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Jeannie Gaffigan on family and finding her way

By Joey Grihalva

I’ll never forget the time I saw comedian Hannibal Buress open for Louis C.K. at Caroline’s in New York City. Or Ron Funches open for Reggie Watts at Helium in Portland. Or South Milwaukee’s own Jackie Kashian open for Maria Bamford at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.

In each instance it was my introduction to the opener and I instantly became a fan. Comedy (and music) careers can be launched from a great opening set for an established headliner.

That is decidedly not the intention when comedian Jim Gaffigan brings out his five adorable children to entertain audiences before he performs. While the Gaffigans aren’t a “show family,” the children have grown up around show business. This is because Jim works closely with his wife Jeannie and the family regularly travels together.

The first time I saw Jim Gaffigan at the Pabst Theater I was surprised to see his kids come out to Irish dance and introduce their dad. But then I remembered that his wife Jeannie is a Milwaukee-native and his annual run of Pabst shows allows them to spend the holidays with her family.  

In fact, Jeannie is the eldest of Dominic and Louise Noth’s nine children. I attended Rufus King High School with two of the Noths’ daughters and recall Jeannie’s headshot outside the theater director’s office. She was an accomplished actress, director, producer, and non-profit leader before meeting her husband, but the careers of husband and wife would reach new heights once they teamed up.

I spoke with Jeannie over the phone from her office in New York City a few days before Thanksgiving.

A LIFE IN THE ARTS

Jeannie Gaffigan — a devout Catholic — was raised on the East Side of Milwaukee near the UWM campus. Her father was the theatre and film critic for the Milwaukee Journal and continues to write for Urban Milwaukee. Jeannie and her siblings were exposed to the arts early in life.

“It was pretty chaotic in our house. I kind of got put into the role of director-producer pretty early just by default,” recalls Jeannie.

“When we had block parties I would say, ‘Okay, let’s do a number from Grease,’ and rope everybody into doing it. I was a little bit of a bossy big sister,” admits Jeannie.

As a high schooler, Jeannie took to acting but didn’t believe it to be a realistic pursuit after graduation. She was majoring in communications at UW-Madison until a summer job working with young actors pulled her back to the theater. She qualified for a merit scholarship to Marquette University, where she transferred and became a theatre major.

In the 1990s, Jeannie became immersed in the Milwaukee theater scene. When she wasn’t rehearsing and performing she enjoyed seeing live music particularly at Shank Hall and hanging out at Fuel Cafe and Lixx Frozen Custard.

But, while interning with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, she realized that if she wanted to catch a break in Milwaukee, she might need to expand her horizons outside the city.

“It felt like there was a niche group of actors that were always getting work and they weren’t from the rank-and-file interns, they were coming in from New York and Chicago. It  became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee,” Jeannie says of her decision to abandon the directing master’s program and move to New York City.


NEW YORK AND A NEW MATE

Upon moving to NYC Jeannie discovered that her theatre job provided just enough money to pay the rent. Like many aspiring artists in the big city, she hustled work to survive. Jeannie became involved in the catering industry, booking shifts around her theatre schedule. It wasn’t long before she joined a sketch troupe, took improv classes, and became part of NYC’s grassroots theatre community.

She also supplemented her income with freelance artist-in-residence teaching gigs in public schools where arts funding was being cut. This experience inspired her to start a nonprofit, after-school theatre organization called Shakespeare on the Playground.

Around this time Jeannie met Jim Gaffigan they were living on the same block in Manhattan. A neighborly relationship turned into a working friendship as Jeannie recruited Jim to volunteer with Shakespeare on the Playground. In return, Jeannie became Jim’s acting coach for his first sitcom, CBS’ short-lived Welcome to New York. This led to producing a stand-up comedy CD for Jim.

“He was one of the smartest and funniest people I’d ever met,” Jeannie says. “I liked that we had the same work ethic. Also, he’s from a family of six kids, so there was a language that we understood right away. And he grew up on Lake Michigan, but he was on the Indiana side outside of Chicago.”

Over the years Jeannie and Jim’s relationship evolved. They became a bona fide comedy team. She has helped refine and hone his comedic voice, while producing his tours and specials. As a result, Jim has become one of the most beloved comics in the country, particularly among those doing clean material.

CHILDREN AND A NEW SCHEDULE

Shortly after they were married, Jeannie became pregnant with their first child.

“It was a whirlwind. We didn’t really have time to plan a family. We just started having kids and moving our life around them,” says Jeannie.  

The couple successfully brought their first baby on the road. But when Jeannie had two kids in diapers and Jim started doing theaters, Jeannie decided to stay home, which put a strain on their relationship. Around baby number three the Gaffigans restructured.

Longer tours are now scheduled around the kids time off. The family travels in a large tour bus, which provides arguably more privacy than the kids had in the two-bedroom apartment they lived in up until last year.

“People have asked me, ‘Aren’t your older ones at the point where they want to stay home with friends and not go out on the road?’ But I haven’t experienced that yet,” says Jeannie.

“Of course, they fight and argue like all kids, but they really enjoy being together as a group. They’ve developed this camaraderie and I think it’s a testament to how great the whole experience has been for my family.”

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Since Jim is the youngest of his family, by the time he married, all his siblings had their own families and each did their own Christmas. Jeannie’s family still came home to Milwaukee, so that became their holiday tradition.

“Jim was quickly adopted into the family as the 10th kid. He and my dad really get along,” says Jeannie. “They have very similar minds, they like to debate about stuff. And my mom of course loves Jim.”

“The holidays are a time when people have off and want to go see shows. So we used to have to get out of town pretty quickly or at least Jim did to do a show between Christmas and New Year’s. At one point Jim got the bright idea to see if he could do a show in Milwaukee,” says Jeannie about the Pabst Theater tradition they started 10 years ago.

“Once Jim did a show at the Pabst he was like, ‘This place is phenomenal!’ Having played theaters all over the country, the Pabst is definitely the cream of the crop. The employees, the audiences, the venue, it’s all just a terrific experience.”

This year the Gaffigans have merged two of their traditions. An additional show was added to the Pabst run, with 100 percent of the ticket sales going to the Riverwest Food Pantry, where Jeannie’s brother Vincent is the executive director. The family volunteers at the Pantry when they’re in town and saw this as an opportunity to give back even more to the community.

LABOR OF LOVE — EMPHASIS ON ‘LABOR’

The Gaffigans have achieved much success with their stand-up tours, specials, and two best-selling books (Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story), but besides Welcome to New York, the coveted sitcom deal has eluded them until last year.

The TV Land debut of The Jim Gaffigan Show was a decade in the making. Originally optioned by NBC and piloted twice by CBS, both networks passed a blessing in disguise.

The deal the Gaffigans landed with the small cable network gave them full creative control. Like Louie (FX) and Maron (IFC), The Jim Gaffigan Show is a single camera program centered around the titular comic’s real life. It’s a smart, funny show with an excellent supporting cast and tons of heart.

