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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.

Martin Scorsese: ‘Cinema is gone’

Martin Scorsese’s Manhattan office, in a midtown building a few blocks northwest of the cordoned-off Trump Tower, may be the most concentrated bastion of reverence for cinema on the face of the earth.

There’s a small screening room where Scorsese screens early cuts of his films and classic movies for his daughter and his friends. There’s his personal library of thousands of films, some he taped himself decades ago. Film posters line the walls. Bookshelves are stuffed with film histories. And there are editing suites, including the one where Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker regularly toil with a monitor dedicated to the continuous, muted playing of Turner Classic Movies.

“It’s a temple of worship, really,” says Schoonmaker.

Scorsese’s latest, “Silence,” may be the film that most purely fuses the twin passions of his life: God and cinema.

Scorsese, who briefly pursued becoming a priest before fervently dedicating himself to moviemaking, has sometimes seemed to conflate the two.

“Silence” is a solemn, religious epic about Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) in a violently anti-Catholic 17th century Japan. Scorsese has wanted to make it for nearly 30 years. He was given the book it’s based on, Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, by a bishop after a screening of his famously controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988.

“Silence” is an examination of belief and doubt and mysterious acts of faith.

But making the film was such an act in itself.

“Acting it out, maybe that’s what existence is all about,” Scorsese says of his faith. “The documentary on George Harrison I made, ‘Living in the Material World,’ that says it better. He said if you want an old man in the sky with a beard, fine. I don’t mean to be relativist about it. I happen to feel more comfortable with Christianity. But what is Christianity? That’s the issue and that’s why I made this film.”

It wasn’t easy.

Scorsese, 74, may be among the most revered directors in Hollywood, but “Silence” is almost the antithesis of today’s studio film.

To make it Scorsese had to drum up foreign money in Cannes and ultimately made the film for about $46 million. Everyone, including himself, worked for scale.

Few today are making movies with the scope and ambition of “Silence” — a fact, he grants, that makes him feel like one of the last of a dying breed in today’s film industry.

“Cinema is gone,” Scorsese says. “The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.”

“The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he continues. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ‘50s, you go from Westerns to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to the special experience of ‘2001’ in 1968. The experience of seeing ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Searchers’ in VistaVision.”

Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the overreliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” he says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”

Scorsese’s comments echo a tender letter he wrote his daughter two years ago. The future of movies, he believes, is in the freedom that technology has yielded for anyone to make a movie.

“TV, I don’t think has taken that place. Not yet,” adds Scorsese, whose “Boardwalk Empire” was lauded but whose high-priced “Vinyl” was canceled after one season. “I tried it. I had success to a certain extent. ‘Vinyl’ we tried but we found that the atmosphere for the type of picture we wanted to make — the nature of the language, the drugs, the sex, depicting the rock ‘n’ roll world of the ‘70s — we got a lot of resistance. So I don’t know about that freedom.”

Since the election of Donald Trump, some have expressed hope for a return to the kind of ‘70s filmmaking Scorsese is synonymous with.

“If the younger people have something to say and they find a way to say through visual means as well as literary, there’s the new cinema,” says Scorsese.

But the current climate reminds him more of the ‘50s of his youth.

“I’m worried about double-think or triple-think, which is make you believe you have the freedom, but they can make it very difficult to get the picture shown, to get it made, ruin reputations. It’s happened before.”

“Silence,” which Scorsese screened for Jesuits at the Vatican before meeting with the pope, remains a powerful exception in a changing Hollywood.

“He wanted to make this film extremely differently from anything out there,” says Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor since “Raging Bull.” “He’s just tired of slam-bam-crash. Telling the audience what to think is what he really hates. Trying to do a meditative movie at this point, in this insane world we’re in now, was incredibly brave. He wanted to stamp the film with that throughout: the pace, the very subtle use of music.

“How many movies start without music at the very beginning under the logos?” she adds. “He said, ‘Take out all that big Hollywood.””

Scorsese, apostle of cinema, continues the fight.

His Film Foundation has helped restore more than 750 films. And he regularly pens supportive letters to young directors whose films he admires.

Imagine that in your mailbox. Almost like getting a letter from your god.

FilmStruck aims to bring the art house into your living room

Does this sound familiar? You want to stream a movie and end up spending most of your time clicking through a disorganized sea of options, most of which aren’t especially good, anyhow.

FilmStruck, a new subscription streaming service by Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, hopes to fill what’s been a giant void in the supposedly glorious age of streaming.

