A road warrior in the truest sense of the term — notching 250 shows a year on average — Kathleen Madigan’s overnight-success story was 34 years in the making. Throughout her career, she’s made her way from the club circuit to the late-night talk shows, Last Comic Standing on NBC, myriad comedy specials on HBO, Netflix and the Comedy Central, and has appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Her incredibly likable midwestern stage persona and slice-of-life anecdotes are ubiquitously relatable, while her observational bits remain just absurd enough to keep you glued to the twists and turns. Here, Madigan talks about returning to the road after the Pandemic, the business of telling jokes, and why murder is more enjoyable than politics these days.
French Davis: Let’s talk about the tour you’re on now. How’s that going? Do you feel like things are a hundred percent back to normal after COVID nonsense? Or are things a little bit different these days?
Kathleen Madigan: No, I think everything’s back to normal almost a hundred percent. I took a lot of August off, but I’m going back starting in September. And it was funny because after COVID… It’s like people forgot how to act in public. Just crazy things were happening. And it wasn’t just my shows. All the other comedians were saying that too. Just people were either super exuberant, or super drunk… A lot of super drunk because I think people hadn’t been out in so long, they went crazy. But we’ve leveled off that too. That lasted about, I’d say, three, four months and then everybody kind of calmed down again. But I said, if you locked a bunch of dogs in a small room and then you let them out, they’re going to spin around and shit for a while. It’s going to be weird. And we’re animals at the end of the day, and we behave like animals.
FD: Well, that’s good to hear. You had a special taped here in Denver, what, earlier this year?
Kathleen Madigan: In June. Yeah, that one got postponed a bunch too because of COVID…There was one point where I could do it, but then people would have to wear masks and there were all these COVID protocols, and I’m like, “You know what? It’s just not as fun. Let’s just wait till it’s normal.” And so we waited. It’s an Amazon original. That’ll be on January 13th. We’re editing it this summer and getting it ready.
FD: What made you pick Colorado?
Kathleen Madigan: Well, that Paramount Theater in Denver… they just do such a great job. The theater itself is so pretty, which you don’t even see that much of on the thing, but enough. You see that it’s awesome. And everybody who runs that place is just the nicest people on earth. Especially when you’re dragging all your equipment in somewhere, you can become a pain in their ass, and I get it.
(But) they’re happy to have you. And it just makes everything so much better when the crew, and the people in charge, everybody’s just like, “Yeah, this is great.” They’re not put out. It’s just how they act. They’re just very, very nice…So Denver was perfect.
FD: It’s interesting. I’ve been here since 1980. I was a kid when my family moved here and I was part of that California/Texas/New York migration. And then the last 15, 20 years, it’s been a heavy Midwest migration. I wonder if we picked up a whole lot of Midwestern people and some of them were working at the Paramount because they’re notoriously known for being nicer.
KM: Maybe it is a bunch of us. I know you’re the destination for a summer vacation for Midwesterners because we can drive to Colorado, and it’s super awesome, and it’s cooler, and there’s just a million things. We just get tired of sweating our asses off in the Midwest and we’re like, “Well, where can we drive?” The old people want to drive. My mom and dad, they want… “Where can we drive to?” They don’t want to get involved in the airport bullshit. I’m like, “Well, go to Colorado. Just go through Kansas and keep going. You’ll find it. It’s easy to get to.”
FD: Ha! I was just in Garden City last week—I’m a musician; my band was playing a festival in Garden City, Kansas.
KM: I’ve been there! I did a one-nighter once. It was hooked up with Hays, Kansas, Garden City, and then Manhattan, Kansas. It was a string of Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I remember it distinctively and it’s probably been 20 years.
FD: And it’s probably exactly the same. I think we probably stayed in the same hotel you might have, and it hasn’t changed at all. In fact, if you noticed that the soundtrack hotel lobby area was probably the same… Probably a reel-to-reel that they installed the year it was built and haven’t changed.