“A lot of times what happens is that a great comedian will get a TV deal and you’ll watch the show and say, ‘Well, this isn’t funny,’ or ‘This isn’t the point-of-view that I know and am a fan of.’ Because it’s been given over to a committee. Other people are deciding what’s funny and not funny, what’s marketable and not marketable,” explains Jeannie.

The Jim Gaffigan Show explores aspects of the Gaffigans comedic perspective that are limited by the stand-up format and highlights Jeannie’s contribution and talents as a writer and producer.

She originally considered playing the “Jeannie” role herself, but realized it would elongate the production, considering she was already a head writer and executive producer. As it turned out, the time and energy required far exceeded their expectations — and that led to their decision to call it quits after the second season.

“The irony is that one of the reasons we wanted to do a show in New York was so we could spend more time with our family, so we wouldn’t be traveling as much. But what happens when you’re writing, producing and later directing a show is that it becomes an all-encompassing life. We were doing 80 hours a week for six months of the year,” exclaims Jeannie.

“If you’re writing a show about being a comedian with five kids in New York City, you have to actually experience being a parent of five kids in New York City, or you’re not going to be true to yourself. At some point I was spending more time with the TV kids. Our family comes first. We’re responsible with raising good human beings to go into this insane world.”

BEYOND ‘HOT POCKETS’

The TV Land show marks a turning point in the Gaffigans’ careers. They are now looking to develop limited-run, episodic projects and are tinkering with the idea of producing other people’s scripts.

Meanwhile, their fifth stand-up special will be released in early 2017 and the couple are currently writing their sixth.

Jim is also being offered more complex roles in TV and film. He is in an upcoming film, The Bleeder, alongside Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Liev Schreiber, and Elizabeth Moss, and has joined the cast of the cable TV show Fargo.

“It’s going to expand the perception of Jim beyond the ‘Hot Pockets guy.’ I think our show is really funny and we talked about Jim’s obsession with food and that’s great, but there’s so much more to him,” says Jeannie.

She is happy with her own career path and rejects criticism that she’s taken a backseat to her husband.

“I have the best of both worlds. I could leave certain things about raising my kids up to somebody else, but that wouldn’t sit right with me. I have this great family, I have five kids, and I’m still able to have success on my own.”

“As I’ve supported Jim so much over the years he’s also supported me. And he completely trusts me to be his third eye. That’s an amazing position to be in because he knows that I don’t have a hidden agenda. I’m in it for life. It’s a pretty great deal for both of us.”

ON STAGE, ON SCREEN Jim Gaffigan will perform four shows at the Pabst Theater December 29 – 31. The Jim Gaffigan Show Season 1 is available on DVD and Season 2 is currently streaming on Hulu.com.

[FULL-INTERVIEW]

WiG
Did you go to Rufus King?

JEANNIE
Yes.

WiG
Okay, right. Because I went to Rufus King and I remember being in the theater director Mr. Mackinson’s office and seeing a prominently placed headshot of one of the Noth sisters.

JEANNIE
That was definitely me.

WiG
Mackinson spoke fondly of you. So you were doing theater back then and I read that you were exposed to theater early on it life…

JEANNIE
Yeah my father Dominic Noth was the theater and film critic for the Milwaukee Journal for like 30 years. I saw a lot of theater and film and we went out to a lot of theater festivals growing up.

WiG
And you have 8 brothers and sisters?

JEANNIE
That’s right.

WiG
And where do you fall in that order?

JEANNIE
I’m the first.

WiG
And what was that like, being the oldest child?

JEANNIE
It was pretty chaotic in our house. I kind of got put into the role of director producer pretty early just by default. I was always really organized and when we had block parties I would say, “Okay, we’re going to do a number from Grease,” and I’d rope everybody into doing stuff. I was a little bit of a bossy big sister.

WiG
What part of town did you grow up on?

JEANNIE
We grew up right around UWM on the east side.

WiG
It sounds like you were doing theater pretty young. When did you have a sense that that’s what you wanted to pursue after high school? What precipitated that?

JEANNIE
I went to UW-Madison and for the first couple years of school you just get your requirement credits going. I didn’t actually pursue theater there at all. I mean I saw theater in Madison and I enjoyed it. But then I was thinking, “Obviously you can’t make a living doing that.” I thought I had to go into something like, you know, my father is a journalist so I  started working on journalism and communications.

In the summer when I was back in Milwaukee I got involved with a theater company working with kids for my summer job. There was a program called the Schneider Arts Academy, which was a privately and publicly funded summer theater program for kids from different Milwaukee public high schools that would have to audition. That was run by Ray Jivoff, who is now with the Skylight Theater. I knew a board member from when I was in grade school at Lloyd Street School and she kind of singled me out and said, “Why don’t you take a job with this company?”  

I started off as a choreographer and assistant director. I found so much joy in doing that. It was something that really made me feel alive. And it started to be apparent that I wanted to pursue more of directing and acting. What happened was that because my father was an employee at the Milwaukee Journal and I got pretty high grades at UW-Madison I qualified for a merit scholarship for the kids of Journal employees. So I got a scholarship to Marquette University, which is a smaller university but had the great theater department. I transferred there and became a theater major.

Everybody who graduated from Marquette at least at the time would then take a minor in philosophy or theology. I hadn’t taken any theology at UW-Madison, so the summer before I transferred I wound up studying at UWM, which was walking distance from my home.  So I really started getting into the Milwaukee scene a bit as a young adult. I discovered that there was  a lot of great theater going on.  

While I was at Marquette I went to do Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival with Milwaukee Chamber Theater. Then right after I got my BFA I continued at Marquette to get my master’s in directing. Then I got an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

When I was working at the Rep it became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee to get into theater in Milwaukee. It felt like there was kind of a niche group of actors that were always getting work and they weren’t coming from the rank-and-file interns, they were coming in from New York and Chicago. It became pretty apparent to me that I needed to find my way beyond Milwaukee in order to gain experience rather than just be in school. So that’s when I went to New York with really it in mind to pursue this and that’s how I wound up being in entertainment.

WiG
What time period was it when you moved back to Milwaukee as a young adult?

JEANNIE
That was in the mid 90s.

WiG
What did you get up to in Milwaukee? What memories of the city do you have?

JEANNIE
Oh my God, I was working so much. I guess I would go to Shank Hall. I love live music. Milwaukee is great for live music. A lot of times at night I was doing theater,  so I wasn’t socializing that much. But I love live music and I would go to different venues around Milwaukee. I remember Fuel Cafe from back in the day. I liked Lixx Frozen Custard, it was on Downer.

WiG
Can you recall any of the shows you did during high school at King?

JEANNIE
I did a play called “Nuts.” I did “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” I did a lot of one act plays. Mr. Mackinson was fan of one act plays. They weren’t doing mainstage productions at that point. I went to Lloyd Street School for elementary and I remember big kids in my neighborhood being students at King and going to see them in big musicals in the King auditorium. But by the time I got there it was all in the Little Theater, so there were a lot of one acts. I wound up coming back to King in the late 90s to direct “A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Little Theater and that was amazing.

WiG
Awesome. Did you find that when you were doing theater early on that you enjoyed performing more, or being behind-the-scenes?

