Jim Gaffigan is having a bit of a rough go of it right now. The happy-go-lucky comedian and his wife and co-writer, Jeannie, discovered she had a benign tumor the size of a pear wrapped around her brain stem last month. She’d been experiencing headaches and fatigue for months—something she attributed to being the mom of five wild kids—but when her hearing started to go, she decided to have it checked out.
Though the tumor has been fully removed and Jeannie is slowly on the mend, things are still up in the air at the Gaffigan home. Though Jim’s supposed to be promoting the album version of his last Netflix special, Cinco—complete with commentary tracks featuring Jeannie—he’s also acting as a full-time caregiver, meaning he’s had to cancel a number of tour dates while shuttling his family around New York. Somehow, though, he managed to find time to talk with us, about everything from parenting to just how quickly life can change.
The A.V. Club: How is Jeannie doing?
Jim Gaffigan: She’s doing all right. It’s going to be a slow process. I don’t really have any other brain surgery recoveries to compare it to, though. But she’s home.
It’s weird. It’s a very difficult thing to process. It was in her brain. She’s all there, but getting things working again is taking time.
AVC: You guys talked to People magazine, and you mentioned that the whole thing has kind of renewed your faith in humanity.
JG: I live in New York City, but it doesn’t matter if you’re in any large, metropolitan area, there’s kind of a little bit of survival-of-the-fittest, so when you encounter kindness or people going out of their way in an empathetic way, it’s almost startling. It’s like, “What do they want from us?” Encountering the empathy of people from nurses to people that organize appointments… when people are kind, you really have a sense of appreciation for it. Granted, there are always some jerks along the way, but I guess I’m just kind of surprised at how, you know, you expect your family to step up, you’re grateful that your family and friends step up, but when other people go the extra mile, that’s when you sit there and go, “All right, maybe human beings aren’t monsters.”
AVC: You’ve been pretty open about the whole thing. Both of you have been posting videos and pictures online.
JG: Honestly, I was kind of surprised that my wife wanted to do that. I had to cancel a bunch of shows, and social media is something I’m relatively active on, so there were a lot of questions in the two weeks that it all went down. I was just following her lead, but she wanted to explain to people. I haven’t read the People magazine thing, but she was very conscious of wanting people to listen to their symptoms. She eventually went to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and it was really listening to your body that made us avoid an entire disaster. So that’s what I think she wanted to get out there.
AVC: That’s good to hear. I have a friend who started losing hearing in one of his ears, went to the doctor, and it was the same thing. “Oh, this is not just me going to too many concerts. It’s serious.”
JG: I think we live in a society where we have friends that may be hypochondriacs, but we have a tendency—at least I did—to overcompensate for the hypochondria. We’ve all spent time on WebMD, and we’re like, “All right, I’m just an insane person.” But maybe we’re not, you know?
AVC: I have a tough dad who is always like, “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.” So that’s ingrained in me, as well.
JG: That’s the other thing. Jeannie is—and I’m not just saying this because she’s my wife and she went through this horrible thing—but she is the toughest person I know. She’s the mother of five kids, so her blowing off this would be pretty standard. You know what I mean? She’s the mother of five kids, so a lot of the symptoms, whether it be fatigue or loss of hearing, you can attribute to being the parent of five kids, or the parent of one kid. So it’s all so overwhelming, in a way.
AVC: There’s a video on Jeannie’s Instagram of you doing her hair, and you guys are both laughing and having fun. It seems like you guys have at least been able to have—I don’t want to say a sense of humor about it—but you’re trying to make it through.
JG: Yeah, but anyone would probably have to get to that point, right? It is also kind of what we do. Whether it’s working on the show or my stand-up or writing our book, it’s our defense mechanism. It’s therapeutic, but it’s also weird, because I immediately came up with some tumor jokes and was running them by her. There are certain things where I think a lot of people would be like, “That’s way too soon,” but look, Jeannie went in for this two-hour MRI, and she came out and the first thing she said was, “Write down these ideas.” So I suppose it’s therapeutic in a way.