KM: Well, yeah. Now they can’t. They’d have to get a guy from Kansas City that would understand how to undo all that. “Well, how do we take it down? I don’t know.” That’s so funny.
FD: Speaking of Missouri, I was watching that whole interesting Senate race for Roy Blunt’s seat with Eric Greitens and then other Erics. And then Trump’s “Eric” endorsement…
KM: Yeah, he said, “Go vote for Eric.” I don’t even think he realized there were two, or he didn’t really want to take that one guy’s side because his nickname in Missouri is “50 Shades of Greiten.” And he’s the one that the lady said he took pictures of her tied up in some sort of bondage thing. And he’s got a lot of weird stuff going on. So I’m not sure which one… I’m not sure A) if Trump knew, and then B) if he did, maybe he didn’t want to commit. I don’t know.
FD: I would gravitate towards A, just considering he didn’t know the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t play in Kansas.
KM: (laughs) Yeah. He didn’t know that that was… Yeah.
FD: Does that just make you giddy when you sit down to write, or is that so on the nose it’s like, “I don’t have anything I can add to this.”
KM: Well, yeah, you just say it and it should be funny, but it’s just not because everybody knows it’s true. I never bothered trying to keep up with him. Number one, way too divisive, and number two, by the time I thought of something that was super clever, a day or two had gone by and he’d already done eight more things. And people were like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “Come on. Don’t you remember Tuesday?” And they don’t remember Tuesday. My favorite of late though, is that the word is out that he was super excited, he had secret stuff on Macron of France, his sex life. And I’m like, “Here’s what you don’t get, Donald. The French don’t care.” They don’t care if he slept with 12 men, 12 women. And he gets into office with a wife and a girlfriend. Of all the countries in the world that don’t care about sexual escapades, it’s France. Or the Italians, they don’t care either. The guy in charge has a wife and six girlfriends. They all get along. We’re the ones that care. They don’t care. But that’s another case of Donald not reading the room. You don’t know enough to know that the French are super duper, sexy-liberal. They don’t care. Do what you do. Yeah, but that’s a side note. By the time you wrote all that out, he will have said something else.
FD: Talk more about your writing process…
Kathleen Madigan: I don’t really have one. If people ever took my comedy joke books, notebooks, joke books, or what you call it, there’s just words in there. They don’t connect. It’ll just say “dad, Amish guy,” and then I just remember the story. Ron White would be the same. There are comedians, and I think it’s reflected when they’re on stage, who actually write. Physically write out a sentence on a computer, or a piece of paper, and then deliver it as written, versus the rest of us, the other group that just go, “No, I just go on stage and tell it.” And then over time I can edit it enough to refine it where it’s shorter. You have to think who’s listening. Most people want an edited version of everything. They just don’t know that. So the longer you do the thing on stage, the better you can… I don’t know, some people are just funny too. Wanda Sykes could read anything and it’ll sound funny. Ron White could do the same thing. Who knows? But I mean, as far as writing goes, there’s no process. That’s the wizard behind the curtain. There’s no process. It’s just, go on. Did anything funny happen this week in your life? Did you see anything that was ridiculous or funny? Then go up and say it. If not, keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to hear it. But I think it’s from bartending too. I had all these old guys that would come into the bar, and I think they waited for me to entertain them. One guy worked at the racetrack. He was only off on Mondays and he would come in and ask, “What’s new.” And you just learn how to talk to strangers—tell a story to a stranger that wasn’t involved in that story. But my brother’s really funny. I think being funny is sort of like singing. You can, or you can’t. I can’t. You could go put me in singing classes and maybe you could make it better, but it’s still bad. I didn’t get it. I can’t dance at all. Who knows? But then, but yeah, I can tell a story. Lewis (Black) even said — they have a national comedy center — He’s like, “Do you want to give up one of your old notebooks and put it in the thing?” I said, “Lewis, for what? I sit around backstage and draw pictures of beagles, and there’s one word on each piece of paper that makes sense to nobody.” They’re going to think there’s something wrong with me. I’m like, “No, I’m not showing anybody that.”