JEANNIE
I guess when I was in high school it was performing, but then later when I worked at the Schneider Arts Academy I loved being a part of every aspect of the performance; the staging, the costumes, the acting. I felt like as a director you got a chance to play all those roles. I love acting but I think that my niche is directing and producing.

WiG
For a lot of people when they get to New York, especially people from the Midwest, it’s kind of sink-or-swim, in that the city is trying to kick your ass and you got to kick back or get out. How did you find New York when you first moved there?

JEANNIE
I found that I made about exactly the amount of money that I needed for rent, so that was a big eye opener. I was one of those people who vowed not to carry any debt besides my student loans. But the first time I wanted to go home for Christmas I had to put it on a credit card. It was really hard and really expensive to live in New York.  

I found a way to do it by being involved in the catering industry. You could design your schedule around shows you were in. It was the kind of job where you were your own booker. I found a way to survive doing that. Later I got involved with a theater company that consisted of a bunch of graduates from Carnegie Melon. That was also a Milwaukee connection because there was a guy who was an actor who graduated from Carnegie Melon with my brother Vincent. We’d meet in the basement of a church on Monday nights and it became this pretty exceptional theater company. We’d create all these original plays and staged them and performed them and that was really great to get to know the theater scene and the grassroots movement of theater in New York CIty.

Then I wound up taking freelance artist-in-residence teaching jobs at various schools because at that time a lot of the funding was being cut from public schools in NYC for arts programs. So non-profit companies came up with the idea to create a fund for visiting artists, whether they were visual artists or performing artists or musicians, people would do residencies at schools. I got involved with that teaching improv and reading scenes with public school kids. Through that I decided to start a not-for-profit company in the late 90s called “Shakespeare on the Playground.” I would stage plays with middle school kids and I enjoyed some success doing that.

WiG
It seems like you were pretty successful being involved in the more “serious” theater community in New York. When did you start frequenting the comedy scene, the improv troupes?

JEANNIE
Well, I was always involved in improv. That is one of the things that I feel is a really important tool for actors to have. It creates a relationship between the group that’s performing. It’s an exercise in talking and listening. The challenge of acting is being in the moment and responding, truly talking and listening to each other. So improv is a part of every actor’s exercise program. They have to workout that part of their brain. So I was always in improv groups when I was doing theater.

Improv groups tend to be comic based. I got involved with a lot of people in improv groups in New York and eventually got into a group that started writing original sketches. That was called “King Baby.” We started writing and performing comedy sketches in different venues around New York. That’s how I got involved in the comedy scene. But it was just one of the many things that I was doing.

At the exact same time I met Jim, who was a neighbor of mine. I didn’t really know what he was doing but I knew that he lived on my block so we crossed paths a lot.  I think we crossed paths at a comedy club and then eventually we went out to lunch and got to know each other. He did some volunteer work for my organization,  Shakespeare on the Playground. Then shortly after that I started working with him because he got his first sitcom. I was helping him with his acting, sort of breaking down the scenes. kind of a “You work with me, I’ll work with you” thing.

We found that we worked really well together. I was already aware of the fact that he was a comedian. At that time comedians started to produce their own CDs. So Jim said, “Do you think you can produce a CD for me?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to do that, that’s my thing.” So I produced Jim’s first CD. It was a pretty successful endeavor, so I produced the next one. We moved on to DVDs and started writing together, then we got married and here we are.

WiG
What did you like about Jim when you first got to know him?

JEANNIE
He was just one of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever met. Also the fact that once we started working together he had the same work ethic that I did and it is very difficult to find that kind of…it’s difficult to be in a relationship with someone when they don’t have that same thing. Like, “Why do you care so much about your job?” So Jim was the same type as me in that way.

Also, he’s from a family of six kids, so there was a language that we understood right away.  And he grew up on Lake Michigan, but he was on the Indiana side outside of Chicago. So we grew up kind of in the same region. We liked the familiarity of each other and we liked the way that we worked together.

WiG
It seems like family is really important to you, as you come from really large family and it seems like you’re fairly tight knit. The evolution to start a family with Jim, did that happened pretty quickly? Were you both on board right away? Was there any sort of sense of maybe we should wait and keep working on our careers?

JEANNIE
Not really. At that point we had been together and working together for about two years before we got engaged and it was a whirlwind. Right after we got married I got pregnant with my first child so we didn’t really have time to plan a family. We didn’t really think about it. We just started having kids and moving our life around them. It wasn’t something that we thought out or planned, we were just open to it  and now we have this amazing big family.

WiG
So the Pabst series of shows,  how did that first start?

JEANNIE
Jim is the youngest in his family, so when we started dating all of his siblings had their own families. Aside from reunions, where the whole family got together, they all did their own Christmases. But my family still all came home to Mom and Dad for Christmas. So it became a tradition for us to go to Milwaukee for Christmas, which is usually the worst weather possible, but family calls. So Jim really got into that. He was quickly adopted into my family as the 10th kid. He and my dad really get along. They both love to talk about everything, they have very similar minds, they like to debate about stuff. And my mom of course loves Jim.  

The holidays are a time when people have off and want to go see shows. So we used to have to get out of town pretty quickly — or at least Jim did — to do a show between Christmas and New Year’s. At one point Jim got the bright idea to see if he could do a show in Milwaukee so we didn’t have to come in and then go out. That’s how the Pabst started all those years ago. Once Jim did a show at the Pabst he was like, ‘This place is phenomenal!” Everything about the Pabst and the people who run the Pabst is A+. Having played theaters all over the country, the Pabst is definitely the cream of the crop. The employees, the audiences, the venue, it’s all just a terrific experience and has become a part of our tradition.

WiG
Speaking of going out and doing stand-up, I read that you plan his stand-up gigs around the kids time off so you can bring the whole family with. Is that still true?

JEANNIE
Yes, we didn’t really have it together early in our marriage because when I had one baby we just took the baby on tour with us. Then when I had two babies that were still in diapers it became difficult to drag them all over the place. That was corresponding with starting to do theater work. That kind of tore us apart in a lot of ways. We couldn’t really connect because he was on the road and I was still writing and producing with him, but the phone was bad and with the babies and the schedule it was really difficult. Around baby number three we were like, “Let’s restructure this whole thing, so that we can maintain our healthy family environment.”

What we’ve done is the longer tours are scheduled around the kids school vacations. So if Jim does a oner, which is what we call doing one night in the city and then flying out, we won’t travel with him. But if it’s a longer stay we’ll book all those things around the kids time off. That way we can go on tour and give the kids the experience of being with us while we’re working.

WiG
And you get a tour bus sometimes?

JEANNIE
Yes, we tour on a huge Greyhound-sized rock and roll bus with bunk beds. Of course we stop in hotels too and things like that, but we go from city to city with our kids around the country on a big tour bus.

WiG
I was at a Pabst show a few years ago and instead of having a comic open the kids came out and were Irish dancing and being super adorable. It’s very sweet that you do that and expose them to the industry in that way. It makes you think of like the family bands of the 60s and 70s.

