A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Jim Gaffigan’s new TV show and its depiction of the awkwardness of being a public Christian today. Hoping to learn more about the role of faith in the Gaffigans’ every day life, I arranged an interview with Jim and his wife and co-writer, Jeannie.
FT: What would you say your Catholic faith provides you in a positive way, on a day-to-day basis?
Jim: My faith is very associated with the notion of mercy. I understand that there is something greater than myself that does not judge me in a negative manner—or forgives me I should say. For me, being in touch with the idea that I’m not in control of everything is important. When I find myself frustrated, I have some distance from that idea I’m not in charge, for instance in how this conference call is setup.
Jeannie: It’s just something that we are. We live in New York City where there’s all sorts of different attitudes and lifestyles. We don’t try to hide it . . . it’s just who we are, it’s our real life. We just had a headline, “The Gaffigan Show is not about religion, it’s about their real life.” You can’t really win sometimes.
As the conference call with Jim, Jeannie, and other religious news outlets went on, what came through very strongly was the everyday importance of the Gaffigans’ faith. As an example, after working with some major networks, they grew tired of dealing with the suffocating bureaucracy. The networks asked whether they could make the priest a non-denominational minister who could date, or whether they could reduce the number of Gaffigan kids from five to two. After finally making the pilot they wanted for a major network who ultimately decided not to air it, the Gaffigans took their show to TV Land, on cable, where they can maintain creative control and keep their experience of Catholicism in the show.
The strong portrayal of the Gaffigans’ Catholicism extends to the priesthood. Jim and Jeannie talked about the fact that growing up there was no stigma attached to the priesthood. But after the public nature of the sex abuse scandal, Jim said, “There’s no other occupation other than maybe a McDonald’s employee where if you walk around in your uniform people know exactly what you do. Now the priesthood has become such a lightning rod. But the priests we know are eccentric, intelligent, generous people.” Jeannie added, “The priests that have been influential in our lives and have become our friends are brilliant and generous people, and that’s our experience of priests. We don’t have any other experience of priests. . . . We are tired of the priest jokes.” Jim added that they didn’t want the priest to be “comedy fodder” but a priest who could be “a teacher to Jim . . . .and the opposite of American consumerism and superficiality.”
Jim Gaffigan’s own faith “informs the comedy” that he and his wife produce. He grew up a cultural Catholic and then, later in life, moved to New York, where he lived across the street from a church that he didn’t darken the door of for many years. But things have changed for Jim, thanks to his wife. The character in the show that Jim plays is “far more secular” and has “less faith” than the real Jim Gaffigan, though after his wife got a statue blessed and their apartment blessed, it got him wondering, “Are we getting into Santeria here?” But then, Jeannie added, he made sure to get the set on his show blessed.
It’s too bad that being Catholic in a public way is such a counter-cultural way of life. That said, the Gaffigans make the best of being public Catholics, and their material is funny for all sorts of people. They put the faith on display for many who wouldn’t otherwise know that actively Christian people can be funny, intelligent, and light-hearted about something that they take seriously in their daily lives. This can be seen by the all-star cast of cameos on their TV show, which includes liberal news commentators, atheists, and many others who don’t normally associate themselves with openly religious people. As Jeannie said, “Some people say, ‘We were raised Catholic, and are still traumatized by it.’ We don’t have that experience.” This is a refreshing new take on celebrity Catholicism.
Their family-first attitude is also refreshing. They mention strongly that they don’t want a successful show at the expense of their children not knowing them. It’s amazing but true that having five kids is so countercultural. While Jim often jokes about the insanity that is raising five children, he cares very deeply about being there for his family.
Speaking of McDonald’s, I asked them about his standup routine, where he makes fun of people who shame those who eat at McDonald’s, but buy gossipy tabloids or get trashy tattoos. Everyone has their own McDonald’s, he jokes. I asked him how his faith helps him deal with the “McDonald’s” culture. “It’s an ongoing battle,” Jim said. “You don’t want to be a victim of superficiality or materialism.” Jeannie added, pointing out the hypocrisy of our culture, “He who is without McDonald’s casts the first stone.”
Through their commitment to being public Catholics, the Gaffigans are making it easier to “come out” as Catholic in a post-Christian culture. They provide an excellent example of taking faith seriously in a culture that is often faith-phobic, while at the same time making it appealing for millions of people who think religion can’t mix with a joyful life.
Photo Credit: Getty Images, Kevin Mazur
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.