Comedy writer, brain tumor fighter: A Q&A with the fierce and funny Jeannie Gaffigan

jeannie-gaffigan-book-coverWhen Jeannie Gaffigan began experiencing killer headaches, unsteadiness, and hearing loss three years ago, she pushed through, attributing it to stress and a hectic schedule. Even if it wasn’t, there was no time to focus on the troubling symptoms. Her family and writing commitments came first. One time, she sprained her foot on the way to a TV rehearsal. She asked the prop department to find her a cane and she just kept going.

Every moment was spoken for in the life of this busy and loving mom who is also half of one of the world’s great comedy writing teams. Jeannie and her husband Jim have written seven stand-up specials which she directed and executive produced. They also wrote the hit television series The Jim Gaffigan Show (which Jeannie executive produced) and two New York Times bestsellers. They’ve earned three Grammy nominations. Most importantly, they have five lively children.

In her new memoir, When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People, Jeannie puts it like this: “I already felt that one more thing would be the wafer-thin mint that made me explode.”

That one more thing turned out to be a giant pear-shaped brain tumor that was squeezing her brain stem and cutting it off from her brain. It was as terrifying as it sounds. Jeannie’s symptoms, her surgery, the near-lethal complications, her recovery, and the impact on her marriage and family were all epic.

The book has aspects of a thriller with plenty of suspense. Before Jeannie could even begin to take steps to save her life, she had to battle an indifferent medical bureaucracy just to get in to see a neurosurgeon before the tumor killed her. Anyone who has ever fought that impenetrable fortress, which is to say almost everyone, will relate.

But this is not a somber medical memoir. Jeannie has the seemingly impossible ability to find laugh-out-loud comedy in every aspect of the trauma from the first MRI to the difficult post-surgical weeks enduring a tracheotomy and feeding tube. Medical mishaps that would have left anyone else broken and screaming inspire her to look for the absurd and she succeeds every time, even when frustrations flare. Readers facing their next medical - or any - challenge will be emboldened and uplifted by her fierce, hilarious spirit.

The book is also a moving portrait of a relationship. Never before have we had such an intimate look at the Gaffigans’ marriage which is an extraordinary partnership between two extraordinary people but also, like every marriage, a navigation through valley lows and mountain highs.

The brain tumor was indeed that one more thing that exploded Jeannie’s life. But as she said to me, “Gratitude is the theme of the book.” Embarking on recovery, she found a deeper happiness that is not dependent on control or keeping life’s messes at bay, and an appreciation of the joys, surprises and people that make living worthwhile. She hopes we can all know – without experiencing a brain tumor! – that these are the real pieces of our lives.

Jeannie will be at Chicago’s Columbia Yacht Club on Tuesday, September 24 to talk about her new memoir. Proceeds of the evening benefit Lurie Children's Pediatric Brain Tumor Program.

Jeannie kindly spoke with me by phone about how she and Jim fought this life-or-death battle and emerged whole (minus one brain tumor).

Deciding to tell the story

Teme: You’ve been the more private half of the Gaffigan comedy team. How did you decide that you wanted to tell this personal story?

Jeannie:  I was writing a book in the classic Erma Bombeck genre about having a crazy life with all these kids. There was also talk about making it a larger size book of the “Amy Sedaris crafting” genre with tongue-in-cheek observations about how I make lists all the time and pack for trips with five kids, and about how being a “Type A” personality manifests itself in this crazy lifestyle.

So I was going along, super busy, and suddenly I found out I have to have emergency brain surgery. My agent Simon, who is now our friend, called after the surgery just to check in on me. He was like, “Wow, I can't believe this happened!” And because I'm so “Type A”, I said, “I promise I'm going to finish that book!”

He said, “No, people are going to want to know what happened.” I said, “I'm almost done with the other book. I'm just going to put in a chapter about how I had a brain tumor and then I got over it.” And he said, “What do you mean?! You almost died!”

