There is little Kathleen Madigan hasn’t done in her roughly twenty years in comedy. She’s left her original profession (in her case, journalism), done the big move from St. Louis to L.A., toured the country, done every conceivable TV talk show, and even done reality television as a contestant on Last Comic Standing. Most recently, she’s played to the troops in Afghanistan, made the leap from clubs to theatres, and found herself on the set of the Dr. Phil show.
But unlike some for whom stand-up is a means to an end, the comedy is the thing for Madigan. It’s what sustains her. “[It’s] Just fun,” she told me, speaking by phone from Florida, where she was visiting family. “Just stupid fun. I mean, if I wasn’t onstage telling jokes I’d probably be just at a bar talking to somebody. It’s kind of the same, except somebody’s paying me.”
I spoke with Madigan about comedy, Dr. Phil, staying healthy, and a plethora of subjects ahead of her show this Friday at the Comedy Connection Wilbur Theatre. The vast majority of that conversation is included here.
I have to apologize, I’ve got kind of a cold and my brain’s kind of a big slug.
That’s okay. I just had one for three days, it’s finally going away. It was a killer.
How do you avoid stuff like that when you’re on tour?
Euuch. All these airplanes. You just keep going and getting more antibiotics and the doctor just stares at you like you’re crazy, but what are you gonna do? There’s no way to avoid it, unless you want to walk around like a crazy person with a mask on your face like Michael Jackson, which I just can’t bring myself to do.
Do you have a lot of interactions after shows with fans and such?
If I go out for a meet and greet. And I’m not a freak about germs, but you do think, man, I just shook, I don’t know, a hundred people or more’s hands. You can’t think about it too hard. You just have to go, oh well. I think I got this from a plane. I think planes are the worst because it’s just recycled air, so if there’s one person sick, it’s just bluh bluh bleah.
You were already touring a lot before Last Comic Standing, did that get you bigger venues?
You know, not bigger venues, but just more people… By the time I did Last Comic I had already been on the road, what? Twelve years, I guess. And I’d already done a bunch of Tonight Shows and Lettermans and Comedy Central stuff. But there’s a bunch of people who don’t watch all that stuff, they only watch prime time TV. They don’t stay up that late. So it’s like a whole different audience you pick up. It’s weird, because when I do daytime TV, whether it’s Bonnie Hunt or the Dr. Phil stuff, that’s a whole different group, two.
There’s three different groups of TV watchers, the late night, the prime time, and the daytime. And they don’t seem to criss-cross. You know, they have their time, and that’s that. So it helped me get new people who didn’t know who I was. And then the bigger venues have just come with time. I don’t really work any clubs any more except a couple of my favorites. And that’s usually when I want to work on something and do a bunch of shows in a row.
You’re also on VH1 and CNN – are all of these segmented audiences that don’t overlap?
Believe it or not, E! and VH1, that’s the gym crowd. They see me on there but they don’t even hear it. They just know they’ve seen me somewhere. And CNN people, they don’t seem to really go out.
I didn’t see the Dr. Phil show but I read about it on your site – how strange was it to be on a show with a guy who’s essentially a huge comic target?
Really strange. It was like I had taken percoset after a medical procedure. Because, like, they put me in the audience, and then I was onstage with him, and I was running around the audience asking them questions. He’s a huge comedy fan, though, and he listens to Sirius radio and they play me a lot. So that’s where he heard me, and then his son is friends with Ron White, who I’m also friends with. He wants to make the show, some days, a little lighter and a little less intense. Which is great. Me and Ron White and Jon Lovitz actually did it a couple of weeks ago, I guess. It was a two-parter, they aired the first part. The second part hasn’t aired. Where, you’re actually talking about the subject but in a lighter way. Not so heavy, PhD people with facts. They’re there, but we’re there to lighten it up a little bit. [There are videos linked from Madigan's site, including this one, but no embed codes.]
I was surprised. He has a great sense of humor, he laughs a lot, his wife is lovely. And as a comic, we do tend to be cynical, and I kept thinking, are they faking this? IS this real? [aside] I’m fine, dad, I got her. I’m holding one of my sister’s twins, who’s being very good right now. I will not be obnoxious and put you on the phone with her. “Say hi!” God, I hate that.
It was really strange, but he’s actually sincere. He’s not full of shit. And, I don’t know, I guess I just assumed that everybody on TV was kind of full of crap. I’ve seen him stay after the show and talk to people for like an hour. He could leave. HE could go home, and say, too bad, so sad, you signed up for the show, it is what it is, you knew what it was going to be, and I’m out. But he doesn’t. And I have no reason to lobby for the guy.
It just seems strange to hear he’s a comedy to think of how many times his name must come up when he’s listening to that [Sirius radio].
I don’t think he would mind. He’s actually like, all Texas, all the time. He understands if you’re making fun of him. He’s a good sport about it, put it that way. He doesn’t take himself so seriously. He would love it if someone did a skit making fun of him. He gets it.
He also has a sarcasm quotient that’s pretty high with you, Ron White, and Jon Lovitz.