The plentiful options on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu (where Criterion was previously housed) have been terrific for all kinds of watching, just not great cinema.

FilmStuck doesn’t hope to compete with those giants, which are busy building their own original series and films while concentrating less on offering robust libraries. Instead, TCM and Criterion want to bring the art house, and all the passion of movie love, into the 21st century and your living room.

“We feel like it’s a vacuum that needs a caretaker who cares,” says Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck. “There’s a real need out there in the marketplace for film fans.”

Executives for both TCM and Criterion call their union “a lovefest,” and the match is indeed a fitting one. TCM, the 22-year-old cable network of commercial-less Hollywood classics, and Criterion, the 32-year-old purveyor of pristine, supplement-stuffed DVD sets, have both weathered continued change in media and emerged all the stronger for their steadfast dedication to movies.

While networks like AMC (“American Movie Classics”) and IFC (“Independent Film Channel”) have turned their focus to TV series, TCM and Criterion have kept the faith, and earned devoted followings because of it. The partnership came together because of their already close ties and mutual respect. When word got to Turner Classic that Criterion would be exiting its home at Hulu, talks about creating a new streaming platform began.

“We had a great set-up at Hulu, especially given the time we started there,” says Peter Becker, president of Criterion Collection. “But that service was never built from the ground up to be for movie lovers, to highlight special editions, to be curated, to highlight all kinds of stuff. There was very little opportunity to speak to our audience in our own voice.”

FilmStruck will be available for $6.99 a month via filmstruck.com, the Amazon Fire, Apple TV and iOS and Android devices. It features films from the vaults of major studios but the focus of its about 500 rotating films is more independent, international and contemporary. It’s more Kubrick and Kurosawa than Doris Day and John Wayne.

TCM’s head of programming Charles Tabesh will program FilmStruck, including a rotating selection of Criterion titles. But on Nov. 11, Criterion will debut its own channel on FilmStruck featuring all of its films, about 1,200 titles that encompass a large swath of film’s acknowledged masterpieces. That will run $10.99 monthly or $99 for a year.

What distinguishes FilmStruck, though, isn’t just the quality of its films but its expansive, rethought streaming experience. There’s a long list of searchable titles, but FilmStruck and the Criterion Channel are first and foremost curated experiences. Films are organized into series, retrospectives and essentials.

“This is what art-house theaters have been doing around the country for the last fifty years,” says Becker. “Why would we not build on all the curatorial energy and ideas that has been expended over all this time?”

There will be a Friday night double feature. Another weekly night will match a short with a feature. Filmmakers will be profiled in documentaries, as will art house theaters across the country.

Cinephiles may also drool over the array of special features — the sort that populate Criterion Blu-rays — that dot the service. You can listen to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola expound on “The Thief of Bagdad” or watch the Coen brothers with Barry Sonnenfeld deconstruct their “Blood Simple” with the kind of telestrators usually wielded by NFL commentators.

“We find that this is a very satisfying night at the movies,” says Becker.

The streaming landscape is increasingly crowded, not just by Amazon and Netflix but by the likes of Fandor, Mubi, IndieFlix and Warner Archive. Standing out _ and convincing viewers to add another monthly bill _ will be FilmStruck’s biggest challenge.

Dorian says their research suggests 15 million could be willing to pay for FilmStruck. It’s a bold gambit for Turner Classic, which has been, as Dorian says with a knowing smile, “very judicious in its changes over the years.”

“We get to try new stuff that we haven’t tried in decades,” says Dorian. “I hope we’re agile and nimble. Working in software has been a total education.”

It’s a leap for Criterion, too, which will for the first time have its own digital playground. The DVDs, Becker says, remain the best image quality for their films, “but there’s now a whole generation of people who haven’t ever bought a disc.”

The entire enterprise has the spirit of a mission: Show the digital world what’s so great about movies. At the FilmStruck launch party in Manhattan, scenes from classic films like Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” were set up. Director George Romero could be seen playing chess with Death.

“There’s never been a better time for art-house film culture, with apologies to the ‘60s,” says Becker. “It’s a crazy time to be a film lover.”

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Potter’ world roars back to life

The pop culture juggernaut of J.K. Rowling’s Potter-mania appeared to be breathing its last gasp when the eighth film in the series, part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, made its premiere amid teeming throngs of bittersweet Potter fans in London’s Leicester Square in 2011.

Wands went into their cases. Hogwarts scarves were hung up.

