[Editor’s Note: Jeannie Gaffigan is a director, producer, comedy writer, and mother of 5 children. She co-wrote seven comedy specials with her husband Jim Gaffigan, the last 4 of which received Grammy nominations. Jeannie was the head writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed “The Jim Gaffigan Show” which was loosely based on her and Jim’s life. She collaborated with Jim on the two New York Times Bestsellers, Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story. Jeannie, with the help of her two eldest children and some other moms, created The Imagine Society, Inc., a not for profit organization that connects youth-led service groups. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: Many Catholics know you and your husband as perhaps the best-known Catholic “power couple” in the U.S. What a moving and heart-warming story Jim told in the forward to your forthcoming book when you first started dating and you invited him to come see your project called Shakespeare on the Playground at St. Patrick’s Youth Center. As a lover of the Bard myself, I just have to ask: How did you manage to get a hundred middle-schoolers from nearby city projects to become so interested in bringing his work to the stage?
Gaffigan: I am so happy that someone finally is asking me about Shakespeare on the Playground, what I believe to be the “diamond in my career tiara.” Of course, it would be difficult for most people to understand how I could feel that way about what essentially started out as an ambitious after-school program and was seen by barely anyone, considering the fact that Jim and I have created and executed so many things since then on a vastly larger scale.
Before I launch into what is surely to be misinterpreted as a “humble brag” about organizing inner city pre-teens to stage a full-scale Shakespearean production, let me first say that Jim’s observation that there were 100 kids is a slight exaggeration. There may have been 100 total, but remember that putting on a show of that scale requires 20 kids painting scenery, 20 making costumes and so on, so it wasn’t like there were 100 kids acting. The purpose of the program was to make sure that everyone that signed up had something creative to do and saw their job to completion, even if it was being in the “marketing department” and designing flyers to post and hand out to people in the neighborhood.
“Getting them to become interested” was not an issue at all because they didn’t have a lot of options for creative activities. We take for granted that most of our kids have so much to do. Some of my kids even have their own calendar to keep everything straight! The kids I worked with in Shakespeare on the Playground were mostly completely on their own from 3 to 6. Offering them a place to get together in a gym with fabric, art supplies, lights and music (and of course snacks) was not a hard sell.
Also, in terms of the “actor” kids learning the Shakespearean texts, we started out by doing a lot of improv about the stories that they could relate to. When we did Romeo and Juliet, we started with an improvised scene, the story of Romeo and his rambunctious friends sneaking into the Capulet’s party. Remember the characters in that story are like 12 to 14 years old. The energy of that play was perfect for that age group. Once we added the text, it became a fun challenge to “learn a new language” because they already understood what was being said, and they could relate to the characters so much with all the adolescent angst focused on something positive (instead of running around the neighborhood throwing pudding cups at storefront windows) and their storytelling was dynamic, exciting and fun. At the same time I was doing this, I was occasionally teaching improv classes to kids who were professional actors and I found that it was much easier to work with the untrained kids because there was a lack of self-criticism and a tremendous amount of raw energy that they brought to their performances.
I also was open to creative stylistic directorial choices they suggested so that they could “own it,” such as making the setting “the hood” or “a public high school” and altering the title of the play slightly (such as “Much Ado About Nut-in”). When we staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we set the music to a hip hop score and found that the iambic pentameter of the verse really lent itself to “rapping” so that the text was super easy to memorize. I actually have a clip of some of these performances on my website, jeanniegaffigan.com and it remains one of my proudest accomplishments.
The title of your book — When Life Gives You Pears — comes from the fact that, in 2017, you discovered a life-threatening tumor in your brain that was the size and shape of a pear. How, if at all, did that affect your faith in God?
If this discovery was a test of my faith in God, I passed. Admittedly, not always with flying colors (I go into detail about many of my dark times in this book). There was never a second where I thought, “If there was a God, I would never have this happen to me” or the notion that somehow a mean vindictive God was punishing me for one of my many sins. I just knew that God was in it and that he was going to help me handle it. I remember joking with Him, “God, I hear that you don’t give us things we can’t handle. Well, I can’t handle this one. Can you just take care of everything? Thanks.” Of course, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t just climb back into bed, put the covers over my head and say, “Hey God, wake me up when this is over!” I knew there was a long road of hard work ahead, but I also knew that I needed Him to get through it. Once I let go of my ego and just opened myself up to His guidance and wisdom, uncanny situations and opportunities started presenting themselves immediately. I stopped feeling like I was floundering in the dark, and instead I was following a virtual GPS (God Positioning System) that took me through this potentially treacherous jungle.
