In April 2017, Jim Gaffigan’s wife and writing partner Jeannie was lying in a hospital bed with pneumonia. She had just undergone a nine-hour surgery to remove a benign brain tumor the size of a pear from her head. It just happened that while she was under, Fox News announced it was firing its popular primetime host, Bill O’Reilly, for years of alleged sexual harassment.
“When she came out of it, she couldn’t talk,” Gaffigan tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “I said, ‘Bill O’Reilly’s gone.’”
“I mean, that wasn’t the first thing,” he clarifies. “I had gone through a bunch of kid stuff.” The couple have five young children together. “You have to understand, she couldn’t talk. And my wife is a talker. I’m the quiet one,” Gaffigan continues. “She was frustrated and in pain. And she wrote on a piece of paper, ‘I don’t give a fuck about Bill O’Reilly.’”
Gaffigan himself has a more complicated history with the former Fox News star. As a clean, Catholic comic who has kept his personal politics mostly to himself, Gaffigan has fielded numerous invitations to appear on Fox over the years. “I’ve turned down many appearances there,” he says.
But when his first book, Dad Is Fat, came out in 2013 he started feeling more pressure to go on Fox News to promote it. Father’s Day weekend was coming up and the book had already spent 17 weeks climbing The New York Times bestseller list. His publisher told him that if he went on Bill O’Reilly’s show, it could hit #1.
“It was very strange, because it was one of those things where I didn’t want to get political,” Gaffigan says. “I just wanted to plug my book and get out. So I did it. This is before him paying off women. But he still was considered…” As he searches for the right words, I offer, “generally loathsome” and he agrees.
On stage, Gaffigan deliberately stays away from politics, not necessarily out of fear of turning off conservative voters, but because he actively wants to offer audiences an escape from the news cycle. “I find that when people talk about politics, there’s a certain portion of the audience that looks at the ceiling,” he says. “And that’s not because they’re conservative, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s an overall fatigue.”
“It was very awkward,” Gaffigan says of his time with O’Reilly. During a pre-interview, producers went over the questions they would cover on-air. “And then Bill O’Reilly asked me completely different questions.”
As Gaffigan explains it, Dad Is Fat is “essentially about how this comedian, who never thought he’d be a father, ended up being the father of five kids,” adding that “some of it is constructed on the belief that I don’t know what I’m doing.”
O’Reilly ended up berating Gaffigan for basically being a bad father. “He goes, ‘This book is all about how you don’t know what you’re doing,’” Gaffigan recalls. “It was a very strange thing. He was like, ‘I don’t know, I like what I’m doing.’ So it ended up working because he attacked me in a strange way.”
A couple of years later, Gaffigan tried to get O’Reilly to make a cameo on an early episode of his sitcom, The Jim Gaffigan Show, but he wouldn’t do it. The episode, titled “The Bible Story,” finds Gaffigan’s character publicly “outed” as a Christian comic after a photo surfaces of him carrying a large Bible. “It was all about the tabloid nature of our culture,” he says. “I don’t think anybody on Fox was allowed to do it.”
The widely praised episode ended up featuring appearances from Jon Stewart, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Jake Tapper, Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, Nancy Grace, Jim Cramer, Keith Olbermann and a post-Fox News Glenn Beck.
“There was another time I was on Bill O’Reilly,” Gaffigan remembers towards the end of our conversation. It was back when he first started touring nationally as a stand-up and O’Reilly was doing a segment about Billboard’s top touring acts in America.
“I had maybe done like theaters in like 10 cities. So I was like #99, which is still kind of impressive,” Gaffigan says. “The top of the list was like Beyoncé and U2 and then he goes, ‘Some of these people at the bottom of the list have to really get their act together.’ So it was like Hootie and the Blowfish or whatever and me. And I hadn’t been on his show at that point, but he was like, ‘This guy Jim Gaffigan, I don’t know what he does, but he’s not doing well.’”
Noting that Fox was “different in the pre-Trump era,” Gaffigan seems practically nostalgic about the days when he could set off O’Reilly’s outrage meter. “Even describing that, it almost sounds enjoyable compared to the world we live in now,” he jokes.