FD: Do you spend any time worrying about the climate today, that people seem really quick to find things and maybe sometimes seek them out to be offended by, and you don’t want to find yourself mired in controversy?
Kathleen Madigan: I’m not usually in those areas. I’m not going to get up on a stage and do 10 minutes of abortion jokes. I’m never in those areas. But I did a thing on the news special, I have a joke about watching the Caitlin Jenner thing on 30 For 30 on ESPN, or untold story, I think. It’s on Untold, I think. And I said in the first half of the show, he is Bruce Jenner. And in the second half, she is Caitlin Jenner, and that’s true. And thankfully, some people who watch the special that’s going to come out said, “You might just want to stick with “she” because if you mention he, that’s dead-naming,” which I had heard of, but I really didn’t understand it. But I do now. You know what, if it’s going to make stuff easier… I mean, my argument is, I’m just telling you what I saw. I’m not deciding that. And that’s exactly how the show goes. They go through him in the Olympics and the world’s greatest athlete and all that. And then the second half is him transitioning into her. So to me, I’m just reporting what I saw. But if there’s a possibility that this could turn into a thing, then I’m not… No, I don’t understand this whole “what we need to say stuff.” If it’s going to make people’s day shittier, then I’m not going to do it. I don’t care enough about any joke that I have to rile up a bunch of people … Especially transition people who are already getting bullied enough and all this crap. I’m fine with just, “Okay, tell me what you’d like, and I’ll do that.” I’m a conformer. I’m not a fighter. So whatever I can do, as long as I don’t lose the gist of the joke, then I’m fine. And none of that was the gist of the joke.
FD: Gotcha. That makes sense.
KM: And the joke is really just about me being lazy at the end of the day. I only get super irritated when people miss the whole point of the joke… The point of the joke is I’m lazy, and that if somebody wants to transition, it must be a super powerful desire, and it should be recognized as legitimate because Caitlin Jenner was in her 60s when she had all this shit done. Surgeries, many surgeries. And I’m like, “I am in my 50s and I don’t want to go to LensCrafters.” I won’t do it anymore. These contacts are going to rot in my eyes, and then I’m going to go find old glasses that I’ve put away in the closet and I’m going to get those out because I’m too lazy to deal… So the whole joke is about me being lazy. So if that all is going to get convoluted by me using a wrong pronoun, then I’m going to do whatever I’m told to do. That’s fine.
FD: Yeah. That makes total sense.
KM: It’s easier. Comedy’s supposed to be fun. These people that say we’re supposed to be up there changing minds, that’s not what I said. I went to a place that said Funny Bone. That’s the first club I worked, and I got a check if I made people laugh. I didn’t get a check if I made people think. That wasn’t the gig. So I’m kind of old school on that note. Get up there and make them laugh. And then people go, “Well, some of these people are hacks and they’re making people laugh.” Well, that’ll all get sorted out. It’s like music. Yeah, there are shitty bands that are popular. Somebody likes them though. You know what I mean? You can’t tell a bazillion Taylor Swift fans they’re wrong. They like her. So be it. So that’s how I feel about comedy. Just go up and make them laugh. It’s such an easy assignment.
FD: There’s the new headline for my article: “Kathleen Madigan calls Taylor Swift a shitty band.” Completely pull it out of context.
KM: (laughs) But she really likes that one song about the lady from St. Louis. Her nieces really like her.
FD: What are some of your current obsessions in the news? I just rewatched your segment on the Malaysian flight, and you were talking about your obsession with digging into it, and I’m wondering what’s replaced that in this time?
