Kathleen Madigan: A Singular Sensation
Kathleen Madigan is a firestorm of jokes, advice and more jokes. She is the way of the comic samurai. Beholden to none besides her hard-earned fans, Madigan came up with people like Ron White and Lewis Black. All iconoclasts, all hilarious.
She will be appearing at The Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on May 5th, get your tickets here: http://www.riotheatre.com/events-2/2016/5/5/kathleen-madigan
SUSC: You seemed to have a different kind of start then most comics. You got into the club system early on. You started hitting mics after college?
Kathleen: I didn’t do any comedy in college. I bartended in college and waited tables and we would drink across the street at the comedy club. We would watch a lot of open mic night and the people were terrible. We thought, we could do better than that. People say, “You’re career has worked out great. It’s a dream come true.” But, it wasn’t my dream, it might have been somebody elses dream, but it wasn’t mine.
Was there a group of you doing it, or were you the brave one?
There was a couple of us. We were doing it for fun, goofing off. I didn’t know it was a job, I didn’t know you could make money, I didn’t know any of this. I would see Roseanne on Johnny Carson and I just thought they were funny people. I didn’t know they were getting paid.
Did you just keep hitting that one mic on a lark, and other people told you that you were funny?
That’s exactly what happened. There was a guy who was famous on local radio and TV ads and comedy stuff and he was encouraging, He said, you keep doing this, you can make money. I started doing MC and hosting and the money was terrible, it was like $200, but for me it was easy money.
This was the end of the comedy boom, so if you had started ten years earlier you would have retired by this point. But you had to keep the grind up.
It was definitely the end of all those stories about comics making crazy money without having TV credits. Or, all the partying. There were little bits of it left, but it was entering a new era. It got oversaturated by the time I got there. But I didn’t know that. It’s like if somebody starts comedy right now and on the road they are not even hiring out of town feature acts or MCs, new comics didn’t know that they used to. So it won’t seem weird to them.
Did you get your chops in this club, or did you hit the road early on?
I was really lucky. I was doing shows all around St. Louis or the mid-west or wherever I could. A year and half into it I wanted to quit my dayjob, but I wanted to make sure I had paid work. St. Louis was the headquarters for all the Funny Bone clubs in America. There was like 15 of them. I asked if they could book me as an MC twice at each club over the year. They said yes. I got lucky because now I had 30 weeks filled. The other weeks I filled in with one-nighters or college gigs or whatever I could find.
Who blew your mind early on?
There were people who impressed me for very different reasons. I remember watching Ron White and just thinking, “He’s my kind of funny.” He was charming, his timing and he was just a funny human. Then I would watch Lewis Black and Lewis is not like me. I mean I can get in a car with Lewis and feel totally comfortable. But the way Lewis was doing politics back then, and still is, it’s a very ballsy thing to do. He says things onstage I would never say. I hate confrontation. I don’t want anything to do with a problem. Or Rich Jeni. I didn’t particularly laugh at Rich Jeni, but he was the greatest comedian I have ever seen. So there was something to learn from everybody in weird, weird ways. John Pinette. Pinette was like an old time showman. He was old timey. He was like a time traveler. He loved putting on a show. He always wore a suit and tie even in some shitty comedy club. I always tell the younger comics, “Go watch everybody.”
When you started working with Lewis Black in 1990 and ’91 was his character already fully formed? Was he the angry guy?
Yeah. He came from New York where he was an MC in the weird offbeat theatres, not necessarily comedy. I think that’s one reason he’s so original. He didn’t start in comedy clubs. Like in New York at The Westbank Café they have a theatre downstairs where they would do everything. From Broadway singing people to comedy, but not like a comedy club. I think he was afforded more patience then he would have gotten by drunks at a comedy club on the road on a second show on a Friday. So he was able to take more chances. He’s an anomaly, he’s a weird one. Even Foxworthy was in the clubs, but Lew came from a weird place and jumped in.
Political comics, and there aren’t very many of them, have a short shelf life on jokes, that must be angering and frustrating at times.
It is, but some of the bigger issues are still there. That’s what Lew and I laugh about. The big issues. Whether its gun control or abortion or racial equality it’s all still on the table. Nothing has been resolved. It’s like Lew was yelling about having to decide if he was going to cancel his Mississippi shows because of the Religious Accommodations Act, like didn’t we already settle this matter? Didn’t we already do this in the 60s, 70s, 80s? So whether if Trump stays or goes, who knows. That stuff has to be updated.
Considering what you said, do you find it hard to keep your sense of humor?
Lewis gets more wound up about it than I do. I always joke at him that he’s a hippie and he’s hopeful. I’m 20 years younger than he is. My first political memory is the president crying and quitting. I saw that and thought, “This isn’t working. Why is he crying? Why is he quitting? Is he taking the dog?” I was in a bar with Lewis a week and half ago, I had enough wine that I wanted to get him going. I said, “Trumps getting the nomination.” He went on a tirade about there is no way the GOP would allow it, blah, blah, blah. I told him, “Lew, that’s what Donald does. Don’t get mad the beagle is barking. Beagles bark. It’s what they do, they bark. It’s your reaction to him that is the problem. Not him.” Lew can’t get comfortable with that. I sit in the cynical observer chair. Lew still holds out hope, I’m like, “Rome is burning.”
You are an anomaly also! Your stand-up career has been a singular passion. Nowadays, comics have the podcast, the series, the multi-platform approach.
I don’t have any interest in the rest of it. I truly don’t. It’s an educated decision. I don’t want a sit-com that says Kathleen in giant letters. Life is too short to put up with those people. And by those people I mean network executives and idiots in charge. It goes on and on and on. Unless you have a passion for it don’t do it. It’s a tedious process. And even if you get there, the network can screw up who you are and then the whole thing fails. I can tell you a million comedians that are funny, that had a sit-com for one year and now you just wasted two years of your life for something that didn’t work. There are too many variables that are out of your control. I don’t want to give up that control. Besides, I don’t care about acting, it’s boring. Really boring. There are a few of us left who only care about stand-up. Pinette, but he died. Brian Regan, we have parallel careers. Gaffigan until recently. But some of the newer comedians think they have to have these podcasts, think they have to have web series and I see the ones doing it and I don’t understand how its helping. Just go tell jokes. Write more jokes. Jokes, jokes, jokes. It’s an old school way of doing it, but it works. I don’t think people put the trust in it anymore. I got to have something on Funny or Die. You can, but you don’t have to. It’s too splintered and fractured. There’s so many outlets and that’s a good thing and I think eventually it will become focused, but right now its chaos. Younger comics don’t even know what to do. “Should I be funny on Twitter or Facebook?” You won’t get new fans from that. Sure, I tweet all the time, but I have 75,000 people that already like me and I’m just entertaining them at work for free. I’m completely aware of what it is. I choose to do it. It’s too distracting for young comics to figure out what they should be doing. If you’re not sure if you should be doing something, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Just go write jokes.