Also, since writing is my coping mechanism, I was writing about the experience of the trauma during my illness. Even when I couldn't hold a pen or didn’t have a lap to put my laptop on, I had people making notes. I remember coming out of an MRI and saying to Jim, “Write this down!” because ideas and thoughts would be coming into my head. In the book there's a section, “Jeannie’s do's and don'ts for visiting people in the hospital” which I dictated to my sister when I couldn't speak. She sat next to me and I mouthed it to her.

When I was able to work again I had all these notes that felt like I was interviewing the sick me. I put the story together like a reporter. That’s when I started to really process what had happened. It was very painful to recall, but it allowed me to realize what I learned and how my personal history was a factor in my illness and recovery. I was able to draw a conclusion of why it happened, why I'm grateful that it happened and how I can live my life now with a new perspective. So that became the book.

Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan with their children

Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan with their children

The battle begins

Teme: How did you discover that you had a brain tumor?

Jeannie: I’d had an MRI for hearing loss on a Tuesday (in April 2017). That evening, the ENT [ear, nose and throat doctor] called me and told me that I had a mass in my brain and that I needed to find a doctor who could deal with it. I had no idea what that meant or how large the mass was or anything like that.

Wednesday was spent with me in limbo, trying to make appointments with a neurosurgeon. Jim sent the disc with my scan, which we couldn’t read, to a childhood friend of mine who is a neurologist in Milwaukee. Jim told him, “Jeannie has a mass in her brain, but she can’t get an appointment with a neurosurgeon until May. We can't just walk around with her having a mass in her brain and not know what's going on.”

The next morning my friend called me and said, “This is really serious!” He texted me one of the MRI images and it looked like an upside-down pear lodged between my brain and my brainstem. He said, “You need to get into an OR today!” Meanwhile, the neurosurgeons I called had not seen the scan and were like, “Just bring the scan with you to your appointment [next month].”

As a patient in the system, we have to advocate for ourselves. I was ready to wait around for someone to tell me what to do. My friend the doctor said, “You can't wait for somebody to tell you what to do. You have to do something!”

Teme: I have some health issues and I’ve been shocked to learn how much you have to be your own doctor to get to the right doctor.

Jeannie: I was in the same position. It’s advocating for yourself which can be very hard because we feel so dumb around doctors.

Teme: Very true!

Jeannie: I said to my friend, “What do I do? I have no control.” He told me, “Google! Find the top neurosurgery hospital in New York City and go to the ER with the scan. They're not going to be able to handle you in the ER, so they're going to admit you to neurosurgery.” He's a doctor, so I got inside information. But just the fact that I called him, that's where I took control of my own life.

My faith is very tied into this because every step of this lifesaving decision-making process over those two days was miraculous. Everything fell into place in a way that you wouldn't even believe.

Yesterday an interviewer asked me, “Did you tell them that you were Jim Gaffigan's wife? Is that how you got in?” No. They didn't know. It was the series of phone calls I made that opened up doors. It was miraculous because right before that, even making an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor took me three months before I found the right person who took our insurance. It’s hard to make doctor's appointments. One of the themes of the book is the importance of diligence, persistence and self-advocacy.

Comedy in a crisis

Teme: I was thinking that a health crisis, in a way, is a creative pursuit, although an involuntary creative pursuit. You have to reformulate your life in such unexpected ways. It's a lot like improv, although not any improv anyone would volunteer for. But still, would you say that your creative ability helped you navigate this experience?

Jeannie: Wow, that is a really good question. My ability to write comedy and to understand comedy helped me cope with the fear, the pain, the depression, and all those things. My creativity was a coping mechanism. But in terms of reconstructing my life and my priorities, I never really attributed it to my artistic ability. But maybe coming out of this thing with the book is a result of that. If you're not a writer, you would manifest your healing in a different way perhaps. But yes, I guess I processed the experience by producing something out of it.

Teme: How did you hold onto your sense of humor? Sometimes on days when I don’t feel well, even though it’s not helpful, I find myself feeling bitter and alienated.