KM: Well, there hasn’t been much this summer that I have found to be… I’m so sick, and I’m sure most people are, of politics, that I can’t even take in 10 minutes of it. So now my channels have just all gone to ESPN, House Hunters, or the ID channel, and I just watch people get murdered all day. That, to me, is more pleasant than politics, just to watch murder… I’m still on the Malaysian airline. I mean, I watched the whole Australian 60 Minutes, and I think that guy’s right. I had a line in that joke where I said, “Hey, we’re missing an airplane.” And where I said, “I find that statement acceptable about a boat in the 1600s.” That makes sense to me. If you have to go back to Spain and tell Queen Isabella, “I don’t know, man. We sent them out on a Friday. Haven’t heard from them since.” Okay, well, yeah. I get it. But the fact that it is still… I don’t know, there’s a few more on TikTok about disappearing things, but I don’t know if I believe what I see on TikTok. I think I believe it, and then I don’t know. Really, my obsession has been learning how to gamble online. I’ve gone into DraftKings, FanDuel, MGM Grand, which one’s better, and then fantasy football. Because that stuff is just light, and easy, and silly. And the people I play with don’t know what they’re doing either. So it’s fun for everybody.
FD: I have my fantasy football draft coming up this week. If you’ve got the first pick in the draft, who you taking?
KM: Always Tom Brady. I love Tom. And they all make fun of me. Go ahead, make fun all you guys want. And at the end of the year, he had the most points. I really believe that to (Tom Brady fans), Tom Brady could be in a wheelchair, and I might be one of those people, I’m edging on it, where I’d go, “Oh Tom, I don’t care if he’s in a wheelchair, he can still throw. He knows who to throw to.” And I’d still say he is better than Ryan Tannehill. I’d take Tom Brady in a wheelchair over Ryan Tannehill. He’s got good receivers—everybody’s like, “Oh, I want to get Davonte Adams.” Well, Aaron Rogers ain’t throwing to him anymore, is he? Nope, it’s Derek Carr. And I like Derek Carr, but it’s not the same.
FD: All true.
KM: Nobody else wants Tom. Doesn’t seem like it. They all want Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.
FD: You’re waiting. Every year, it’s like, “This is the year that time is going to catch up with him.” And every year time doesn’t catch up with him.
KM: Nope. There’s just some people. Until he quits, he’s my number one draft pick. And unless somebody totally jerks me around, that’s who I will have again.
KM: And if there’s any power in my being, I’m going to go to Tampa on December 18th to see him play because I’m always afraid he might quit, and I’ve never got to see him. Tampa’s not that far on an airplane. Yeah. The other thing I was kind of obsessed with was that Anna Delvey-slash-Sorokin, the fake heiress. I think conmen would be what I’m obsessed with now if I had to pick it. Like the WeWork guy, Adam Neumann—some moron just gave him $350 million. What? What is the fucking matter with you? So that kind of stuff, just to get away from politics in the news, it’s just too much. I’m always obsessed with weather. That’s never going to stop. I really should have just gone to Atlanta and tried to work for the Weather Channel, but I don’t understand science, so they probably would’ve said, “No, lady.” But I’d go out there in the hurricane. I’d be that lady. I’ll go out there, but I don’t understand any of it. The politics is just ugh, too much, too much. And everybody I know feels that way. Even up at the golf course, there’s a lot of the old guys that voted for Trump and stuff, but they’re over it. They don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to hear from him. They don’t want to hear about it. I think a lot of people… Talk about reading a room, I’d say 80% of people are sick of it for now.
FD: Yeah. That sounds like a reasonable guesstimation to me, for sure.
KM: There’s the 20% — 10 liberal, 10 conservative — they’re going to hang on and watch Rachel Maddow who’s still on. Lawrence O’Donnell on the left, and then the Tucker Carlsons on the right. God love those people for hanging in there, but I can’t do it anymore. I just call my dad and I go, “Dad, what’s going to happen with…” because he was a lawyer and a judge. And then he’ll go, “Well, here’s what’s going to happen.” And I go, “Thanks.” And then I hang up. I got my news from Jack, so I’m good.
