There's Nothing Funny About Kathleen Madigan
"How big of an egomaniac do you have to be to think, 'I'm so damn right about everything, I think I should start taking calls'?"
—Kathleen Madigan on Dr. Laura
In comedy, timing is everything, and Kathleen Madigan’s timing is off. The interview was supposed to start at 5 p.m. It’s 5:15 when the phone rings. “Damn it. Sorry,” she says in a rush. “Can you hear me?” She’s sitting outside her Phoenix hotel on a picnic table to get reception; it seems bad cell phone service is a problem that ails even celebrities.
The first thing I notice about Madigan is her voice. It’s not overbearing or “look-at-me” loud, both prevailing characteristics of modern comedians (Pauly Shore, anyone?), but there is a definite sharpness, a bite. Fueled by way too many cigarettes and an uncanny understanding of what makes the average Joe (or Jane) tick, she has a penchant for cutting down everyone from Joe Montana to Joe Roegen. Make no mistake: Kathleen Madigan may be funny as hell, but you’d better damn well take her seriously.
Raising seven children, Madigan’s parents—Vicki, a nurse, and Jack, a pipe-fitter-turned-lawyer-turned-judge—instilled an intense work ethic. “[My father] figured that he worked full time while going to school and got A’s, why couldn’t we?” she says. “If we were sick, he’d yell at us, ‘You’re not sick; you just think you’re sick! Get out and throw a football or something!’ It sounds ridiculous, but it worked. I don’t think that man was ever sick.”
While attending McCluer North High School, Madigan worked five nights a week at Stuart Anderson’s, a steakhouse then on Dunn Road. “I thought high school was ridiculous,” she says. “I’d rather have cash in my pocket than decorate a float for homecoming.” Due to that less-than-positive outlook, Madigan found herself surrounded by friends two and even three times her age. “I smoked and ran around with the people from work,” she says. “It made me realize that I needed to work hard and get the hell out. I didn’t want to be 40 and still waiting tables.”
Madigan graduated in 1983 and went on to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, followed by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “I hated college too,” she says dolefully. “I never even knew if we had a football team.” While in college, Madigan worked three jobs, continuing to waitress, interning for the St. Louis Blues and running the school newspaper. “My focus was on getting out,” she says. “I mean c’mon, Missouri? I never understood people who live in one place their whole life. I wanted to become a flight attendant so that I could see the world.”
She graduated from SIUE with a degree in journalism—“I knew that I couldn’t do math or science, but I sure as hell could write a sentence”—and went on to freelance for the Suburban Journals and edit Cherry Diamond, the Missouri Athletic Club magazine, all the while moonlighting as a bartender. Forget becoming a flight attendant, it was bartending that allowed her to escape the Midwest.
“After work, we would go down the street to the Funny Bone to watch open-mike night,” she says. “Every time we went, I’d think to myself, ‘I can do better than that.’ As a bartender you’re constantly entertaining, telling stories and jokes to patrons. In that regard, it’s actually not that different from being a comedian.” So began Madigan’s transition from slinging drinks to telling jokes. “I never got into this business as a career,” she admits. “I saw it as a way to make extra money.”
She began participating in open-mike nights, then emceed shows for the club, and finally got a gig as a touring emcee for the Funny Bone chain of clubs. “I would drive around to all the Funny Bones in the country, 13 in all at the time,” she recalls. “I’d work each club twice a year, meaning that I was on the road 26 weeks of the year. The worst part was having to stay in ‘comedy condos.’ If the club is not a top-notch club, instead of paying for hotel rooms, they’ll purchase an apartment and make the three comics that week stay there together.”
After a year and a half as an emcee, Madigan was bumped up to a feature comic—the middle comedian in a standard three-person set. She paid two years’ dues as a “middle,” then was promoted to headliner, where her career began to take off. “Things didn’t change,” she insists. “I saw new challenges everywhere. Years ago it would have been, ‘OK, now I need to keep getting better so that I can become a feature.’ Now, it’s like, ‘I have to keep getting better so that I can do better gigs, like The Tonight Show.’” Soon she’d appeared 12 times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, eight times on Late Night with David Letterman. She was a contributing writer for Gary Shandling’s 2003 and 2004 Emmy Awards monologues; she starred in a pilot on Comedy Central (The Couch) and was pronounced “Best Female Stand-up” at the 1996 American Comedy Awards.
Her success was just beginning.