Jeannie: I had those days. I’m not going to lie. I had those days where I was like this sucks beyond my wildest dreams, especially the not eating or drinking. That was so hard.

Honestly, [I was able to hold onto my sense of humor] because of the lens that I've developed over the past almost twenty years being with Jim. It's just the way that we process life. When things go wrong, when life gives you pears, you make pear-aid. It’s the way that we observe life. I talk about this in the book. One time, Jim and I were on a road trip and we totaled the car to avoid hitting a deer. And it was a rental car! It could have sent us into “everything is ruined, everything is terrible!” But Jim started doing this character. We were in the southwest and he made up this character and started talking about how he just wants to find the beef jerky. He completely transformed the experience.

Learning from somebody who has a great comic mind who can process bad things in a good way allows you to take yourself out of the moment and look at the end of the story and realize that you're going to look back and say, “Remember that time that we totaled the car?” You're going outside of the present. It’s freeing you out of yourself and your inward drama and looking at the universal, humorous aspect of it.

I think I also had a natural coping mechanism of thinking that somehow this [the medical experience] is going to be funny. It was a dark sense of humor. Like we were faced with signing documents saying “if Jeannie wakes up and she's brain dead, do you keep her alive on machines?”

Immediately, I said to Jim, “Ok, I’ll sign this. You can pull the plug if I'm brain dead, but if you get married to some skank, my ghost is going to haunt you and make your life miserable.”

I will tell you right now that there are five or six phone calls I could get, bad things that could happen, that I can't even imagine how I could process. I'm not immune to tragedy, but at the time and going through it, I just found the humor in some of the situations. It helped that I know a lot of really funny people. People in my family are funny and my peers are funny.

I have a very good friend who's a stand-up comedian. A lot of times when people see you in the hospital, they feel like they also have to act like they're sick. Like “Oh, how are you? It’s kind of a Debbie downer. But my stand-up friend came to the hospital and she was like, “You're not even bald. And I came all the way here.” Or “That gown looks great on you but I guess you can wear anything with your model figure.” She made me laugh and it really helped my blood pump and made me want to get up out of the bed and recover. A lot of things like that really helped me. So I think that keeping my sense of humor was a survival instinct.

Love and comedy

Teme: What strategies had you and Jim already developed as comedy and life partners that helped you stay strong as a team?

Jeannie: That’s something that really came into play when I got home. During the time that I was in the hospital, there was a big loss of the comedy partnership because Jim had to take over everything. He had to be daddy daycare and the house runner and it was overwhelming for him. So although he would always come in and fill me in on what was happening, he wasn't being funny and I thought, “Oh my God, I'm ruining the comedian.” Like I killed the funny man. I felt horrible about it. So although there were funny people visiting me around me, it was not Jim.

So there was a loss there. It was very difficult because when he would leave, I wouldn't want him to leave, but I also wanted him to leave. It was a real test of our relationship.

But the second that I got home, he became my number one entertainment. Every single thing that I would get bummed out about, like the feeding tube or that I couldn't get out of bed by myself or wash my hair…  He would create these characters. He was like my own private comedy concierge.  He would come over to the bed and pretend he was a horse and he’d say, “Your carriage, m’lady.” He would put me on his back and carry me safely into the bathroom and make this noise like he was a horse.

When he washed my hair over the bathtub, he did a character like he was from Steel Magnolias. He was this know-it-all southern lady who was a salon owner who had had five husbands. He was like, “Let me tell you this, honey. Men, they're going to do you wrong.” It was so funny.

With the feeding tube, he actually created a YouTube show on his channel called Feeding Frenzy. He would do the feedings as if it were a cooking show. Then he'd mix the formula like he was Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Sometimes he’d light a candle like it was a romantic dinner. We would never want anybody to see this very close and intimate form of the way that I had to survive. But Jim made it really funny. We coped with it in a way that we always have. We partnered up and did a comedy routine about it.