“When Potter finished, I thought that was it,” says producer David Heyman, who oversaw the movie adaptations from the start and has since produced Gravity, Paddington and other films. Director David Yates, who helmed the final four Potter movies, staggered away for a much-needed holiday.

“I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d come back so quickly,” says Yates. “But it was the script that pulled me back in.”

The script was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and it, unlike all the Potter films, was penned by Rowling herself. Based on Rowling’s 2001 book, which was framed as Harry’s Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts is set in Rowling’s familiar, magical world, but takes place 60 years earlier, in a more adult 1926 New York where wizards and Muggles (called “No-Majs,” as in “no magic,” in America) live in disharmony.

This fall, Rowling’s $7.8 billion film franchise will roar back into life, resurrecting one of the most potent and lucrative big-screen sensations. It’s a two-pronged attack. While Fantastic Beasts is reaching back into the past of Rowling’s Potter world, the two-part West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (only co-written by Rowling) is going into the future. It moves the tale 19 years ahead of where the books left off.

Authorship, timelines and casts may be extending in new directions, but the old obsession is still goblet-of-fire hot. The script of Cursed Child sold 2 million copies in two days.

Big expectations naturally also surround Fantastic Beasts (Nov. 18). For Warner Bros., which has endured sometimes rocky times in the intervening non-Potter years, it’s a happy reunion. In today’s constantly rebooting, ever-sequalizing Hollywood, did you really think Rowling’s world was finished?

“This isn’t Harry Potter. There aren’t Harry Potter characters in this,” says Heyman. “But there is connective tissue. To (Rowling), it’s part of one big story.”

That connective tissue, like a prequel, will grow more pronounced in coming Fantastic Beasts installments, eventually leading close to Harry, himself. A trilogy is planned, with the next chapter going into production next July. Less diehard fans should prepare for some very hardcore nerding-out by Potter fans as they trace illuminating hints in the tale’s history.

Eddie Redmayne stars as the bumbling magizoologist Newt Scamander, the future author of the Hogwarts textbook. Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell are among the many supporting roles. The story about escaped magical beasts loose in a city with anti-magic elements, the filmmakers claim, bears contemporary relevance.

“We in a time of great bigotry in America, the UK and around the world,” says Heyman. “This context of the story, while not political with a capital ‘P,’ is relevant in this time. It’s an entertainment but it’s not a hollow entertainment.”

Along with the new cast and the hop across the Atlantic, the biggest change is Rowling’s deeper involvement as screenwriter. She’s also writing the next “Fantastic Beasts” film.

“There were lots of things that inevitably got left behind,” says Yates of forming the Potter films. “In this case, we’re working directly with (Rowling) and the material is pouring out of her.”

“She’s a great writer and a quick study,” says Heyman. “She approached it with incredible humility but at the same time with the confidence of someone with boundless imagination. She wanted to be as good as she possibly could at it.”

Before Broadway, ‘Miss Saigon’ to appear on movie screens

American audiences will get the rare chance to catch a sneak peek of the new Miss Saigon before it opens on Broadway next spring. They just have to go to a movie theater.

A filmed version of the musical’s live 25th-anniversary celebration in London will make its world premiere on some 175 U.S. movie theaters on Sept. 22, some six months before the same production with the same leading actors lands on Broadway.

The show captured the performance at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End in September 2014 and was augmented by close-ups recorded a few months after the show closed there earlier this year.

The same stars — Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and Eva Noblezada as Kim — are slated to appear when the show opens at the Broadway Theatre in March, but mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh isn’t worried the broadcast will cannibalize fans.

“It encourages business,” he said. “This is the greatest cinematic trailer for a theatrical production that’s ever been produced. I could be wrong, but I defy anybody who loves the show and isn’t bowled over by the film not to want to go.”

Miss Saigon, a tragic Vietnam War love story inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, has songs by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who also wrote Les Miserables.

Mackintosh said he didn’t initially plan for a broadcast version of Miss Saigon, but was persuaded to capture the 25th anniversary of its West End arrival with a dozen cameras. A special finale was added that featured the original stars Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman — as well as Mackintosh making a surprise appearance.

He considered it one of the top three performances of Miss Saigon in its history. “Beyond just it being a wonderful performance, there was a sense of magic in the air,” he said. (As for Mackintosh himself, “I bounce around like an irrepressible ball.”)

He and his team decided to add documentary footage and fold in close-ups shot later. They reminded viewers it was a live event by not digitally removing the performers’ microphones and layering in shots of the audience going into the theater and their reactions at some scenes.