It’s just so insane. We were at a doctor today, and you’re seeing a level of technology that’s unbelievable. What these doctors and the whole medical system can accomplish is really staggering. I know I don’t know that much about it, but I’m just like, “Wow, all right. I didn’t even know that existed.”
AVC: It’s like, “Isn’t it great that I need this care in 2017 and not in 1917, or even 1987?”
JG: Jeannie had a tumor in her head the size of a pear, and it was removed, and you know that 1987, someone wouldn’t be home hanging out.
AVC: And how would they have caught it? An x-ray, I guess?
JG: I don’t know. I’m still uninformed, but now there’s MRI and then there’s CAT scans and different kinds of imaging things. A lot of this stuff, when people had tumors [in the past], they found out, like, the last minute, or they found out in the autopsy.
AVC: Is it weird to be out now promoting Cinco?
JG: It’s very weird, because obviously it’s really unimportant, in the context of things.
I think this phone call was set up before this all went down. There was an email that I sent to my manager right after that said, “All right, cancel everything for at least the next week and a half.” And then it was like, “Cancel that.” So we kept canceling things. I remember having a conversation before Easter about this [interview], before we even found out about the tumors, because the shit didn’t hit the fan until the Thursday before Easter. So yeah, it’s pretty crazy.
AVC: Is it weird to think about the Cinco bits about donuts and travel when now you’re talking about tumor humor?
JG: It’s interesting. I don’t know. It’s like I can’t discuss one thing and be like, “And that’s why this album is important,” because it’s not, but there is something.
I would say that there was, like, a good week and a half there where I was like, “Okay, so I’m retiring from stand-up comedy because I don’t want to outsource my kids to be raised by someone else.” I had a conversation with my manager, and I said, “Look, I just want you to know,” and I had a conversation with Jeannie like, “I’m not interested in, ‘Jim goes off and does his thing and sees the kids on Mondays.’” I wasn’t about to do that. So there is something about where we stand today, where the stand-up’s not important, and not only did I almost lose my wife and writing partner, but I was sitting with the reality that I probably wasn’t going to go on.
I remember I reached out to some people that had dealt with tragedies and had lost a spouse, and they had one kid. They were just like, “Just get a nanny!” We have five kids and we already have three nannies. During the time when Jeannie was in the hospital—I was a mediocre dad beforehand, but I was like, “There’s no way that I could return to stand-up.” It’s just the sheer number of parenting tasks, and not wanting to outsource it.
AVC: There’s already a bit on the album where you’re talking about being a 10 percent dad already.
JG: It’s weird. Jeannie is my writing partner, and so when we used to tour and discuss it afterwards, it would have been, “Look, I never thought I would be a comedian that would tour and do theaters and make a living doing it,” but [more recently] I was facing another reality. I never thought I’d get married, I never thought I’d have five kids, and I was facing the reality of, “Wow, I never thought that I would be a widower with five kids.” I don’t take for granted the blessing.
There’s a lot of things going on where I’m like, “Yeah, the album’s really not important,” but it is also something that I’m very proud of, and I’m proud of the partnership of Jeannie and I doing it, and for the reflection of this time we toured together over the past two years.
It’s very strange. What tweet do I do after the tweet where I tell people my wife had a brain tumor? I think it was a joke. But there’s euphoria that you get through. It literally feels like you’re stepping out of woods. It’s like, “Okay, it’s a little bit lighter. I can get yanked back in the woods, but I know I’m not in the middle of them.” You’ve spent so many weeks pretending like you are normal anyway. So it’s like, “I want to do something normal.”
AVC: Something that makes the Cinco record different from the Cinco Netflix special is that there’s a disc of commentary about your jokes featuring both you and Jeannie. Why did you guys decide to do that? How do you want it to be appreciated?