JEANNIE
Yeah we get a lot of jokes about that.

WiG
And you got some shows coming up in London. Are you going to bring the family out to England?

JEANNIE
Yep we’re all going to London and we’ve done that before. We’ve traveled internationally with our kids and it’s surprisingly easy. My kids are so travel savvy that it’s kind of scary. I think this year was the first year in the last couple of years that they did not just start taking off their shoes when we get to security. And I’m like, “You don’t have to take off your shoes anymore!” They recently made a rule that if you’re under 12 you don’t take your shoes off anymore. But my kids are so used to growing up in airports that they just instinctively take off their shoes.

WiG
Is your oldest babysitting age yet?

JEANNIE
She could but I wouldn’t leave them alone with her because if something happened God forbid I’d probably be jailed. But she is amazing. One of the testaments to how great the whole experience has been for my family with all the traveling is that we’ve become so close. People have asked me, “Aren’t your older ones at the point where they want to stay home with friends and not go out on the road?” But I haven’t experienced that yet.

Of course they fight and argue like all kids, but they really enjoy being together as a group.  They’ve really bonded in a way between having them come with us on tour,  sometimes they’ll do a fun opening for Jim where they sing a song or dance and introduce him. And they’re not show kids at all, they just do it for dad and for the family. They’ve developed this camaraderie and I think it’s a testament to how great the whole experience has been for my family.  It’s something that happens in an entertainment situation like when you talk about people who are doing movies or TV shows or a play together, there’s just this bonding that happens amongst the group.

WiG
And I’m going to guess that living in your two-bedroom apartment for so long probably brought them closer together.

JEANNIE
Oh yeah, I totally think so.

WiG
Let’s talk about The Jim Gaffigan Show now. I know it was a long journey, as TV shows can be, with different development deals and what not. The fact that you were able to get it where you had full creative control, that seems so rare and lucky in today’s media landscape.

JEANNIE
Yeah that was pretty incredible. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because that’s just the way it has to be. I just feel like we’ve been through so much. You can’t write a show about your life and then give it over to somebody. It’s your life. I think you can be a part of somebody else’s vision and make a great contribution to it. But I think a lot of times what happens is that a great comedian will get a TV deal and you’ll watch the show and say, “Well, this isn’t funny,” or “This isn’t the point-of-view that I know and am a fan of.” Because it’s been given over to a committee. Other people are deciding what’s funny and not funny, what’s marketable and not marketable.

And that’s just the way it is in the traditional paradigm of sitcoms. So us being able to kind of take what we had, which was a  sitcom that was designed for network television and then once we did get creative control we still had the same model but then we could sort of incorporate more of what our audiences over the years have gotten to know and love about Jim’s comedy, we then applied that to the TV show without having people giving notes on it and stuff.

WiG
What were some of your major influences for the show? What are some of the shows that you and Jim really love?

JEANNIE
I can’t speak for Jim, but I grew up watching Seinfeld. So I really liked the different storylines, and the crazy characters, which all revolves around the voice and the point-of-view of the main character. And also how we would go to a silly level after establishing a grounded reality. And that’s kind of what we do in our comedy. So that was one of the influences.

Even some dramas have influenced us. We love dramas, we love our Netflix shows,  the dramas that we follow. Especially in Season Two, and to a certain extent in Season One, there’s a lot of flashback and fantasy sequences, which doesn’t limit us to just the apartment and the way the characters behave in the formula that was created for the show. It gave us a lot of things to go on. That’s another thing that’s great about stand-up comedy, you can have a grounded idea and then you can put it in outer space if you want. It’s about taking it to the next level, and I think once you ground something in reality then the audience will come along with you and enjoy the humor of “What if” this or that happened.

WiG
Yeah that makes me think of different episodes from the show. I’ve been binge watching the first season and I really love it, it’s fantastic.

JEANNIE
Thank you so much. We had a great time doing it, it was really a labor of love.

WiG
For sure. But like you said it was a labor, and it was very labor-intensive. I read that you were working so many hours that you were forming what felt like a family with your production team, but that it was taking away time from your actual family.

JEANNIE
The irony is that one of the reasons we wanted to do a show in New York was so we could spend more time with our family, so we wouldn’t be traveling as much. But what happens when you’re writing, producing and later directing a show is that it becomes an all-encompassing life. We were doing 80 hours a week for six months of the year.

At a certain point it becomes clear that if you’re writing a show about being a comedian with five kids in New York City, you have to actually experience being a parent of five kids in New York City, or you’re not going to be true to yourself. It wasn’t so much a matter of that the kids are going to be traumatized forever because Mom and Dad were both gone 80 hours a week for six months out of the year. It was more about looking ahead at what will happen as the show gets more successful and it won’t be possible to stop it.

If it had gone to the point where I think it was headed, being an established successful show, then you can’t just be like, “We’re not going to do this anymore.” You’re stuck, you’re not getting out. And so I think we have to be serious about what is that going to do to our kids? Because when we went for the live-action TV idea we had four kids and they played the kids on the show in the first pilot. Then they got too old to be the kids on the show.

In the first pilot my youngest at the time Michael was playing the two-year-old in the show and then the next year my son Patrick was playing the two-year-old in the show and the other kids were too old to be in the show. So I ended up spending more time with the TV kids really. At a certain point it’s like, one parent can do that, but if you have five kids you have to take responsibility for your life. I think that every once in awhile, if you look back over Jim and my trajectory of our careers, every few years we regroup and we do something else. We don’t want to get caught in something we can’t get out of, because it won’t be healthy for us as a family. The family comes first.

Now we can plan our next project like we do with the tours. We can plan it around serving our kids first, because we’re responsible with raising good human beings to go into this insane world, and that is our primary responsibility.

WiG
I think one of the things that the show has accomplished is that it’s really sort of brought you and your contribution, your partnership with Jim, more into the public eye. I’m a big comedy fan so I know from listening to old episodes of Comedy Bang Bang and WTF with Marc Maron that you and Jim are a strong comedy team, but I don’t think that was apparent in the public. What I think the show has accomplished is that it has brought that out. I know that sometimes people criticize you, saying things like “She put her career in the back seat for Jim’s,” but to me it’s really important and inspiring that you’re such a comedy team.

JEANNIE
Yeah, I got asked questions several times about how is it that this person who’s like me, a show runner and a director and a writer and a female, how am I not doing either my own project or making the character of Jeannie Gaffigan in the show be more of a superstar. I really think that I have the best of both worlds, because I get to do what I love and keep my family together.  

I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to keep a family together in the entertainment world when both of the parents are crazy workers like Jim and I, is that you just start doing your own stuff and you’re not serving the main goal, which is your family. In that sense Jim is a powerhouse, and I’m not saying that I’m not, but I’m the one who has the babies. That’s just my gender. I have children. I could leave certain things about raising my kids up to somebody else, but that wouldn’t sit right with me.

