PARENTING IS HILARIOUS: A Q&A WITH JIM GAFFIGAN
DAD IS FAT
By Jim Gaffigan
Crown Archetype. 288pp. $25
What qualifies standup comedian Jim Gaffigan to write a book on parenting? Well, he has kids. Lots of them. Five of them, in fact, all under the age of eight. Oh, and he lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, in a building with no elevator. His book, Dad is Fat, is a collection of essays on the raucous life of a modern father, from home births to candy overload to the horrors of Disneyland. In between, he explains why bars are like nursery school, why “other people’s children’s birthday parties are the most joyful events you will ever resent having to attend,” and why it’s futile for parents to try to be cool: “Even if you put your three-year-old in a fedora, we all know you are still getting barfed on and wiping noses and butts like the rest of us.” Biographile caught up with him recently to chat about writing, comedy, and the humility of fatherhood.
BIOGRAPHILE: How on earth did you find the time to write this book?
JIM GAFFIGAN: There is no time. I worked on this with my wife, and her idea was to have a chapter called “Time” and just leave it blank. Time is this crazy, elusive thing. My standup is a romanticizaton of things we can’t do, like engaging in complete gluttony, or being lazy and a slob. And free time is definitely a romantic notion, but it’s all relative. I remember when I was single and I still found it ridiculously hard to exercise, and what was I doing, except stand-up for twenty minutes?
BIOG: What was your inspiration for writing the book – beyond, obviously, needing to pay for a bigger apartment?
JG: I think any creative person secretly desires to write a book. Writing a book, it’s like having a trophy! For me, I spent a couple of years falling over how I wanted to approach writing about being a parent. Because, as I mention in the book, I’m not someone who should really be in charge of a houseplant – I’m a lazy guy, my career is a nocturnal, isolated, self-centered profession, so it seems unlikely that I would be a parent.
As a comedian, I wanted my material to have a universal appeal, so I found myself censoring discussing my kids in my act. I used to be that twenty-three-year-old sitting in the comedy club watching a comedian talk about their wife or husband and kids, and just not being interested. But Twitter contributed a lot; it opened an outlet to discuss what it’s like to be a parent, and for me to really find my point of view about parenting. I’m not one of these people who says, “I hate my kids,” and I’m not all sappy about my kids – I’m just kind of befuddled. Doing my best. Twitter really helped me find my way, but I didn’t want to do a book of tweets, I wanted it to be a book of substance, where if I picked it up, I would want to read it, and I would find it of value. I didn’t want it to be an exercise in narcissism, and I wanted some solid comedy in the observations.
BIOG: Twitter probably connects you with a lot of people who would love to come out to a comedy show but can’t get a babysitter.
JG: Yes – and I also really believe that I understand the non-parent point of view. I didn’t have my first kid until I was in my late thirties, so I spent most of my adult life as a single person. That’s what inspired some of those chapters about parenting as a cult.
BIOG: You mention being inspired by Bill Cosby’s book on fatherhood. Are there other comedians who speak about parenting in ways that have influenced you?
JG: Well, Cosby’s a master, and I think Louie Anderson is also a great comedian, who talked about family life more from the perspective of a child rather than the parent. Mark Twain has this essay, “How to tell a story,” where he talks about the American sensibility as being unaware that something is funny: You tell a story, and you deliver the punchline, and yet there’s an ignorance of the fact that it’s funny. I saw that in how Bill Cosby talked about his kids, how Louie Anderson talked about growing up in a big family. David Sedaris is a master, and Bill Cosby wrote the quintessential fatherhood book. And my wife’s amazing, so if the book’s good it’s all her fault.
BIOG: How heavily involved was she in editing and shaping the book?
JG: My wife and I partner in everything. She’s my writing partner, and obviously we have these eight hundred kids together, and we’re great friends on top of that. Initially I wanted the book to be very observational, similar to my standup: I’m going to find every funny thing about newborns, I’m going to find every funny thing about home birthing, and about every topic that a child or a parent would deal with, through toddlerhood. Jeannie had an enormous involvement in helping me come up with ideas, organize it, make it readable, and then the last step was my editor, who encouraged me to add a more autobiographical element. I was hesitant to do that, because culturally we’re saturated with way too much information about absolutely everyone. We all have these moments of despair, and it’s great that we can come together on them, but I think creativity and art can be an escape from the human condition. I want my comedy, and hopefully this book, to be a break from some of the anxieties we deal with as adults. I wanted it to be funny.
BIOG: In the book, the comedy is based on the way you see yourself as a parent, and how different you are in that from your own father. The standards have changed so much for dads, perhaps especially in the competitive New York bubble, so is it difficult to find your way through that? How do you leave behind the disengaged dad, but avoid that trap where the child becomes the absolute center of your universe?
JG: That’s the modern-day question, specifically for fathers; there’s been a big shift in their participation and involvement. When I talked to people about the book, they would say, “My dad wasn’t even at my birth, and you assisted Jeannie in all of hers!” I don’t begrudge the preceding generation, because fatherhood in general is an enormous, impossible task, and being a father is, like I say in the book, like being vice-president of the family. Every generation, we think we’ve figured it out, and my approach is, we have no idea what we’re doing and we’re probably going to fail, so try to stay humble.
I wanted to capture in the book that I’m unqualified to be a parent but I’m trying, and I think that’s the most we can ask of people. You can lose yourself in parenting, and that’s probably not good for the kid either, but I’m not judging these people who don’t let their kids get dirty, because I’m sure I do something like that. Parenting’s a very humbling experience and I’m grateful for that, because you can get pretty delusional, making a couple thousand people laugh at night. You can start buying your own hype.
BIOG: But if you can’t make your eight-year-old laugh …
JG: Right, then you’re just the bad, mean daddy.
BIOG: You made a hilarious promotional video with your kids. Are there are any other ways you’re going to use them to sell the book?
JG: It’s interesting, because they love it – well, obviously the baby has no idea what’s going on – but there is a feeling of, “how do I do this without being icky about it?” But it is a book about parenting, about kids, and I wanted that video to communicate the task that’s before me. The title came from my son, who’s now seven, when he was learning to write. They write very simple words, and he wrote, “Dad is fat” – with full knowledge that I would laugh and think it was funny, which captures some of the dynamic of being a father. Obviously I’d never use the kids as a tool to promote the book, but it’s amazing how they enjoy stuff like that. I’m not about to have them audition for things, but they love it, and I know it’s going to come to a screeching halt one day, so as long as I’m not being “Toddlers & Tiaras” about it, I think it’s all right.