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Jim Gaffigan Talks Parenting, Marriage, and Getting Serious in ‘Chappaquiddick’

"I do think there is a stigma where anytime people see me doing something serious, they get confused."

Over the past two decades, Jim Gaffigan has established himself as perhaps the funniest and most beloved dad in stand-up comedy. As a father to five kids, Gaffigan has seamlessly worked the insanity of parenting into his routines, effortlessly waxing poetic on the absurdity of topics like Dora the Explorer, Christmas trees, and – of course – hot pockets.

Gaffigan is far more than just a stand-up comedian, however. The 51-year-old is also an actor, writer, and a showrunner; alongside his wife Jeannie, he co-wrote The Jim Gaffigan Show, a semi-autobiographical sitcom on TVLand that ran for two seasons.

Most recently, Gaffigan stepped away from comedy and embraced the dramatic in Chappaquiddick. The new film – in theaters today – depicts the infamous weekend in 1969 when aspiring Presidential candidate and Senator Ted Kennedy accidentally drove his car off a bridge, resulting in the drowning of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. In Chappaquiddick, Gaffigan plays Paul F. Markham, the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and confidant to Senator Kennedy.

Fatherly spoke with Gaffigan about his creative partnership with his wife, their decision to end their TV show after two seasons, and why he doesn’t want to be labeled a “dad comic.”

Before Chappaquiddick, you hadn’t done many dramatic roles. What drew you to this part?

I’ve always wanted to do dramas. I’ve done a few here and there, but nothing on a consistent basis. I do think there is a stigma where anytime people see me doing something serious, they get confused. Even when I did a Law & Order episode people said, “What is he doing in a show like this?” But I’ve always been interested in doing work outside of comedy.

Part of it is also traveling. When I was presented with this part, I immediately loved it but I wasn’t sure it was going to work with my schedule. I knew the movie was something I wanted to be a part of and fortunately, they adjusted the schedule so I could do it. And I really enjoyed doing the part.

You’ve pushed back against labels like “clean comic” or “food comic.” Are you similarly resistant to the idea of being labeled a “dad comic”?

I think that comedians only want to be described as one adjective: Funny. So when people start ascribing any adjective to a comedian other than “funny,” there is a natural reluctance. There’s a frustration because you don’t ever want to set a limit to who can enjoy your comedy. Most women who do comedy don’t want to be called a “female comedian.” They want to be called a funny comedian.

So funny is the only label that matters to a comic?

Yeah. Of course, being a dad is a huge influence on my work and I’ve said it’s the most important thing I’ll ever fail at. It’s a major element of my point of view but I wouldn’t want anyone who doesn’t have kids to think they couldn’t connect with my work. I don’t think it’s essential to be a dad or mom to like my stand-up. The appeal is that I’m funny.

A lot of comedians, like Dave Chappelle or Kevin Hart, have begun to make their experiences as dads a bigger part of their work over the last few years. Has the rise of parenting in stand-up caused you to change your approach to integrating parenting into your comedy?

The thing I find interesting about being a father or a parent in general is you can’t realize just how much it changes every part of your life until you’re in it. I know so many comedians who in their twenties would look at comedians who were parents and say, “Why are they talking about their kids so much?”

Cut to ten or so years later and those same comics are now dads and sure enough, they’re telling jokes about their kids. I’m not even talking about the guys you mentioned but it’s something I’ve seen with a lot of comics.

So it’s an experience you can’t quite grasp until you become a parent?

I think so. Parenting is the great equalizer. Eventually, most people become parents and are suddenly face-to-face with these things they didn’t understand before. They are changing diapers and worrying about their kid’s diet. It’s just something I find kind of funny to watch when it happens.

You co-created The Jim Gaffigan Show with your wife Jeannie. Was that the first time you had worked together creatively?

No, we have always done everything together. Going back to when we were dating, I was on this short-lived show, Welcome to New York, and she was helping me there. She was always involved in the writing process but eventually, she was producing my albums and directing my specials. The partnership has always been there and it’s still there. It’s very important to me.

The two of you chose to end the show after two seasons because you said you both felt like you weren’t getting enough time to raise your kids. Was that a gradual realization or did it just hit you one day that you needed to end the show?

As a parent, there’s always a balance you are trying to find between career ambition and being a responsible father to your kids. Jeannie and I realized after we finished the first season that we wanted to make adjustments to the show to ensure we weren’t neglecting our family life. Creating a show takes a lot of time and effort and what we found is that, because that show was semi-autobiographical, it was important for us to not have a show about us as parents while we were ignoring being parents to our kids in real life.

So by the second year, we had tried different approaches but we were still working 14 hours a day. Doing the show was fun and rewarding but at what cost? I do stand up and movies but that doesn’t remove both parents. It might remove me for a week here or there but I can always be a dad first and foremost, which is the most important thing.