So I’m able to have the best of both worlds. Here I have this great family, I have five kids, I’m still able to work, I’m still able to have success on my own and be recognized as talented, and I don’t feel like I’m pushing the women’s movement back a million years, because I’ve found ways to game the system, if you will. I can have it all. And I think that if your ego gets caught up in it that’s when you know you have to make decisions and sacrifices in this world to get what you want. If you think you can control your life and say, “You know Jim, I’m actually going to go to Vancouver and direct a series and now you’re in charge of the kids,” that’s not the best decision for our family right now.

As I’ve supported Jim so much over the years he’s also supported me. And he completely trusts me to be his third eye. That’s an amazing position to be in because he knows that I don’t have a hidden agenda. I’m not trying to ride his coattails or to use him as a résumé builder, I’m in it for life. It’s a pretty good deal for both of us.

WiG
As someone who is sort of a recent parent in that I’ve been living with my girlfriend and her two kids for the last year, this show has kind of made me more confident with being a parent and has made parenting cool in a way.

JEANNIE
Well that’s amazing, that’s a huge compliment. And I think because we don’t want to alienate single people or people without kids or people who don’t want kids, we try to mix it up a little bit with the points of view on the show. But at the same time, you write what you know. You can’t think that your life is over when you become a parent, because it’s definitely not.

WiG
Yeah I mean I love the transition and all the new challenges. Just a couple last questions, in terms of where your careers are now, I saw that Jim is joining the cast of Fargo, which is a pretty heavy show. Would you like to see him go into more dramedy, leading man type stuff? Sort of like what Patton Oswalt has done with some of his films.

JEANNIE
Oh I definitely think that’s already started. When I met Jim I didn’t know anything about comedy, I didn’t follow stand-up comedians. And when I met him I knew he was a comedian but that’s not what we start working on. We started working on acting. Because I was coming from an environment of trained actors, Jim was an untrained actor and there was something so genuine and natural about his acting that was just inspiring to me about the level of talent that he had as an actor.  

That’s been true over the past two years and especially now that Jim just did a dramatic role in a Liev Schreiber film called The Bleeder, which is going to be coming out next year. Fargo was actually one of our shows. It’s a very dark comedy drama kind of thing and I really got into Noah Hawley. He’s another renaissance man who writes, directs, produces and does it all, so I automatically want to read what he has to say. One of the things that really inspired me about him as a showrunner is that he welcomes network notes.

And that’s sort of the way that I feel about it. If you put all your heart and soul into something and someone has notes on it, you should be able to defend all of your ideas. There might be something in there from an audience’s perspective that might not be clear. So I really liked hearing that when I read the article and saw the interview with Hawley. So we really got into Fargo and when the Fargo opportunity came along I was like, ‘This is incredible, this is the type of show that is an important move to make. It’s going to expand the acting horizons and it’s going to expand the perception of Jim beyond ‘The Hot Pockets guy.’” Even though I think our show is really funny and we talked about Jim’s obsession with food and I think that’s really great, but there’s so much more to him. There’s so much more that I know about him that I want to share with the world.

WiG
So kind of coming full circle to where you guys started. Last question, what are some of your creative goals?

JEANNIE
Well, we definitely are really excited that our 5th hour special is coming out in 2017.  We’re also starting our 6th hour of comedy. We started writing it because we just filmed and wrapped our 5th comedy special. And I directed and produced that as well. Jim and I had a lot of fun with framing it in a way that is unlikely. We’ve done four comedy specials where we had a fun opening sequence with the marquee outside of the theater and backstage, but this time we got a lot more theatrical and a little more dark with the opening. Just kind of having that ability to be like, “We’re going to do this and not have anyone go, ‘Oh my God, that’s just too weird.’”

It’s just like, “Okay, you can go ahead and do that.” So creatively we want to continue to produce our own stuff. We might want to look at producing scripts that we respond to that are other people scripts. But I think that our next goal besides writing our 6th hour of comedy is probably to develop something that we could do over like a six to eight episode arc. Something with maybe a streaming service, so it’s breaking the model of traditional commercial television.

WiG
Awesome. It sounds like you got a lot going on and you’ve been doing fantastic work and I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me today.

JEANNIE
Thank you so much for the interview. I also wanted to mention that we added another show in Milwaukee to benefit the Riverwest Food Pantry.

WiG
Yeah I saw that, how did that come about?

JEANNIE
My brother is the executive director of the Riverwest Food Pantry, which has become a tradition for us to volunteer at when we visit Milwaukee. And as the whole world knows Milwaukee is constantly in the news in a negative manner because of the intense segregation and the alienation that people feel from each other. Particularly in this political climate it’s important for us to try to make a bridge between cultures. When we come to Milwaukee, like I said, family is the tradition. So we get together with our family and one of the things that we did starting several years back was bring our kids to volunteer at the food pantry, stock the shelves, take people shopping and give people a little bit of assistance.

Since Vincent became the executive director, one of the things that he’s trying to do is that rather than giving people fish, he’s trying to give them fishing poles. He’s started a lot of workshops between job fairs, healthy cooking seminars, stuff like that. It’s just a blossoming thing that’s happening in Riverwest, which is sort of like a bridge between the communities. And so a couple years back my brother was backstage at the Pabst after a show and he’s a huge supporter of us and we’re a huge supporter of him, and Matt Beringer and Gary Witt who are the geniuses behind the Pabst Theater and the revitalization of downtown, they got to talking with Vincent and they started to do some work together to better Milwaukee.  

This idea started germinating a couple of years ago about doing something really special for the 10th Anniversary. It just seemed appropriate to do something to help enrich the culture in Milwaukee and to help bridge the gap between communities that traditionally are separate. It’s a starting point to go along with the refinement of downtown, where they’re developing the river and there’s some really incredible things happening in Milwaukee and we just want to be a part of it and in our own way give back to the community for all they’ve given us.

WiG
That’s great. We appreciate it for sure.

JEANNIE
It’s an important thing that needs to happen and you’re starting to see the results about people caring for their community.

WiG
Definitely. Have a great week and enjoy the holidays.

JEANNIE
You too, Happy Thanksgiving.

WiG
Take care.

A seasoned film critic eyes TV’s biography

At 75, David Thomson is the sultan of cinema criticism. British-born but long based in America, he is the author of nearly two dozen film-related books including “Moments that Made the Movies,” “’Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films” and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

Now Thomson has switched his gaze, and his analysis, to the TV medium.

In “Television: A Biography” (Thames & Hudson, $34.95), David Thomson focuses on TV from its individual genres to its broad social impact during the past 70 years. As ever, his writing is bright, puckish and reader-friendly.

At 400 pages, the book is a bit weighty, but not the prose.

But what made Thomson, who had never before put his take on TV between covers, decide to change channels? During a recent interview, he explained.

“I was at a point where I felt that the movies were not really going anywhere very exciting, and that if you were looking for the best American movies, you probably needed to look at television. ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ — they were so much more ambitious than anything made for theaters.

So I began to develop an historical perspective on TV that I had had on the movies for a long time. I’m much more interested now in thinking about and writing about TV than the movies.”

