Jim Gaffigan and I are sitting in the New York Transit Museum, next to the dummy subway car where I’ve just watched him spend about twenty minutes repeatedly running a series of lines concerning a steak dinner. His wife is standing nearby—next to Ashley Williams, the actress who is portraying her. The sitcom’s cameramen had been tasked with shaking their cameras slightly in order to simulate the way that moving subway cars list back and forth, because the crew had gotten guff from the museum’s management for manually jostling the fake train. The finished product looks pretty convincing, however, and atop this impressive pile of TV artifice Gaffigan and I are talking about authenticity.
“I love the idea of the situation truly being funny,” says Gaffigan, whose calm, disarming demeanor is so out of place amongst the insanity of a deadline-driven television shoot in a public museum that it’s almost confusing. “With a single camera show you don’t have to be beholden to a rhythm of a four-camera show.”
There had been two cameras shooting the train scene, with the intention of being able to cut back and forth between them in the traditional multi-camera sitcom style. Gaffigan is pulling for using the footage from just one of them, however, in order to better preserve the rhythm of the dialogue. “With a single camera show, authenticity and realness are part of the currency where you can earn the jokes,” he says.
Earning jokes this way, via a cocktail of mise-en-scène and the natural rhythm of conversation, is a new frontier for Gaffigan, who has spent most of the last decade as one of the most popular standup comedians in America. “I’ve been doing stand up for over 150 years,” he says. “I’ve also been lucky enough to be cast in a couple shows. I’ve learned what kind of show I would want to do and what I kind of show I wouldn’t want to do.”
The Jim Gaffigan Show, which Jim developed alongside his wife and writing partner Jeannie, deals with their lives as writer/performers, New Yorkers and parents of five children in a Lower Manhattan apartment with only two bedrooms. Given that they’re opting to put a simulacrum of their lives onscreen, a tight grip on the show’s tone is understandably paramount for the Gaffigans. So much so, in fact, that the show’s influences lie primarily outside the comedic sphere. “We’re in this golden age of dramas,” he says, “where they know these worlds and we [as viewers] can really escape because the detailing in Mad Men is so thorough.”
To hear Gaffigan tell it, TV comedies are caught between a rock and a hard place: The stilted, unrealistic rhythms of multi-camera sitcoms, and the easy joke formulas and propped-up atmospherics of single-camera sitcoms. Says Gaffigan: “With four cameras, it’s too caught up in cadence. There are single camera comedies that are funny, but there’s not enough reality. Then there are single camera comedies that are based in reality, but they’re not really comedies [and] they get credit for being a comedy. I feel like there’s room for something that has all those things.”
Gaffigan has a point: There’s a certain gauzy truth to the way classic sitcoms can emulate reality by choosing when to be strictly representational and when to rely on abstractions. (Nobody ever complained that you never see the front lawn on Married With Children.) If you’re looking to create an immersive experience, leaning too hard on fabricating real life just makes it jarring when the viewer inevitably encounters something fake. “The mockumentary style is so pervasive,” says Gaffigan, “and it’s so easy, because in the little confessional scene they can do all the exposition, and then they can just do the joke.”
According to Jim, we’re witnessing the closing days of an era of television dedicated to a sort of non-reality. “We’ve had a generation of reality shows where producers and cameramen have been following people, [and] even reality shows are bullshit,” he says, adding, “When you look at an episode of—even a great comedy, like Seinfeld—and you see them walking around outside, it’s supposed to be New York and it’s not New York. You sit there and go ‘that’s not New York City.’ You know what I mean?”
“When I was a kid,” he adds, “I’d watch these reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and there was just them and their living room. There wasn’t the sitcom cadence. There wasn’t the kind of awkward pause comedy, like ‘I can’t believe he said that.’” With The Jim Gaffigan Show, the Gaffigans are hoping to tap into that ambiance, divining humor from people talking to each other without forced cross-cut beats, outsized reactions, or abrupt, distracting documentary techniques. It almost sounds minimalist, until you remember that it requires an enormous cast and crew running frantically around the only place on earth where a civilian can legally shoot footage inside a genuine New York City subway car. The end result of the morning’s production is a solid 40 seconds of a wife haggling how many beers her husband is allowed to drink at dinner.
Gaffigan’s standup has always focused on magnifying these kinds of small-scale quotidian moments—finding the cracks in our relationships to food, our families, and city life in which we never quite live up to the expectations we set for ourselves. Making the leap to television involves pulling back the lens and dramatically increasing the dimensions of this worldview. If anything, though, it seems that honing his vision onstage has just made Gaffigan more eager to adapt it to television. “I’m very lucky that I can tour doing stand-up,” he says. “I’m not doing this for the money. I’m not beholden for the check. I don’t really care if this makes me more famous. It’s an opportunity to do something that I think is my point of view. That’s a unique opportunity.” He adds: “I never want something to be motivated by ego.”
As hard as it can be to understand how basing a cable sitcom on your own life can somehow be devoid of selfish motivations, Gaffigan treats his and Jeannie’s comedic perspective as if it’s almost a completely separate entity—one that they’re compelled to serve regardless of where it takes them. “We all kind of know this about performers,” he says, “but I think people can love being the boss. I don’t want that to get in the way of accomplishing important objectives. I want each story to be very passionate. I’ve worked [on shows] where I’m like ‘They’re phoning it in on this one.’ I never want to do that. I’m doing it like these are the last 10 episodes I will do in my life.”
The stakes of The Jim Gaffigan Show differ from the stakes of Jim’s standup in that having done right by his and Jeannie’s vision, in this case, means having done right by their actual lives. After the shooting wrapped at the Transit Museum, the crew was headed to shoot a standup scene at the Bowery Ballroom, mere blocks from the actual two-bedroom apartment the couple shares with their young children. Amidst the chaos of married life in New York, remaining at the helm of an extremely successful standup career, and parenting five children under the age of ten, Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan have harnessed their existences to create something that could have only come from them. Jim, with his characteristic goofy reflectiveness, seems content with the raw materials: “Being a comedian is a weird thing. Having five kids is a weird thing. And I mean weird in the best way possible.”
Joe Bernardi is on Twitter.