“What producer in his lifetime gets the chance to do a great show twice with two brilliant companies in two different productions? Not many people have ever had that opportunity,” said Mackintosh.

The final result is presented by Fathom Events, Universal Pictures and Picturehouse Entertainment. American audiences will see the same production from London directed by Laurence Connor and with its two stars. “They’re seeing what they’re going to get,” Mackintosh said.

When the revival finally arrives on Broadway, it will join other Mackintosh-produced works like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, which returned this summer. (It will have missed his latest revival of Les Miserables, which closes next month after 21/2 years.)

“Thirty years on, to have my four great musicals of that era still firing on all cylinders is amazing,” he said. “I’m as enthusiastic about these great shows now as I was when I helped create them all those decades ago because, to me, they smell as if they’re absolutely freshly minted.”

 

On the Web

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Henry Winkler dreams of a Tony, stars in new NBC reality series

During an hour-long chat at his Los Angeles home, Henry Winkler does impressions of George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and William Shatner (his co-stars in the new NBC reality series Better Late Than Never), walks like a ninja who suddenly sports jazz hands, and improvises a scene as the intolerant acting coach he plays in a new HBO comedy.

The 70-year-old entertainer is visibly animated as he discusses his career, which spans four decades and counting. But the overriding vibe from the former Fonz is one of gratitude. It’s not long before he launches into how thankful he is for the opportunities and success he continues to enjoy.

“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every inch of earth that I tread on in my life.”

Acting remains a passion. Winkler is also a successful author of children’s books (his 32nd was just published) and travels the country as a motivational speaker. And he’s a doting grandfather of four, including 4 1/2-year-old Ace, a redheaded sprite who calls him “Papa” and stays close to him during this interview.

(Ace just started requesting Winkler’s Here’s Hank books as bedtime stories. “I think I’m about to faint,” Winkler said.)

His next television endeavor is Better Late Than Never.

The four-episode reality series follows Winkler, Foreman, Bradshaw, Shatner and comedian Jeff Dye on various cultural and culinary adventures in Asia.

As an executive producer, Winkler helped assemble the quintet, who barely knew one another before embarking on the 35-day trip through Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. But talk about your bonding experiences: Together, they appeared on a Japanese game show, studied with samurai warriors, danced in a K-pop video and befriended elephants at an animal sanctuary.

Now “it’s friends for life,” Winkler said. “It might have been the trip of a lifetime.”

He’s so confident about the show — “to the point that I will come to your house and do the dishes” — if each episode isn’t better than the last.

“The reason that it gets better and better is — if you feel us being a tight unit in the first (episode) — it gets tighter and tighter and we get looser and looser and more outrageous with each other,” he said.

Winkler is also embracing the outrageous in scripted form with Barry, a new HBO series that starts production in January. Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader stars as a middling hit man who finds unexpected community among a group of theater hopefuls in Los Angeles. Winkler is their cantankerous acting coach.

Rather than describe the role, he breaks into character.

Winkler studied drama at Yale and has pursued the craft with vigor since he graduated. He only started writing children’s books when he had difficulty shedding the Fonz persona after Happy Days ended its 10-year run. But he’s never stopped looking for the next great part. Even now, he still goes out on auditions and dreams big.

“It makes me so happy,” he said. “And now that I’m getting better, that I’m more relaxed, that I’m more in touch with what I’m doing, it’s like I step into nirvana.

“My favorite role is the next role I do,” he continued. “I love going to work.”

Winkler’s joy and gratitude is palpable. He knocks on the wooden table when he mentions his hopes and blessings. He’s kept every single script from Happy Days (and every other show and film he’s done) and had them bound in hardback leather like a treasured collection of encyclopedias.

“You cannot take for granted one single second,” he said.

Though he is still yearning for one particular piece of hardware.

“Here’s my bucket list,” Winkler said. “I would like to see my grandchildren thrive. I would like to work until I absolutely cannot anymore. I would like to win a Tony. I watch the Tony Awards and cry every year. I love it. That is my dream. That is my dream. Whatever it is, that is my dream: to win a Tony.”

His thank-you speech may already be written.

Animal lovers will delight in ‘The Secret Life of Pets’

Any pet owner who’s imbued their furry or feathered friends with deep thoughts and mysterious intentions will relate to the imagination behind The Secret Life of Pets.