A VIEWER’S BOOK

“You may have watched a lot of TV but never thought systematically about it. I wanted to do a book which would give you a sense that the totality of the medium had been addressed. Not covered, but addressed. And if you have never watched television, after you read this book I think you can say, ‘I understand what television is.””

A DIFFERENT CREATURE

“Our relationship with TV is different than with almost any medium we’ve had before. It’s all well and good for something on TV to be so riveting that you don’t want to miss a moment. But when you tune in to watch one show, you may end up just watching TV overall. There’s such a lot on television that is sort of tidal — it just washes in and out, over you. You turn it on like you would turn on a light, and you may be doing other things. But even if you’re not watching, it enters into you in ambient ways.”

SHORT LIST

Thomson, film’s consummate list-maker, shared “off the top of my head” a few pick TV hits:

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” … the BBC version of “The Singing Detective” … live coverage of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy … “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” … “a couple of episodes of ‘All in the Family’ where Edith is just sublime” … the ESPN documentary series “O.J.: Made in America,” which he calls “a major work” … and, of course, “Breaking Bad.”

“But this time tomorrow,” he cautions, “I would revise the whole list.”

TV PRESIDENT

“With Donald Trump in the White House, I think we’re going to get more of the same as with the campaign: His administration will have to be judged as an ongoing TV show. He is a television person, so I think it’s going to be a presidency of shows and moments. My instinct is, in terms of policy, he’s doing to be dreadfully disappointing to his supporters. But on TV, I think it’s going to be amazing _ until it becomes grotesque.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“We watch stories and stars, but it’s more and more evident that, as TV viewers, we go where the technology takes us. My sense of television is that technology has always driven the whole thing, and I think that will continue. I think more sophisticated, interesting fusions of what we still call television with the computer are going to occur. That will be more important than any sort of new genre or new narrative form in entertainment. And I see the end of the movie house. But it’s inevitable that a cellphone will be built into our hands. So maybe a screen could be implanted in our heads. I think that will happen!”

 

Donald Trump remains producer on ‘New Celebrity Apprentice’

Donald Trump is gone from the boardroom of NBC’s reboot of “Celebrity Apprentice” but he’s kept a business connection to the reality show.

President-elect Trump has an executive producer credit on “The New Celebrity Apprentice,” said Clare Anne Darragh, a spokesman for “Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett. She declined further comment on Trump’s participation in the show that taped last February.

Trump’s representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The series debuts Jan. 2 with Arnold Schwarzenegger replacing Trump as host. Schwarzenegger is an executive producer on the new show, as Trump was on the original.

Trump’s continued stake in a TV series is yet another unusual aspect of the election of a businessman and reality star to the presidency. Questions have been raised on how his extensive holdings may intersect with his actions as president.

Trump has said he is delaying until the new year plans to disclose how he will “take me completely out of business operations.”  He previously said that he plans to hand over management of his business to three of his adult children.

That falls short of what some government ethics experts are pushing him for, which is that he sell his assets and put the money in a “blind trust” overseen by an independent manager not related to him.

In TV, a producer’s tasks can range widely, but the credit also can be given as a so-called vanity perk and for compensation without actively working on a project. Trade publication Variety first reported he had retained the title.

NBC, which declined comment, previously faced scrutiny over its business dealings with Trump, which included beauty pageant telecasts as well as “Apprentice.”

In July 2015, NBC said it was severing its business ties to Trump following his claims that many undocumented Mexicans immigrants are criminals and rapists. The network licenses “New Celebrity Apprentice” from MGM, which produces it.

Burnett, a mega-producer whose other programs include “Survivor” and “The Voice,” also answered for his Trump relationship. He released a statement last October distancing himself and his wife, actress Roma Downey, from the GOP contender.

“I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. I am NOT ‘Pro-Trump.’ Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign,” said Burnett, who in 2015 was named president of MGM Television and Digital Group.

The statement followed pressure on Burnett and MGM to make public “Apprentice” outtakes after an Associated Press report that, during the show’s production, Trump repeatedly demeaned women with sexually tinged comments. That report was followed by release of an “Access Hollywood” audio tape with graphic Trump comments.

MGM said in October that it, not Burnett, owns “The Apprentice” and would honor confidentiality and artist’s rights agreements in regard to “Apprentice.” No outtakes were released.

Binge watching on Netflix no longer requires internet access

Netflix subscribers can now binge on many of their favorite shows and movies even when they don’t have an internet connection.

The long-awaited offline option announced this week gives Netflix’s 87 million subscribers offline access to videos for the first time in the streaming service’s decade-long history.

Netflix is matching a downloading feature that one of its biggest rivals, Amazon.com, has been offering to its video subscribers for the past year. It’s something that also has been available on YouTube’s popular video site, though a subscription is required in the U.S. and other countries where the site sells its “Red” premium service.

The new feature puts Netflix a step ahead of two other major rivals. Offline options aren’t available on HBO’s internet-only package, HBO Now, or Hulu, although that service has publicly said it hopes to introduce a downloading feature.

Netflix subscribers wishing to download a video on their smartphone or tablet need to update the app on their Apple or Android device.

Not all of the selections in Netflix’s video library can be downloaded, although several of the service’s most popular shows, including “Orange Is The New Black,” “House of Cards,” and “Stranger Things,” are now available to watch offline.

Downloadable movies include “Spotlight,” this year’s Oscar winner for best film. Notably missing from the downloadable menu are movies and TV shows made by Walt Disney Co. Those still require an internet connection to watch on Netflix.

The Los Gatos, California, company is promising to continue to adding more titles to its offline roster.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had long resisted calls for an offline-viewing option, much to the frustration of customers who wanted flexibility to use their subscriptions to watch a show or movie when traveling on a train, plane or car where internet connections are spotty or completely unavailable.

Earlier this year, Hastings finally indicated he might relent and introduce downloading.

The change of heart coincided with Netflix’s expansion into more than 130 countries, including many areas with shoddy or expensive internet connections that make the ability to watch video offline even more appealing.

Netflix ended September with 39 million subscribers outside of the U.S.

The offline option may accelerate the decline of Netflix’s steadily shrinking DVD-by-mail service, which offers the ability to watch video without an internet connection. Netflix’s DVD side still has one distinct advantage — access to recent theatrical releases before they are available for streaming.

Netflix’s DVD service ended September with 4.3 million subscribers, a decrease of nearly 10 million customers during the past five years.

Love, loss and royalty star in TV drama ‘The Crown’

 

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is known for her dedication to a demanding job. Claire Foy, who plays Elizabeth as a young ruler in Netflix’s The Crown, can claim the same.

Foy accepted the central role in Netflix’s 10-part series when she was pregnant, knowing that filming would begin just a few months after her daughter’s arrival.

“I’d never had a baby before, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” the actress said by phone from London. “But I’m so glad I made that decision.”

The Crown reportedly is Netflix’s costliest series to date, pegged at $100 million. The money is on the screen in lavish scenes such as Elizabeth’s coronation and location shooting in Scotland and South Africa.

A second season is already in production.

The Crown opens in the bleakness of post-World War II Britain, with a respite provided by Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten (played with sexy swagger by Matt Smith of Doctor Who).