Yeah, his tastes, the people he picks off of Sirius radio – he knows my CDs – it’s odd to me, he does have a pretty high cynicism, sarcasm meter, because there are comics that are way less cynical. Like if you took Bill Engvall, Engvall’s just nice. I mean, he’s funny, but he’s a nice guy. You know what I mean? There’s nothing cutting or edgy about Bill. I would think that he would lean towards that, but he goes for – I mean, out of the four Blue Collar guys, Ron is definitely the edgiest. And that’s his favorite.
Has the job of comedian changed a lot since you started? The Internet has exploded, there are a million more niche channels than there used to be.
Overall, the biggest change is, success is not going to come overnight. It’s not going to come with one television show like it used to. You used to go on Carson, and you figure, there’s only three channels, definitely a third of the country is watching you, usually two-thirds of the country. So the next morning, you would be famous. Two-thirds of the country would know your name if you’re Roseanne and you go on Johnny Carson the night before.
Now, there’s a hundred channels – five hundred channels – there’s a bazillion media outlets. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It used to be a sprint to Carson, and then bam, you could headline Vegas. The whole thing just changed. My god, I’ve done the Tonight Show twelve, thirteen times, Letterman five, Conan two, the rest of them. I’ve done them all. It’s a build, it’s a slow build, and you just can’t quit.
I see too many comics who, they get frustrated and they quit. If somebody said, “What are you proud of?” it wouldn’t be any of the TV shows or any of the things that took a lot of work and perseverance, it’s that I haven’t quit. That’s the only thing that I’m really proud of, because there are many times where you have to rethink the whole thing and think, really, seriously, what the hell am I doing? Am I going to be some 50-year-old woman in some club called Bonkers? [laughs] Really? You have to assess it frequently and go, okay, okay, okay, can I keep doing this? Can I hang on?
And I see a lot of people who just fold, and they either go to writing or – because people want a normal life, they want a family, they want a house, they want all that. So they just say screw it and fold. And some of them shouldn’t quit. Some of the funnier ones go, that’s it, I’m out. And then some of the ones that suck keep going.
It seems like there’s got to be thousands of people who quit this job every year, if not every month.
Or they try it. Every single person in L.A., every waiter and waitress, go, “Oh, I do stand-up.” Oh, okay. Really? Do you really do stand-up? Or did you go to a coffeehouse and get up and say something. There’s a very big different.
Did you go straight from St. Louis to Los Angeles?
Yeah, but slowly. I did the Tonight Show and I did some other stuff out there, and then I got an apartment. It wasn’t like one day, I just packed up and moved. It was like, okay, I’ll get an apartment here, I’ll have some stuff here, and then I’ll just throw some stuff in my parents’ basement. It was kind of ramshackle for a few years. I was wherever I was. And then over time, it was like, okay, this is actually where I’m going to kind of live. Even now, I’ve got a guy out buying furniture for my townhouse because I’m not even there. I don’t even have time to go get furniture. So he’s going to get it and sending me pictures of it. And it’s like, okay, that looks great, leave it there. So it seems like I have a home.
Is that a good position to be in, or would you rather have a sitcom or something where you could settle down and be in the same place more often?
I don’t know. Lewis Black had a show on Comedy Central called The Root of All Evil for a couple of years, and he’s one of my best buddies, and he said will you perform on it but write some stuff as well, and write some stuff for him, and I said okay. So I was home for three months in a row and it was super strange. I was still going out on weekends and doing my gigs, but Monday through Friday I was home and had a job like I would go somewhere at ten o’clock in the morning and the same people would be there every day. It was fun, but it was only fun because I think we knew it was temporary. I don’t think I could sign up for that.
The one thing that we have that’s awesome is freedom. Right now I’m just in Florida with my family hanging out between gigs because I can. I’m really close to my family and they’re in Missouri most of the time. They say a sitcom’s thirteen weeks, but really it would be more. You have to be somewhere at a certain time every day. I don’t know, you just lose a lot of control. And that’s one of the other big things that changed. They’re not really giving comics sitcoms anymore.
They’re more ensemble pieces now.
I wouldn’t mind being a second banana on one of those. I wouldn’t mind. Like, David Spade’s had a nice career, as far as that stuff goes.
If you hadn’t left newspaper writing as a profession, where do you think you’d be right now?
I think I would have somehow become a flight attendant. And then I’d be that crabby, 40-something flight attendant that wants to kill everyone on the plane. And also probably addicted to some sort of pain medication from pushing that cart up and down an aisle.
Where you’re playing in Boston is a 1200-seat theatre. Is that the norm for you these days?
These days, it is the norm, between 800 and 1500, depending on where I am.
When you look at where your career is now, playing theatres and selling CDs and DVDs, are you where you want to be? Is there something you’d like to add to that?
No, I’m exactly where I want to be. I really try not to think past Friday. I’ve gotten really lucky with this train of thought. Stuff just comes up. You could have asked me a million things that you thought would happen. I never thought Dr. Phil would call my cell phone. Never. It wouldn’t have been within the range of things that could possibly happen.