Beyond your faith, though in some ways not really divisible from it, the book tells a number of heart-warming stories about how your family supported you throughout this ordeal. An ordeal which involved getting major surgery to insert tubes for breathing and eating. Can you say something about how your family came together to help bear your substantial burdens during your recovery?
In my book I make the realization that in His divine creativity, God had designed my entire life to prepare me for this crisis. One of the ways that this epiphany manifested was really observing what it meant to be part of a big family. When I was a kid, I had feelings of jealously towards only children. They always seemed to “have more.” More toys, better clothes, cleaner houses, more opportunities and more one-on-one attention. As we grew up and moved into adulthood, I came to see the value in my upbringing and knew that I had this tightly knit clan that understood each other in ways no one else could and I was grateful for these lifelong teammates.
However, it wasn’t really clear how truly priceless these relationships were until I was in the helpless position of not being able to take care of myself, or my children, or my house, or my business. Even though my siblings all have families and adult lives of their own, and we are normally somewhat “bad” at getting together “just for the heck of it,” in my illness it became clear that all of our lives are intimately connected. They all dropped everything of their own and came to my aid whether it was to sit with me in the ICU, take my kids to birthday parties they would have otherwise missed and pretty much covered all of the things I couldn’t.
I remember one of my good friends observing all of this happen and remarking, “You know, I never understood why you wanted to have all those kids…until now.” Being so sick helped me see it too. It wasn’t as if I understood it before and thought, “I want to have a big family because some day if one of my kids gets a brain tumor, I want them to have a large enough support system in place so that all of my grandkids can make it to a birthday party!” but I understood that God set it up that way. He knew everything. And He is continuing to prune and prepare me now for whatever life has in store down the road.
It also finally made sense to me why I married a comedian. True, Jim surprised me as a new part of him blossomed as super-involved dad, master scheduler and medical caregiver, but his already obviously apparent gift as a comedian was, “just what the doctor ordered” for my recovery. In my book I describe many ways where his off-beat way of looking at the world help us face many of these heart-wrenching challenges with laughter.
Like the last scene in The Usual Suspects, I saw this bulletin board of my life with photos of the close friends, family members, my husband and kids surrounding me with strings pinned to each image with notecards underneath explaining why this person had been placed in my life for this moment. I was like, “Thanks God. I guess you really do know what you are doing.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t focus explicitly on the funny. The book is very much about the power of funny people to heal. What is it about laughing, and relationships with people who cause us to laugh, that is so powerful in this regard?
I think it boils down to seeing the glass half empty or half full. If you look at every bad thing that happens in your life as a “Why me?” moment, you are not going to be able to eventually see the big picture. Sure, making lemonade out of lemons (or in my case making pear-ade out of pears) isn’t the first thing anyone is going to instinctually do.
I am incredibly blessed to be married to a comedian, so it is a tad easier for me. Jim and I, over our careers, have developed a comedic lens through which we observe the world. I suspect Jim was born with it and I acquired it from being around him for so long. I remember when we first started having babies our lives became really baby-centric, with all the ups and downs chaotic young parenthood brings with it. To help us through it, we would try to make light of stomach flus, sleepless nights and even headlice. Jim was hesitant to bring this “kids comedy” to the stage because he remembered when he was a young, single guy, he would feel somewhat alienated by comedians who only talked about their wives and kids. He wanted his comedy to be accessible to everyone. But at a certain point we couldn’t ignore the reality of our lives. Being married, pregnant and the parents of toddlers was really hard. And really funny. We had to write about it. “Write what you know.” It’s real and it’s truthful and it helped us cope.
So, when our lives were turned upside down by the medical crisis and we found ourselves in a new world of scary medical tests, doctors, nurses and hospitals, it was just the natural way to cope. I am aware not everyone is married to a comedian so I can’t just give the advice, “When something horrible happens, laugh about it!” but what I can stress, is the extreme importance of being open to laughing in the face of adversity and maintaining a sense of humor. Even if you are not the sick person but you visit someone in the hospital or are sick at home, bring joy with you!
Sometimes it seems everyone has been programmed to think that the appropriate way to enter the room when you visit a sick person is to have a sad, sympathetic look on your face and speak in a morose whisper. Yes, the patient is in pain and is going through something horrible and we should empathize and have compassion, but that doesn’t mean we have to come in like Debbie Downer. You would be amazed at what happens when people around you are filled with joy and positivity. Your breathing gets deeper, your blood pumps stronger. It actually strengthens your immune system when you smile and laugh. As my husband says, “Laughter is really the best medicine…after of course, you have real medicine.”
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