The scene in which they exchange vows is a charmer, with a nervous-looking Elizabeth coaxed along by teasing smiles from Philip. There’s no film of the ceremony, Foy said, but a preserved radio broadcast inspired the scene’s direction.

“She did sound fragile and very, very little and sort of, not unsure, but she definitely didn’t belt out her vows,” Foy said. Given Elizabeth’s youth, her longtime love for Philip and “the idea of forever and everybody you know is watching you,” it was natural for her to be overwhelmed, she added.

The bride’s expectation of playing helpmate to her new husband and his naval career is ended by the death of her father, King George VI, at 56. Elizabeth was 25 when the royal responsibility she believed to be decades away passed to her.

The drama follows her early years as a monarch in a changing world, along with those in her orbit including her free-spirited sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and political leaders Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam).

Writer and executive producer Peter Morgan didn’t come to the topic cold: He wrote the 2006 film The Queen, which dramatized the battering that Elizabeth and the royal family’s image took after Princess Diana’s death. It earned an Oscar for star Helen Mirren and a nomination for Morgan. Last year, Mirren received a Tony Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth in Morgan’s play The Audience.

For The Crown, Morgan’s prose rests on the findings of researchers who spent more than two years reading archives, biographies and cabinet meeting minutes, as well as Morgan’s own conversations with people “connected to the Royal Household,” as Netflix coyly put it.

At a news conference, he acknowledged the careful dance between members of the royal family and the production.

“I think that they’re very, very aware of it,” he said, and “countless approaches” were made “through untraceable back channels.”

“And in a way that protects both sides: I want my independence and I’m sure they want their independence,” he said. He believes the family understands the project was done with “some degree of respect,” Morgan said.

“These are people who are used to slander, cartoons, satire. These are not people who are used to being taken seriously. And whilst that might be a terrifying prospect, I think it is also the only worthwhile way of looking at our recent history,” Morgan said.

For Foy, portraying someone with such a crafted public image was a challenge. But ultimately, she said, the goal was the same as with any part: striving for authenticity and humanity in depicting Elizabeth’s loss of a parent, a universal experience, as she takes on “the biggest job that anyone can do.”

“That’s all you hope for when you do a drama,” Foy said. “If you’re portraying anything that anybody has been through, you don’t want people to watch it and not recognize it or feel betrayed by the portrayal of it. That’s true if you’re a queen or not.”

Cast a wide net among channels when sampling new fall shows

The fall TV season always marks a reset of sorts, signaling an influx of new shows and a respite from reruns.

That’s the way it’s been since TV began, back when there were only three or four networks and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Well, almost.

But despite this time-honored ritual of rebirth, series’ comings and goings have evolved into a seamless affair that flows year-round, boosted by the ever-escalating number of video outlets.

Dubbed “Peak TV,” this latter-day embarrassment of riches is noted by FX network’s president with a mixture of wonder and dismay.

Speaking to the Television Critics Association recently, John Landgraf forecast that a new peak of some 500 different scripted series would be introduced by TV outlets in 2017.

Of these, he said, “only” about 150 would be offered by the six major English-language broadcasters (ABC, CW, CBS, Fox and NBC, plus PBS).

The rest would emerge on cable and streaming services.

“I do this for a living, I think I have a pretty good memory, and I certainly can’t come close to keeping track of it all,” sighed Landgraf, adding, “While there’s more great television than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent.”

Not to mention more trouble even stumbling on shows that viewers might consider great but instead get lost in the shuffle.

For instance, how many viewers will happen upon StartUp, one of the most distinctive and addictive dramas on any lineup? Starring Martin Freeman and Adam Brody in a steamy Miami mashup of techies and drug lords, it premieres Sept. 6 on Crackle, the streaming network known, if at all, for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

On MTV, where “gym, tan, laundry” was once the mantra thanks to Jersey Shore, a much smarter situation awaits on Mary + Jane (premiering Sept. 5), a devilish comedy about two gal pals who run a marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles.

And on Hulu, where you may typically binge on Forensic Files reruns, you might be happy to discover Hugh Laurie in the psychological drama Chance (Oct. 19) as a physician perilously different from his role as life-saving Dr. House.

These new arrivals might well escape your notice in the fall onslaught.

But word of other new shows is impossible to miss.

In particular, NBC leveraged its sprawling, much-watched Rio Games to beat the drum for fall newcomers like This Is Us and Timeless.

Both those series are sure to be heavily sampled by the audience. But while many viewers may embrace This Is Us (Sept. 20) as a tenderhearted and touching dramedy about divergent characters who have a lot in common, other viewers may dismiss the show as saccharine and labored.

And while some viewers may see Timeless (Oct. 3) as thrilling and eye-popping, others may dismiss this time-travel romp as clunky in concept and a misappropriation of lavish computer-generated imagery.

While ABC’s sitcom Speechless (Sept. 21) can congratulate itself for its special-needs focus — the family’s teenage son has cerebral palsy (as does the actor who plays him) — some viewers nonetheless may find it cartoonish and, well, not very funny.

While Michael Weatherly is certifiably a fan-fave from his years on NCIS, his much-awaited new CBS drama, Bull (Sept. 20), seems over-reliant on his fast-talking, glib portrayal. For some viewers, his performance as a charming trial consultant gaming the legal system may quickly wear thin.

And while Notorious (Sept. 22) will plant its flag in the Shonda Rimes-ruled landscape of ABC’s Thursday lineup, this dismal poppycock (a hunky defense attorney joins forces with a hot TV producer to promote their respective professional interests) may succeed primarily by exposing how hard it is to pull off what Rimes does so well.

None of this is to suggest that the commercial broadcast networks aren’t a party to TV’s current Golden Age.

Television, almost anywhere you look, is enjoying a renaissance.

But for the most part, broadcast TV has been overtaken by its cable and streaming competition while being forced to chase conflicting goals — to please a necessarily mass audience while taking enough creative risks to not get left in the dust by its more nimble rivals.

Millions of viewers are satisfied with the results.

Now, as ever, broadcast TV serves as a home for the expected, a 22-episodes-a-season respite where the viewer can feel comfortable, not challenged.

Meanwhile, surprises and creative daring greet viewers who look elsewhere — and result, sometimes, in explosive success (consider HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead, neither of which would have ever gained admittance by broadcast gatekeepers).

Granted, mining shows from the mountain of Peak TV can be a daunting task, especially since on niche media platforms, as with mainstream broadcast, there’s plenty of fool’s gold cluttering the view.

But if this fall season is any indication, TV’s current Golden Age is aglow — and this gold rush clearly leads toward cable and streaming.

While viewing numbers are down, streaming is up for Olympics

While NBC’s prime-time television ratings are down, fans are streaming the Olympics on other devices.

The network said it had surpassed 2 billion minutes of live streamed action from the Rio de Janeiro Games.

Not only does that comfortably surpass the 818 million streamed minutes for the London Games, it beats by 500 million the number for all previous Olympics combined.