How to find gratitude during a crisis

Teme: When you and Jim gave the graduation speech at Marquette University last year, you spoke about the connection between gratitude and hope. I’d love to hear more about that.

Jeannie: Somewhere along the way of being busy in life, I lost touch with gratitude. I still said thank you with my mouth, but I didn’t recognize that I’d lost touch with it.

When I was in the hospital, my relationship with Jim was very challenged because I felt like I was a waste of time. I felt like I was killing him. I had to confront my inner demons and it was a very, very challenging time for me.

I couldn’t eat. I couldn't drink water, not one drop of water. I couldn't see my kids. I knew that there was a possibility that I would never be able to do any of these things again.

So once I got through that, every moment, every sip of water, every moment that I laughed with Jim, I am filled with a new sense of gratitude. It gives me hope and confidence in everything. My fear is that one day I'll forget about it. Right now, it's very easy for me to remember. I still have difficulty swallowing and talking. I'm still healing.

Every once in a while I'll be in a situation where I forget that I have difficulty swallowing. Like I'll be at a party and I'll take something that’s on a cracker off a tray and put it in my mouth and all of a sudden I'll realize, oh, I can't get this down. I need water. I still have to work on my recovery. It's going to be a while. It’s easy for me to be grateful at that moment, like “I can't believe I’m even at this party.” I can't be like, “Oh, what a bummer that I'm still affected by this brain tumor.”  I can't complain about these things because it's a miracle that I'm alive. I want to be able to always remember this connection with gratitude and I also want other people to be aware of it without having to have a brain tumor or something else that shakes the very foundation of their life.

Impact on the Gaffigans’ comedy

Teme: Has this experience impacted your comedy?

Jeannie: Oh yes, totally. The Noble Ape special was filmed in September (2017) after I had this near death experience in April. It has about twenty-five minutes about medical experience.

It's kind of like when Jim and I did not have kids, we had no material about kids. Even when we started to have babies and Jim would come home and I’d say “the funniest thing happened today,” he was very resistant.

He was like, “I don't know if I want to talk about babies because when I was a single comedian, I would hear comedians do bits about the kids and the wife, and I felt alienated. I want to be universal.” But then we started doing material about kids and all of a sudden our audience increased. The people who didn't have kids didn’t leave. It just got bigger.

So now all of a sudden, the medical things happened and completely opened up this new path. When you're on stage talking about filling out forms in a hospital and 80% of the room is laughing, you understand that it's a universal experience to have a medical crisis. That’s just life. There's always a handful of people who go through life and nothing ever goes wrong, but that is just a wild exception.

The experience also impacted my comedy because I feel much more free now. I'm not worried about people thinking I'm not funny or judging me. You do you and I'll do me. I don't feel the need to be liked, and that's incredibly freeing. It winds up being kind of attractive to people. If you meet someone that doesn't care if they're liked or not, you kind of want to be their friend. That's not my intention, but I’ve noticed it. My whole life I was trying to please people and say yes to everything. That's an ego-centric way to live. Even though it may look like you're taking care of everyone else, it's feeding your own ego.

Another way this experience impacted the comedy is that the comedy got a little deeper, a little darker, a little more edgy. We're going a little bit less on the hot pockets and more on meaningful things.

[People] run away and hide from pain, but you can't. It's better to be fearless and face these things because it's not like it's going to get easier. By running away, you're just making it harder later. You're taking a payday loan. Eventually you're going to have to deal with reality. It's not a glum world view. I think we’re actually happier in life when we’re ready to face the challenges.

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Jeannie Gaffigan will be at the Columbia Yacht Club, 111 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, on Tuesday, September 24 at 7:00 p.m. to talk about When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People. Proceeds of the evening benefit Lurie Children's Pediatric Brain Tumor Program.Ticket price includes a copy of the book! Ticket details here. The book’s official release date is October 1.

For more about Jeannie, visit www.jeanniegaffigan.com

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