BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | When Jim Gaffigan moved from Indiana to Mott St. in 1990, it was a different world. Lower Manhattan was stickier, grimier. In some ways, it still is, according to the comedian, and father of five, whose “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” now in its second season, mostly shoots in the East Village and Lower East Side.
Today, there’s a part of the East Village that is a little bit “chaotic,” Gaffigan told The Villager. “It doesn’t feel pretty or clean.” That muddiness is part of the reason why he still loves it — and won’t leave. The comedian shifted from Mott St. to a two-bedroom walk-up on the Bowery and then to a larger space in Nolita.
His show, though, is still rooted mostly in the East Village and Lower East Side, with scenes at Katz’s Deli and The Library, the divey rock n’ roll bar on Avenue A off of Houston.
“The Library is one of these weird bars that doesn’t make sense,” said Gaffigan of the place, which often has cult films playing on its back screen.
When chatting about the neighborhood, Gaffigan’s excitement bounces from one venue, avenue, street, dive bar or restaurant to another, much like the filming of his TV Land show, which he co-writes and executive produces with his wife, Jeannie Gaffigan.
Nearly every scene outside of the faux-Gaffigan apartment on “The Jim Gaffigan Show” is set somewhere locally — from the Bowery Ballroom to the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (the real Gaffigan family’s church).
This season, which premiered June 19, skips around between local haunts, like McSorley’s Old Ale House — Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose father was a bartender in St. Louis, has a cameo in the historic sawdust-covered watering hole — or eating an excess of pastrami at favorite hang Katz’s. Keep an eye out for 24-hour Ukrainian restaurant Veselka on Second Ave., the VW food truck at Tacombi Mexican restaurant on Elizabeth St. in Nolita, Ben’s Pizzeria at MacDougal and W. Third Sts. and Pomodoro Ristorante & Pizzeria at Spring and Mulberry Sts.
“The East Village is one of the most authentic, New York neighborhoods that they try to recreate in other cities,” said Gaffigan. “There’s this ancient, beautiful quality in the East Village, so there’s sort of this energy and a chaos.”
Gaffigan loves the grittiness that the East Village maintains — the fact that other parents he meets might own a tattoo parlor and have “real” jobs. His own kids, on the other hand, are indifferent to their surroundings, with the exception of his eldest daughter, Marre, once told her dad, “It’s dirty where we live. Why don’t we live where it’s clean?”
She meant the Upper East Side, Gaffigan said.
“I don’t want to live there,” he laughed. “Now I think she gets it. But when she was 6, she was like, the Upper East Side is so plain and pretty.
“Obviously there’s the aspect of neighborhood feel, like it’s being removed,” said Gaffigan of the area’s transformation, as rising rents have forced many old-school East Villagers — people who may have grown up in the neighborhood or lived there for years — to move out, and businesses and venues to close.
Yet, Gaffigan holds out hope that the area won’t lose all of its character.
“The neighborhood aspect of the East Village, even as much as N.Y.U. expands, it’s still impenetrable,” he said. “It almost helps that it’s not the hippest place to live.”
Food also keeps him in the area. The author of a memoir, “Dad Is Fat” (2013), and “Food: A Love Story” (2014), Gaffigan loves to eat — mostly bad food. Yet he rarely indulges in eating out since most of his meals are kid- and family-focused. Like his bars, he likes the dive-y East Village eateries, like Crif Dogs, where he used to go with his kids before their soccer practice and for hot dogs and video games.
“It’s kind of like that East Village experience,” he said of the hot dog joint, founded in 2001 by childhood friends Brian Shebairo and Chris Antista. “It’s not anything fancy. It’s not Serendipity 3,” he said, referring to the Upper East Side restaurant known for its outlandish desserts. “It’s an East Village Serendity.”
Gaffigan is far from a diva or food snob — the complete opposite — and will take a good burger or slice of pizza from Two Boots over the fancy stuff. He’s also a fan of Mamoun’s falafel on MacDougal and W. Third St. (also captured in season two) and the Great Jones Cafe.
“The Great Jones Cafe is right near us, so I’ve probably eaten about 8,000 of those hamburgers,” Gaffigan joked. “Great Jones Cafe is kind of East Village-y. You go in there, and no one is ever going to try to show off. No one is trying to hide. It’s this watering hole that’s pretty amazing. On set, I eat in so many scenes, but I love Shake Shack.”
Gaffigan also tends to go where the show takes him — and films at the moment. He’s been shooting more at Katz’s lately, but he already had a long history with the kosher deli’s pastrami.
“I’d just eat there so often prior to shooting,” he said. “When I had daddy time with one of my kids, I’d take them to Katz’s for a massive pastrami sandwich.”
One place Gaffigan wishes he could film the show today is Mars Bar. The gritty watering hole, covered in graffiti and stickers inside and out, reminiscent of the CBGB interior, on Second Ave. and E. First St., closed in 2011. Hank Penza, the bar’s owner, passed away last year at age 82.
“You would go in there and it wouldn’t surprise you to run into an authentic hobo,” Gaffigan said. “The East Village still has this squatter kind of spirit. By the way, I would never squat. I’m lazy, but you know what I mean. The Mars Bar and The Bowery Poetry Club were like these true misfit islands.”
The Bowery Poetry Club is still operating, though in a scaled-back form, after its space was taken over by Duane Park burlesque and jazz club.
The East Village is “sticky,” Gaffigan explained. It’s hard to leave it behind, yet he admitted that he did consider moving to Los Angeles for career reasons years ago.
“All the things I like about New York, you can’t really find in L.A.,” he said. “You can’t get what you get in New York anywhere else. I don’t think I could live in another country. I love international travel, but I love convenience. I have this romantic idea of living in Paris or Ireland, but I don’t think I’d do it.”