Within the first three days of the Olympics, 80 percent of people who watched the games said they used at least one other device to follow what was going on. That was up from 61 percent for the Sochi Winter Olympics two years ago, NBC said.

An estimated 24.3 million people watched Monday night’s prime-time telecast on NBC, the level rising by 5 percent to 25.5 million when streaming and cable coverage is added in. For the same Monday night in London four years ago, there were 26.6 million viewers.

And the Olympics appear to be big in Utah this year. NBC said that for nine of the 11 prime-time nights of Olympics action, Salt Lake City was the market with the best ratings in the country.

 

VIRTUAL REALITY

NBC and Samsung have been touting their virtual-reality coverage, but the quality of the video has been such that Olympians look like video-game characters on Samsung’s Gear VR headset.

Meanwhile, 360-degree still images from Getty Images haven’t gotten as much attention, but have been stunning. NBC’s VR video relies on cameras at fixed locations off to the sides of the fields of play. With no camera operator, there’s no control over the shots. Getty gave a 360-degree camera to each of its photographers, and they’ve been able to capture the flexibility and strength of Simone Biles on the vault, and Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro diving into the crowd after winning his tennis gold medal. The images are available for free on the 360 Photos app on the Gear VR and Oculus Rift headsets.

Norman Lear explores social inequality in Epix docuseries

Norman Lear, age 94 and a native New Yorker, thought he knew a few things about the obstacles of housing in the Big Apple.
But when he began exploring the subject for America Divided, Lear said he was “horrified at how little I knew. Someone making a reasonable living with two children can no longer afford to live in New York City.”
Not only is rising costs from real-estate gentrification displacing working-class and even middle-class residents, but racial discrimination is a problem despite a fair-housing law that makes it illegal.
On his episode, Lear goes undercover to expose real-estate agents who give preferential treatment to him, as a white man, over a black man seeking the same apartment.
Those were the insights Lear helps bring to viewers in his chapter of American Divided, an eight-story, five-part series that premieres on the Epix channel on Sept. 30.
Lear — along with one of the series’ creators, Solly Granatstein — appeared before TV reporters to represent the seven fellow major figures who explore their own issues of inequality that, in each case, was close to their heart.
These correspondents also include Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, Common, Rosario Dawson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Williams and America Ferrera.
Additional issues they tackle include inequality in education, health care, labor, criminal justice and the political system.
Granatstein, whose credits include 60 Minutes and the docuseries Years of Living Dangerously, said he and his co-producers began with ideas for stories. “Then we targeted individuals who we knew were somehow connected with those issues.”
He said more social problems and “substantive A-listers” were in the wings if the series scores a second season.
Lear, a legendary comedy titan, said this was his first experience in the role of a reporter.
What did he learn?
“I learned I’m a great reporter,” he replied.
“It’s true,” Granatstein said.

 

On the web

https://www.facebook.com/AmericaDividedSeries/

Free episodes to disappear from Hulu

Hulu is dropping free TV episode as it works on an online television service to rival cable TV.

Free episodes — typically the most recent four or five episodes from a show’s current season — will be gone from the site within a few weeks. Instead, Hulu is making free episodes available through Yahoo.

While Hulu started as a free site, supported by advertising, free video has become increasingly more difficult to find as Hulu tries to lure viewers into a subscription — $8 a month for a plan with ads, and $12 without. In recent months, visitors to Hulu.com have been presented with prominent links to subscribe, with links to free video buried in a menu after signing in.

And free episodes haven’t been available on Hulu’s mobile apps or streaming-TV devices, just on Hulu.com from a traditional computer. Now, they won’t be on Hulu.com at all.

Devotees of Hulu’s free on-demand videos will be able to find them by visiting the new Yahoo View site from a computer. The Yahoo site will not have free episodes of CW shows such as “Arrow” and “The Flash,” as Hulu has been offering, because CW has a broader deal with Netflix instead. Yahoo says it will have the past five episodes of ABC, NBC and Fox shows available. The Fox shows will appear eight days after their TV airing, as is the practice at Hulu.com now. Yahoo will also have some older CBS shows.

The episodes on Yahoo are not currently available on a phone, although Yahoo is working on a mobile web version and an app. Yahoo says the mobile version will be free, but it may not have all the same video as the desktop computer site because of content licensing restrictions.

Hulu says relatively few people watch the free videos. It now has about 12 million subscribers who pay for original shows, the entire current seasons of some network shows and access to Hulu’s library on mobile and streaming-TV devices like Roku.

Hulu also plans to launch a live online TV service next year. It would show broadcast and cable channels in real time, without making viewers wait until the next day for episodes. In a move that could make that service more appealing, Time Warner Inc. recently took a 10 percent stake in Hulu, joining the TV and movie conglomerates — Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox and Comcast’s NBCUniversal — that already owned it. Time Warner plans to contribute some of its channels, including TNT and TBS, to the new service.

Several other companies already offer live, paid TV over the internet, including Sony and Dish. DirecTV plans a service for later this year as well.

Yahoo also has broader ambitions for View. It wants to add video from other Yahoo properties and from other networks and studios. However, its previous attempt at an online video hub, Yahoo Screen, shut down in January, despite having new episodes of the cult comedy “Community” after its cancellation by NBC.

Verizon, which is buying Yahoo to help the phone company grow a digital advertising business , makes TV episodes and short videos available on its go90 mobile app. Phil Lynch, the head of media and content partnerships at Yahoo, says that as the deal gets closer to closing early next year, it “makes sense that we have integration discussions.”

‘Scary Lucy’ no more: New Lucille Ball statue installed

A new statue of Lucille Ball was unveiled in the late actress’ hometown of Celoron, New York, to replace one that was so hated it was dubbed “Scary Lucy.”

Hundreds of fans chanting “Lucy! Lucy!” gathered over the weekend in Lucille Ball Memorial Park in the western New York village of Celoron to watch as the tarp was removed from the statue made by sculptor Carolyn Palmer.

An unflattering version by another artist was banished after detractors started a Facebook campaign named, “We Love Lucy! Get Rid of this Statue.”

The earlier statue’s creator, Dave Poulin, has said that he received death threats over the likeness. He apologized, calling his sculpture “unsettling,” but his offer to redo it for free was declined.

“Well, it’s been quite a ride,” Celeron Mayor Scott Schrecengost said as he kicked off the unveiling ceremony. “A little over a year ago, we got beat up pretty good.”

Schrecengost said that after the controversy over the earlier statue the town was “bombarded with all kinds of artists that would like to redo the statue.” He said Palmer was “the best sculptor we could have ended up with.”

Palmer thanked the “salt-of-the-earth” people of Celeron.

The crowd applauded as Palmer and Schrecengost unveiled the bronze statue, which shows Ball in a polka-dot dress.

Schrecengost said “Scary Lucy” remains an attraction and will be given another spot in the park.

The new statue was unveiled on what would have been Ball’s 105th birthday. The beloved star’s birthday is celebrated every year with the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in nearby Jamestown.

This year’s festival started Friday. Headliners include comics Trevor Noah, Lewis Black and Brian Regan.