JG: We live in a society where we want more information. I don’t want to compare it to a director’s commentary on a DVD, but people are curious what the insight is behind a joke, or maybe what jokes didn’t make it. I’m a comedy nerd, Jeannie’s a comedy nerd, so some of the talking behind the scenes on specific tracks I thought would be interesting for people that get the album. Jeannie and I have never really done a podcast, but we had talked about episodes [of The Jim Gaffigan Show] on shows and in interviews, so I was like, “Why don’t we do that for these individual tracks?” Because some of it is jokes we didn’t include, and some of it is even a tactical thing where I discuss why I talk about this or that.
AVC: I thought the bit about how you open a show is interesting.
JG: Yeah, I think it is. My instinct is that it’s not for everyone, but for a comedy nerd, they might be interested. But I think there’s a lot of us. There are a lot of us that are curious. I wish more comedians would do it.
AVC: Maybe this will be an example people take to heart.
JG: I like that Jeannie’s got a different point of view on some material. I just love that steak commentary. She’s just like, “It’s just disgusting how much steak you eat.” I love steakhouses, and she thinks they’re just these misogynistic dens of men. So there’s something fun behind it, I think.
AVC: It’s good that she gets her chance to shine. You are up on stage delivering these jokes, but this gives her a chance to take some responsibility and credit for the things that are coming out of your mouth.
JG: It reminded me of when we first started writing together, if we did something really funny, I would record it. It would be very much a give and take, and the ideas would kind of build off each other. I would say something, and she’d be like, “No, not that.” And so, there’s some nostalgia in that.
AVC: Speaking of nostalgia, the last track on the record is a bit you recorded in 2001. Why did you put that on there?
JG: You know, it’s interesting. I have all my albums on my iTunes. So every now and then, I would search through, and I’d be like, “Did I already do this joke?” Jeannie produced these initial albums, before I even did an album with Comedy Central. One of them was Economic Stew and another was More Mumus. I had this material about my dad, which was actually the first television set I had, which was on Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and I just thought it was interesting for me to hear it as a father of five. How I was talking about my dad 18 years ago, 17 years ago. If I’m the “dad” comic, it’s interesting that the first television set I had was me just bashing my dad.
AVC: Last time we spoke, you talked about taking your kids on tour, or traveling more with your kids. How is that working out for you, and how are your kids doing?
JG: They love it. I don’t know what the plan is now, though. Jeannie going through this surgery is probably going to change some of our summer and fall plans. I don’t know if you can go on an 18-hour flight with someone that was in surgery three months ago.
The situation we’re in is literally week-to-week of figuring out what is best for Jeannie and our family. I don’t sit there and go, “All right, I’m doing this leg of shows that ends up in Little Rock,” I don’t know if Jeannie’s going to want to bring all the kids and do that. I don’t know what our summer plan’s going to be, but this whole thing has also put everything in perspective and reminded me that time is precious. The irony is that I had all these international shows where I was going to bring all my kids because time is precious. But things change.
AVC: It’s got to be interesting, too, to be a guy that has so much of your life scheduled out, as in, “I’m going to be here this day, I’m going to be here this day, I’m on set this day,” and so on, and then have that all up in the air and not know what’s going on.
JG: Oh, it’s insane. Again, it’s really unimportant compared to the emotional consequences, but it’s pretty fascinating.
I almost wrote this CBS Sunday Morning commentary, because I do commentaries on there. I’m friendly with the guy who’s executive producer, and he said, “Do you want to do something about Don Rickles?” I was like, “Well, I don’t really know Don Rickles, but like everyone else, I was a fan.” But it inspired me to think about how I did a tweet a long time ago about someone dying, and I was like, “I’m glad that’s never happening to me.” Human beings live in such a state of denial surrounding all this, so we’re kind of shocked when it touches a loved one or someone we’ve enjoyed. Don Rickles had a great life. I wish he was still alive, but the weird thing is I almost wrote that, and then, it’s almost like God has a sense of humor. “Let me show you what I mean.”
AVC: It’s jarring to be so personally affected. You think you’re shook by Don Rickles’ death, and then when it really happens to you…
JG: It’s just human beings, and it’s how we deal with it. We have to sit there and be like, “I’m probably going to be 25 the rest of my life.” Why wouldn’t you believe that? That’s all we know.