"I don't think it's funny that he was eaten by a tiger. I think it's funny that the audience had to be told that the show was over; that being eaten by a tiger was not part of the act. What do these people want for $75?!" —Kathleen Madigan on Siegfried & Roy
In June 2002, NBC launched a new reality show called Last Comic Standing. The premise: Find the funniest unknown comedian in the country in an American Idol sort of talent competition. The show received warm reviews, fantastic ratings, even an Emmy nod. In January 2004, auditions opened for the second season. “At first I was skeptical,” says Madigan. “The point of the show was to discover amateur comics, not seasoned professionals. However, I talked to friends in the business, and—” her famous smoker’s rasp softens. “They all told me to do it. ‘How else are you going to get prime-time exposure for 18 weeks if you don’t have a sitcom?’ With all those successful people telling me ‘yes,’ I’d be stupid to not do it.”
The second season of Last Comic Standing began in the summer of 2004, and it catapulted Madigan into the stratosphere of celebrity. “I was sitting in my sister’s apartment, and the Imo’s guy came to deliver a pizza and was like, ‘Are you Kathleen Madigan?’” she recalls. “From years of childhood experiences I replied, ‘What, I didn’t do it.’ I still wasn’t used to people recognizing me.”
After Last Comic Standing, Madigan was peppered with job offers—everything from The Best Damn Sports Show Period to E!’s 101 Biggest Celebrity Oops! “People recognize me more from commenting on Celebrity Oops! than Last Comic Standing,” she says. “The damn thing plays all the time. No wonder this country is mildly retarded. It’s astonishing how many people are watching E!”
But fame came at a cost. “The results [of Last Comic Standing] were awesome, but the experience and the way that they ran the show were awful,” she says. “It could’ve been way more fun, and funny.” The cast members, all living in the same house by contract, were not allowed to leave. “In theory, the crew was supposed to bring us everything we needed, namely food, but we even had to beg for that. I’m a woman in a houseful of guys; there were mornings I’d wake up, and the guys would have already eaten everything. I’d go hungry. They used to have a basketball hoop, but when they took that away, I started chain smoking.” Madigan continued to fight her way through the eliminations, relying on her direct, no-nonsense comedic style and the backing of her fellow St. Louisans.
“I think that the Midwestern cities are better at supporting their own,” she says. “It’s not like New York or L.A., where everyone is somehow in show business. If you’re from a place like St. Louis, it means more. Also, being from St. Louis makes my comedy appeal to a broader audience. [Midwesterners] have a pretty good idea of what most people are thinking, because we are most people.”
Still, she escaped. Freshly moved into a new house in Encino, Calif., (“I live right down the street from the Jacksons!”) her main concern is the distance to the nearest Imo’s. Alas, the City of Angels is lacking in provel-happy pizzerias. Tack on McGurk’s and the people of her hometown, and you have Madigan’s top three reasons to pine for the Gateway City. “If we could move everyone from St. Louis out to L.A., I’d be happy,” she says. Reasons she doesn’t regret the move? “The location is terrible. And Becky ‘Queen of Carpet’ gives me the creeps.”
She pauses, turning serious. “Sometimes I think comedy’s overrated,” she says. “But then somebody comes up at a club and thanks me, because they had such a lousy week. I spend much of my time goofing off and I tend to forget the rest of the working world doesn’t have jobs like this.”
It was Madigan who, on Last Comic Standing, offered the famous advice for John Kerry’s presidential campaign: “If I was him, I wouldn’t even campaign. I would just do one commercial the day before the election: ‘Hi. I’m John Kerry and I don’t want to have to do this, but if you don’t vote for me, I’m taking away all the ketchup.’”
Now Madigan’s considering doing a show of her own—“something like ‘MSNBC meets Page 2,’ nothing too serious,” she says. “I was watching the news one day, and there was a report on a zoo in Alabama that, due to the hurricanes in Florida, had somehow let a 1,300-pound alligator named Chucky escape. ‘Back to you Chris.’ I was like, ‘What?! There’s a half-ton alligator named Chucky on the loose that’s probably hungry, and that’s all you have?’ That would be my lead story.”
She is also planning to produce a documentary on the history of female stand-up. “Nothing pisses me off more than when I hear that women aren’t funny,” she exclaims. “In the ’70s and early ’80s, everyone wanted female comics, so they would book whoever. The women would only talk about shopping and PMS, and people were turned off. Men didn’t want to hear it, and intelligent women would think to themselves, ‘I’m not only about shopping and PMS.’ But look at the success of women like Roseanne Barr, Brett Butler and Ellen DeGeneres. The older women, the Phyllis Dillers and Joan Riverses, have a lot to say—and it’s all still very funny. We need to find out what they’re saying before it’s too late. These women are living legends who helped pave the way for comics like myself.”
Madigan has never produced, or even worked on, a documentary. And it’s hard enough being a woman in an industry dominated by men; being a crusader for women’s comic sovereignty could be career suicide. But if there’s one thing Kathleen Madigan has proven, it’s that she’s fearless.
Besides, what could be better for a documentary than that voice?