It may not have the emotional resonance of a Pixar movie, but with its playful premise, endearing performances and outstanding score by Alexandre Desplat, Pets is fun, family (and animal)-friendly fare.

People’s favorite non-speaking companions are brought to life here by Illumination Entertainment (the studio behind Despicable Me) and given voice by an all-star cast that includes Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Albert Brooks.

Plot-wise, Pets follows the path Pixar set with talking toys 20 years ago in Toy Story: Two would-be rivals fighting for the love of their owner are forced to unite for a common cause.

Little terrier Max (C.K.) is the top dog in the life of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and a leader among the other house pets in their New York City apartment building, including neighbor Pomeranian Gidget (Slate), and the fat cat next door, Chloe (Lake Bell). But his exalted position is threatened when Katie brings home a giant, fluffy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Like Woody and Buzz, Max and Duke are instantly at odds.

The rival pups are trying to sabotage each other when they become separated from their dog walker and captured by animal control. This sends them on an adventure into the animal underworld: literally the underground headquarters of a bitter bunny named Snowball (Hart) and his team of Flushed Pets. Abandoned by their former owners, their motto is “liberated forever, domesticated never.”

Max and Duke try to fit in, but Snowball soon observes, “You’ve got the scent of domestication all over you,” and sends his army of rogue animals after them. At one point, the little rabbit steals a bus.

Meanwhile, the other pets from Max and Duke’s apartment building notice the two are missing and set out to find them. Gidget, who has a not-so-secret crush on Max, leads a menagerie that includes Chloe the cat, Mel the pug, Buddy the dachshund and a guinea pig named Norman.

They enlist the help of Tiberius the hawk (Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), the wheelchair-bound basset hound who knows every animal in New York.

Desplat’s jazzy, energetic score amplifies the urgency and excitement as the chase continues through the city, and clever animation highlights the quirkiness of animal behavior. Though the characters in Pets are entirely anthropomorphized — they speak English and can operate electronics — they retain some recognizable animalism. When Pops wants to shut down one of his famous parties, for example, he turns on the vacuum cleaner. Dogs in hot pursuit of their friends are suddenly distracted by butterflies. And Buddy’s movements are especially amusing, as he navigates his elongated dachshund body around corners and down stairs.

It’s fun to imagine what pets get into when no one is home, and Pets does a great job of taking that idea to an extreme. And you thought Fluffy and Fido just spent the day napping.

American Players Theatre’s ‘Ideal Husband’ not always ideal

Combine the wit of Oscar Wilde with a sparkling cast and the taut, measured direction of theatrical veteran Laura Gordon, and one would expect a superlative production.

Yet American Players Theatre’s take of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which opened to a capacity crowd at the Up-the-Hill Theatre on a steamy and ultimately stormy Saturday night, proved less than ideal — thanks less to the current company than to the cross-purposes of the author himself.

Written in 1895, just prior to Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband focuses on the trials and tribulations of would-be parliamentarian Sir Robert Chiltern (David Daniel), his adoring and unrealistic wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Colleen Madden), and the conniving Mrs. Cheveley (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who would have Sir Robert support her unpopular scheme or pay the price of her blackmailing ways.

This is the sort of stuff with which Wilde typically had a great deal of fun plucking at the failings of humankind. But the action toward the end of Act I treads a tad heavily into melodrama, losing its lightness and briefly derailing its comic trajectory.

When the cast returns for Act II, those more familiar Wildean sentiments are restored to the point where the initial conflict is almost forgotten. The resolution notwithstanding, one almost wonders what all the fuss was about. The play is emotionally uneven and confusing when Wilde is not at his best.

The author’s voice and clarity of purpose comes through most strongly in the character of Lord Arthur Goring (Marcus Truschinski), a vain, vapid unemployed man-about-town with all-too-keen insight into the foibles of his fellow fashionable Londoners. Goring is the eternal frustration of his father, the blustering Lord Cavendish (Jonathan Smoots), who would have his son married — if he thought the young man had it in him.

“I don’t know how you stand society,” Cavendish says at one point. “A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.”

“I love talking about nothing, Father,” Goring replies. “It’s the only thing I know anything about.”

Goring serves as the author’s internal narrator, helping his characters analyze their own shortcomings and loosening the social mores in which they are so tightly bound. His bon mots provide the audience with cleverly phrased analyses that foreshadow many of the play’s resolutions — much-needed, and often a delight to the audience.

