote with the immeasurable assistance of my wife.

GM: But going back to standup, because you work on your standup together, too, and there seems to be a stigma.
JG: I totally get it. Standup is a very personal thing. It wasn't that long ago when people would hire writers and there are some huge stars that have writers that write their standup. Supposedly Paul Mooney wrote Richard Pryor's hour or whatever. The whole thing is, it's a really personal thing for standup to not have a writer. That being said, I don't have a writer; I have a writing partner. I think of my wife as kind of a secret weapon. If I'm on my fifth hour, without my wife I certainly wouldn't be as successful as I am. I might be on my third hour as opposed to my fifth. Some of it is efficiency. Also, there are times when you just feel funnier. I'm funnier around my wife and she's funnier around me so it's a great collaboration.

GM: And she has a comedy background, right?
JG: She did sketch comedy and she did standup for a little bit so she knows the world. In a way I feel like I've brainwashed her to my point of view so she'll come up with lines that are great that I might have come up with later on but maybe not.

GM: In your voice.
JG: Yeah. Which is also very rare because what you have to consider is every comedian deals with people coming up and saying what about this or that? And ninety percent of the time, it's not useful information. But with my wife, ninety percent of the time it is useful.

GM: Comedians also offer each other tags. Is it like a situation like that except she lives with you?
JG: I think you also nailed something where there's a lot of people that collaborate with their wife or their husband or their best friend or stuff like that. That doesn't cheapen their talent or their success. It's just that I'm much more forthright with my collaboration. Particularly on the books. I mean, everything, but we're starting to write episodes for the TV show and it's like the collaboration is vital there.

GM: What's the premise for the TV show?
JG: The TV show is essentially my life. I'm a comedian with five kids who's married to a super mom and I'm trying to balance standup comedy with being a father. But it's designed to be a show about everything really.

GM: I see why you work so hard and strike while the iron's hot. With five kids, you've got to.

JG: Absolutely. That's the other thing – and by the way, hopefully this will be the last book I write – but that was the other thing, the book also was one of those things where it's like I had done so much of this work and I knew I could do this food book so yeah, let's strike while the iron's hot and I have a thousand children so I have to pay for it, too.

No comments: