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Photograph by Luzena Adams
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Kathleen Madigan is hanging out in her room at Montreal’s St Paul Hotel, waiting to meet up with fellow comedian Lewis Black. In a few minutes, they’ll head to the Place des Arts concert hall and do a set check for their appearance at the Just for Laughs Festival. For the St. Louis–born and (for the most part) –raised Madigan, the fest—a prestigious annual event in terms of visibility and comedy-industry networking—is a big deal, but not that big of a deal.
After more than 20 years in the business, Madigan is still a road warrior. For years, she stood in front of countless brick walls—the de rigueur backdrop for comedians in clubs and on obscure cable channels. Now, she appears on Leno and Letterman and on SiriusXM radio, and she plays theaters like Peabody Opera House, where she’s set to perform October 13.
Madigan hails from a large Catholic family and grew up in Florissant, with temporary moves to House Springs and the Lake of the Ozarks. Her father, Jack, was a lawyer and later a judge; her mother, Vicki, a nurse. She has six siblings: Kurt, John, Joe, Mary Ellen, Pat, and Kate…
Wait: There’s a Kathleen and a Kate?
“Her name is Katherine. I was first, but Kathleen is a derivative of Katherine, so she’s Kate,” Madigan says, a hint of sibling rivalry still in her voice. “I thought that was weird, but everybody in my family said it wasn’t weird. Then I went out in the real world, and everybody’s like, ‘Why do you guys have the same name?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t ask me. I didn’t do it.’”
Not surprisingly, Madigan draws on her family for some of her richest stand-up material, and the Kathleen/Katherine name game is a prime example. “I do a joke in my act,” she says. “My dad says [the names] are entirely different in Gaelic. I’m like, ‘Well, we’re not Druids living in Ireland in the 1100s. Guess what, George Foreman, it’s the same name!’”
Were you a funny kid?
I went to Catholic school for eight years. You’re not allowed to be funny. I may have thought sarcastic things in my head, but I would have never said them out loud. I mean, I’m not getting kicked out.
Were you a comedy geek—you know, sitting in your room listening to comedy albums?
No, not at all. And even to this day, it’s totally embarrassing when other comics will quote some classic album. I just go, “Oh, yeah.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. I know it sounds terrible, but I’ve never listened to a Bill Cosby album in my life. I know I shouldn’t say that because this is my job, but I like listening to music better.
So there was no early indication that this would be your career. Were you athletic?
At School of the Osage, you could play whatever you could show up for. I was on the volleyball team, the basketball team, the track team—and I’m the slowest person to ever attempt to run. But I was still on the team because they didn’t have enough people.
You’re pretty tiny, too.
Yeah. It was like a Yorkie running around the track. It was ridiculous.
What about at McCluer North?
No. Those teams were way too good. By the time I got there, I was kind of over trying to make new friends. I got a job at Stuart Anderson’s Cattle Company on Dunn Road, and I just really worked all the time. I made so much money, and I had so much fun. I had no desire to take a Saturday off to decorate a float for prom. I’m like, “I could be making 200 bucks tonight. What?”
And then it was on to college.
I went to UMSL for two years, and all I did was get parking tickets. It was horrible. Then I went to SIU [Edwardsville] for journalism because it was either Columbia or SIU, and I could drive from Florissant to SIU… It’s weird. I once did a college gig at Princeton University, and their brochure…my God. It’s like, “This is the home of Albert Einstein. Maya Angelou will be teaching poetry this summer.” I thought, “All I remember the SIUE brochures saying was ‘ample parking.’” After being at UMSL and getting $7,000 worth of parking tickets, I was sold.
After college, you wrote for the Missouri Athletic Club’s in-house magazine. How did you wind up doing comedy?
My friends and I would go out drinking. There are some bars out at Westport [Plaza], and the Funny Bone was out there. We walked into open-mic nights a couple times just to see what was going on. It was like an accident. I didn’t even know there was a Funny Bone. I didn’t know that stand-up comedy was a job. We’d watch these open-mic nights and go, ‘Well, I said something funnier than that today. I know I did.”
Eventually, you got onstage yourself. Do you remember that first time?
I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember some of the topics of the jokes. It was 1988, an Olympic year. I did a couple Olympics jokes, I did a couple Catholic jokes, and I did something about Shirley MacLaine, whose book Out on a Limb had come out. It was something about her being crazy, but I don’t remember the joke. But I do remember getting offstage, and there was a guy in St. Louis who’s still there, Craig Hawksley. He was somebody I respected and knew from radio and TV commercials. He said, “Oh, you should come back. You did really well for your first time.”
So you caught on there?