APT’s production is made handsome largely by the accomplishments of Mathew J. LeFebvre’s luxurious costumes. (The lady’s hats alone may be worth the price of admission.) Additionally, Takeshi Kata’s sparse but evocative set and Jessica Lanius’ restrained but impressive choreography do much to embellish the decorative purposes of both the era and the stage action.

The cast itself is strong, especially the principals. Smaller roles, including John Pribyl’s butler Phipps and Cristina Panfilio’s delightfully droll Lady Basildon, also are played to perfection, adding a few more delicious flavors to Wilde’s bubbling human stew.

An Ideal Husband once or twice dances dangerously close to becoming a common potboiler, but the author’s wit and APT’s impressive cast always seems to save the play from drowning in its own gravitas. And for a character like Lord Goring, such a misstep would never do.

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband closes September 24.

Marcus Truschinski (with Cristina Panfilio, left, and Jennifer Latimore) plays Photos: Liz Lauren
Marcus Truschinski (with Cristina Panfilio, left, and Jennifer Latimore) plays Lord Arthur Goring, a vapid man-about-town who serves as Wilde’s internal narrator. Photos: Liz Lauren

Partners Wright and Jivoff a true theater ‘power couple’

They don’t have a snappy portmanteau nickname like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina,” but C. Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff qualify as one of Milwaukee’s cultural power couples.

In their roles at two of Milwaukee’s most critically acclaimed theater companies, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre, the couple has helped shape the city’s artistic landscape over the better part of three decades.

Wright has been producing artistic director at MCT since 2005 and Jivoff the associate artistic director at Skylight since 2009 and interim artistic director for the 2016–17 season.

Given their prominence, it may be strange to hear that the two came to Milwaukee almost by accident.

In the summer of 1983, Wright was based in New York City but on the road as one of the leads in the national tour of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Jivoff was in San Francisco, working for a children’s theater company after graduating from San Francisco State University. When Wright’s show came to town, a friend of Jivoff’s invited him to the opening night party — and the two hit it off. It’d ultimately be the first day in their 33 years together.

After stays in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — and a stint of bi-coastal commuting — they wanted to settle down. But none of those cities seemed a good fit.

“We were looking for a community to live in,” Jivoff reflects.

They would ultimately choose Milwaukee, thanks in part to “Master Harold” again. Years before, while on the national tour, Wright turned 30 and realized he didn’t want to continue playing the title role of Hally — a 17-year-old South African boy — much longer, despite getting multiple offers to do so at regional theaters across the country. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll do it one more time,’” Wright says. “So I said yes to the Milwaukee Rep (in 1984). And that changed our lives, on kind of a whim.”

Through performing in that show and others at the Rep, Wright had grown enamored of Milwaukee, as had Jivoff. When Wright got the offer to do a few shows at Skylight, the couple took that as a signal: Move to Milwaukee, and just see what happens.

WIDE INTERESTS, EXPERIENCES

Neither Jivoff nor Wright say their goal was to end up in arts administration when they arrived in Milwaukee in the late 1980s. Their current jobs instead grew organically out of their own interests, and the freedom Milwaukee gave them to pursue more than one of them at once.

“(Milwaukee) seemed like a place where there was potential that we’d be able to do all the things we liked doing,” Jivoff says. “I know I didn’t want to just act, and I don’t know that there’s that much work to just act.”

Jivoff’s overlapping interests in theater and education made him a natural fit as the drama director at Catholic Memorial High School, where he taught for 12 years. He’s also been involved in developing multiple theater education programs in the city. Jivoff is a frequent collaborator with First Stage, which opened the same year he and Wright arrived in Milwaukee, and he originated Next Act’s education program “Next Actors” before being hired to develop Skylight’s education department in 1999 and subsequently becoming associate artistic director a decade later.

Wright says he arrived in Milwaukee thinking of himself as an actor but open to other opportunities; those opportunities came his way quickly. As he got to know other artists, Wright was invited to direct and teach, broadening his range of skills. He discovered he had a knack for arts administration in 1997, when he was asked to join the staff of Next Act Theatre as an associate artistic director. After eight years, he decided that he wanted to run his own company, and fate again kept the couple in Milwaukee — MCT’s founding artistic director Montgomery Davis announced his retirement, and Wright was selected to replace him.

One benefit of taking the MCT job was that it brought Wright under the same roof as his partner, since both Skylight and MCT are based in the Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward. But the couple say their work schedules often keep them on nonintersecting paths during the day. “So many people think ‘Oh, you probably go there at 9 together and leave at 5 together,’” Wright says. “No, no, no, no, no (laughs).”

Their day-to-day work patterns speak to a greater pattern in their professional careers. Unlike many other theater couples in the city and state, Wright and Jivoff say they don’t work together much, either as fellow actors or in an actor-director pairing. “I’ve done a lot of children’s theater and musical theater,” Jivoff says. “It’s more my type; I’m loud, over the top. … He’s much more serious — does Chekov and stuff like that (laughs).”

But as the conventional wisdom goes, it’s those different personality traits that they admire most in each other. “He’s my main advisor and teacher,” Jivoff says. “I get a ton of advice and guidance from him and he keeps me calm.”

“For me,” Wright adds, “Ray provides a sense of levity. He makes it easy to laugh at some of the absurd situations we find ourselves in. And even just to remember not to take it all too seriously. We both are incredibly passionate about the work … but it’s important to keep it in perspective.”

OUT AND PROUD

Both Wright and Jivoff say they’ve felt they can be open about their relationship, both within the extremely accepting theater community and with Milwaukeeans at large. They say there’s no denying, though, that society’s response to gay couples has shifted dramatically in that time.

“I have no problem at all saying to someone ‘my partner’ now, but I do think when I first came it was harder. It’s more accepting now,” Wright says. “When we grew up, things were very, very different. As youths dealing with being gay, it’s easier now.”

It’s also only in the last decade or so that Wright and Jivoff have risen to a level of prominence that people might be aware of their relationship without being told, as they’ve taken on administrative positions. Wright remembers one pivotal moment about 15 years ago, when they were mentioned in a Valentine’s Day column by retired Journal Sentinel critic Damien Jaques. Jaques interviewed several theater couples including Wright and Jivoff. “That made us public figures as a couple. Before that, whoever knew, knew, and whoever didn’t, didn’t. Then suddenly there you are in the paper.”

In many senses, Wright says he and Jivoff have come to feel their administrative positions make it important for them to be open about being gay and partnered, to serve as role models for their community. “Because we’re in positions of power now, I think it’s our responsibility to be more vocal about it,” he says.

StageQ’s Michael Bruno brings LA panache to hometown gigs

images - pride - MichaelBruno1Madison native and current StageQ board president Michael Bruno has had quite the career. As a theatrical producer, gay porn actor, adult film awards show master of ceremonies and professional game show contestant on the West Coast, the 60-year-old’s resume has a certain je ne sais quoi.

With his return to Madison, though, he may be embarking on one of his most significant roles yet: continuing StageQ founder Thomas McClurg’s goal of providing a stable home for LGBT-themed plays within Madison’s larger theatrical community.

Much of Bruno’s life may have been spent far from Madison, but his hometown is where he first got plugged into gay culture. After coming out in high school, Bruno studied theater and drama at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the city’s Edgewood College, becoming an out and outgoing member of Madison’s LGBT and theatrical communities.

A hint of where he’d eventually migrate came in the late ’70s. Bruno says he had a chance encounter with a teacher after performing with the Wisconsin Children’s Theatre that brought a sharp directional change to the young actor’s career.

“She was from California and told me about a wonderful children’s theater in San Diego that performed in a park,” Bruno remembers. “I always wanted to live on the West Coast, so I thought, ‘Why not apply?’”

The theater was the Old Globe Theatre, a 1935 replica of its London namesake, and the park was Balboa Park, an urban cultural park that’s also home to the San Diego Zoo. Bruno auditioned and was hired.

“It was one of those fortuitous moments,” Bruno says. “I stayed for one summer, then came back to Madison.”

He remained in Wisconsin for a few years after that, working as a bar manager, host and humorist at a variety of the city’s gay bars: The Back Door, Going My Way and the speakeasy-style The Barber’s Closet inside the Hotel Washington.

But the West Coast’s siren song eventually called him back. This time around, it was as a contestant on Body Language, a CBS daytime game show filmed in Los Angeles. The young gay contestant proved to be a hit.

“This was 1983 and I won $60,000,” Bruno says. “It was all in cash, too. No crappy prizes or porcelain Dalmatians.”

Bruno’s big win was just the beginning. He entered the game show “circuit” and over the next few years found that very good money could be made by successful contestants willing to  help producers test-drive new game show concepts. From there he went on to become assistant producer and contestant coordinator for the game shows High Rollers and Win, Lose or Draw, rubbing shoulders with producers like Wink Martindale and celebrities like Vicki Lawrence.