Yeah. When you show up at an open-mic night, there’s gonna be other new people there that night, too. And that becomes kind of your class, your group. There was this guy Steve. Steve could talk any place into doing comedy. I mean, Taco Bell. He could have comedy in the drive-through. He was that good. And he’d say, “Hey, there’s this open-mic night at a bar in South County on Monday. Come there.” And every town is different. You have to figure it out on your own and as a group. And none of it’s for pay. But I just kept going. And I completely lucked out, because at the time, the St. Louis Funny Bone was the headquarters for about 15 Funny Bones around the country.
I got good enough that they said, “We could book you to open in all of those clubs.” If you do it twice, that’s 30 weeks of a year booked as the opener, from Philly to Columbus to San Antonio… They had clubs everywhere. And I was like, “Great, 30 weeks.” So I just got in my Mercury Tracer and left.
What was being on the road like?
Every week, at least for 10 years, I showed up in a town and moved into an apartment—the “comedy condos,” they were called—with two comedians: 99 percent of the time, two guys. And weird as it may sound, I didn’t even question that. The headliner got the best room, the middle act got the OK room, and the opening act got the crappy room or the couch. But I had more fun those weeks. Now that I just do theaters and fly everywhere, I’m not really with the comics. We had so much extra time on the road. We only have to work one hour a day. We have 23 hours off! We’re golfing; we’re going to free movies. We really did have a lot of fun, even though the condos were very gross half the time.
Who were your mentors?
I learned a lot from watching the headliners when I was the opening act. I would sit back and watch Ron White in a club for a week, or Rich Jeni or Lewis Black… There are so many things to handle in an hour—stupid things, like when they do the check drops. There’s this 10-minute period where people are counting money, and it’s a mess. And hecklers—I learned a lot from those guys. Guys that I thought were funny when I started are still the same people that I think are funny now, so at least my taste was on target, and I wasn’t falling for the hacks.
Everyone used to point to The Tonight Show as the gig that could make a career. Did you ever have a big watershed moment?
No, and I don’t think anybody ever will again. When I was growing up, there were three networks and then that crazy channel where you watched Blues hockey using rabbit ears. KPLR, Channel 11! [Laughs.] And if you were on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, two-thirds of the country saw you. Two-thirds! But by the time I got there, cable had come around…
Now there are 500 channels, YouTube, satellite radio. Everything is so splintered, media-wise. That’s even true at the local level. Lewis [Black] and I always joke around that because now there are a thousand media outlets, we spend more time talking about ourselves than being ourselves. You used to go in a town, and there were two newspapers and three good radio stations. Now I’ve got 17,000 press requests for South Bend, Ind. Really? Is firstname.lastname@example.org really a blogger? I don’t know. But he wants an interview. So you just have to say yes to everything. I mean, don’t go over to his house…
It’s an incredible gauntlet you’ve run, but it sounds like you’re still not tired of it.
I still like it. A few months ago, I was in New York hanging out with Lew, and we were at this place called the West Bank Cafe. In the basement, there’s a little 150-seater–type showroom, and Joan Rivers goes down there a lot of Monday nights and does shows for charity. And so one of the Monday nights, I was like, I want to go down and watch for a while, ’cause she’s still funny to me. She’s like 78 [79, in fact], and she’s still all in—she still loves it. She’s got new jokes, and she’s talking about current things.
I like seeing that, because she gets it. We’re not movie stars, we’re not sitcom stars—we’re comics. And that’s all we are. We’re gonna start in crappy clubs; we’re gonna end up in crappy clubs. It’s the same gig. It’s just get up there and tell a joke. If you love it, that’s great. If you wanna be a movie star or whatever, that’s a whole different road to me.
A lot of people did go that route. They got a show. Has that never been a goal for you, or has the opportunity just not come up?
It’s really never been a goal, because for every Ray Romano, whose show turned out to be a perfect reflection of his act, there are 20 comics that they took them, they slaughtered their acts, they made them something they weren’t, and they took two years of their lives for this piece of crap that didn’t even get picked up. Who has the time for that?
What’s it like to play St. Louis?
It’s a little weird. Sometimes I would prefer to work in front of 2,000 people I don’t know. You’re not as self-conscious. But after the show, it’s more fun, because most of the time we rent out a bar and my whole family goes. We literally drank Duff’s out of beer the last time, which was pretty impressive. We were very proud of ourselves.
You did what?
We drank Duff’s out of beer. They ran out of Budweiser products. There was a terrible revolt in the bar.
This will be a big deal for you to play Peabody Opera House.
The venue is gorgeous. It’s fantastic. I actually went there and saw Florence + the Machine just for fun. I’m so happy to see new stuff coming and new people putting money in and new people being excited. I’ve been all around the country and I’ve seen what other cities are doing, and some cities get on a roll, and I think, “Boy, I wish home could get on a roll.” It’s like we’re kind of on a roll.