Bruno found other unusual avenues into L.A.’s entertainment industry. He was hired by Vivid Man, the gay production arm of San Fernando Valley pornographic filmmaker Vivid Entertainment (best known nowadays for releasing the Kim Kardashian sex tape). He may have been the only actor to keep his pants on.

“The producers were looking for a funny uncle or someone to provide comic relief in between the sex scenes,” Bruno says. “I did that for three years.” The experience led Bruno to a two-year gig as emcee of the Adult Video News Movie Awards, which were held as a benefit for AIDS research.

But it was “Tea with Bruno,” the column he wrote for a Los Angeles gay newspaper, that took him in new directions.

“The show Party came to town in 1996,” Bruno says. “That was the naked-boy revamp of The Boys in the Band and I was asked to review it.”

Bruno liked the production, but his theatrical instincts kicked in and he took jabs at the show for being staged in the wrong theater in the wrong neighborhood. The swipes earned Bruno a call from author David Dillon, who had an unexpected response.

“He thanked me for saying the things he had been trying to tell the local producers from the start,” Bruno says. “He also asked me to produce the show in San Francisco. I had taken this sidestep into game shows and pornography and missed the theater, so I said yes.”

Bruno’s production of Party was a success and he went on to form his own theatrical company. His next production was Dirty Little Showtunes, writer Tom Orr’s witty reimagining of classic show tunes with aggressively gay and sexually explicit lyrics. (“How Do You Solve Your Problem Gonorrhea” would surely give The Sound of Music’s morally upright von Trapp family pause.) The show, once again, was a hit and in addition to San Francisco, played in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago.

But life in the fast lane had already caught up with Bruno, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1993. Successes and failures with various California health care providers, and health issues facing his own elderly mother back in Madison, led to his 2001 return to the Badger State.

“My mother needed hip replacement surgery and her doctors were refusing to perform the operation, saying she would never survive,” Bruno says. “My father had passed away and I needed to take care of her health and my own health, so I came home.”

Bruno thought he would stay in Madison for a year or two at most, but saw an absence of interactive dinner theater and gay theater he felt needed to be filled. He formed Whoop De Do Productions, best known for Sweet Cannoli Nuptials, a dinner show modeled after Tony & Tina’s Wedding. He also became involved in StageQ, starting as both an actor and director and moving up to board president.

For the past five years he’s also hosted “Backstage with Bruno,” a blend of live and taped video segments on Madison’s theater scene that airs weekly on CBS affiliate station WISC-TV.

“It’s a great gig and gives me the chance to mention StageQ and other community theater groups,” says Bruno, who is directing one of the Queer Shorts segments just as he has for the past five years (see sidebar).

Bruno also has served as editorial consultant for Our Lives magazine and board member for both cultural arts groups Dane Arts and the AIDS Network of Madison. Above all, he is happy to report that in spite of his HIV diagnosis 23 years ago, his health is good.

“Thanks to UW Health and University Hospital, I’m healthy, drinking my ‘cocktail,” my T-cells are up and I am doing fine,” Bruno says. “I was originally told I would only have five or six years left, but I am a lucky, long-term survivor.”

What’s more, Bruno’s mother did have her hip surgery and, at age 100, is doing just fine too.

“Every day I am grateful,” Bruno adds.

SIDEBAR

One of Bruno’s new roles with StageQ is producing the Queer Shorts series, although it’s not a job he expected to have to do.

When creator Katy Conley started Queer Shorts, an annual collection of short plays designed to give voice to LGBT writers, actors and directors, in 2005, she originally intended the series to last just 10 years. Last year’s installment marked year 10, so between that and Conley handing off that year’s installment to StageQ board member Louise Stout due to health issues, the board decided to conclude the series as planned.

Madison’s LGBT community and the show’s fans had other ideas. They raised such a ruckus that Conley permanently handed the project over to StageQ’s board, which now also serves as the company’s management.

Over the years, themes have emerged to tie together the average of 10 productions culled from as many as 200 submissions each year, Bruno says.

“This year, the plays are all about how technology affects the LGBT culture,” Bruno says. “We had some very nice submissions and we had to choose 9 from the 80 one-act plays we received.”

In addition to producing the series, Bruno will direct playwright Dan Myers’ “Case of the Gays,” one of the installments.

Queer Shorts 2.0: The Reboot takes the Drury Theater stage at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison, June 10 to 18. Tickets are $15 or $20 and can be purchased at stageq.com.