FD: Let’s switch gears. Are there new up and comers that you pay attention to? Comedians that you’ve discovered, or people that you like to watch?
KM: There’s a ton. There’s a ton. And it’s so fun to see them doing it the old school way. There’s a guy out of Nashville, Dusty Slay. He’s from a trailer park, so he’s got that perspective, which you don’t really hear that often. The poor white guy. He’s just super duper funny. There’s so many. There’s a woman in Massachusetts slash Maine, Kelly MacFarland. There’s a million, and I try to get them as openers, but I can always tell you this won’t last, because they’re going to grow out of this position, which they should. That’s what I’m hoping for. You move on. But I had to go, when I was getting ready to go back on the road, I’m like, “I haven’t done my act in a year. I better get my ass down to the club.” So I started going to a club in Nashville and it was new material Mondays. So there’s 10 people, and I would just do 10 or 15 minutes, which was the most you could do. And I’m like, “I don’t want to come in here and steal their night. I just want to do 10 minutes and get out.” But I stayed every night and laughed my ass off. I mean, the old school clubs, Comedy Works in Denver, for instance, Nashville, Zanies… There’s still so many young people that are so funny. I forgot how fun… Because I don’t have time, normally, to go down to open mic night. I just got home, I got to turn the ship around and leave again. I don’t have time for all that. But I did have time when COVID was ending and we were starting to get back to normal, and I went down a lot. I said even if I wasn’t a comedian… It was five bucks to get in. It was so much fun for five bucks. Yeah, you got to buy two beers, so what? Or two sodas, or two drink minimum or whatever. But it’s a cheap night out that really made me happy for all the youngsters. I’m like, “Look at them going,” and all these new people that I’ve never heard of. It’s great.
FD: My favorite homegrown act here is Adam Cayton-Holland, who I’ve just been watching grow and grow. Very great storytelling approach to his material.
KM: Every single person that comes out of Colorado is funny, but I used to joke around and I’m like, “Yeah, but so many of you have been told by this state that you’re not allowed to leave this state because you’re crazy.” They’ve all got other jobs and crazy things going on. Even Josh Blue, he’s got this weird cabin… Not weird, I mean, it’s awesome, but it’s strange, up in the woods. And he goes up there for a while. And the Denver comics and the Minneapolis ones, a special breed. All funny, but all super kind of left field, which I like. It’s not me, but I like it.
FD: One last question. I’m wondering,at this point in your career, I imagine you’ve heard a fair number of pitches for sitcoms, and films, and things that are not standup. And I’m wondering if any of them were just particularly interesting in any way, shape ,or form or if you had any stories about that process?
KM: The process of all that… You have to want it way more than I’m ever capable of wanting it, because it’s just layers of idiots in LA; unfunny people that don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s amazing to me anything ever gets made, ever. And then when it does, that whole process to get to it, I’m like, “What am I really fighting for here?” I really like telling jokes in front of a live audience. When you first get to LA, okay, I’ll go get a commercial… I’ll go audition for commercials. That’s just for the money. You don’t have to have your heart in it. I get it. But the sitcoms, the movies… There just hasn’t been… I haven’t seen anything where I’m like… Maybe Schitt’s Creek. That’s really funny, but that’s for improv actors, in my opinion. I’m not an actor. And I wouldn’t pretend to be because I don’t have that kind of confidence to go, “Yeah, I can just do that.” I think it’s kind of insulting to the people that can, unless it was your own idea, which I don’t really have… I don’t think like that. And I don’t have the patience to be involved in any kind of… I’ve done it as favors to friends like, “Hey, will you be a bartender in my movie? Sure.” But I always hate it. I hate it. It’s 14 hours for what? What are we doing? What is this for? I don’t get it. I’m more of an instant gratification, impulse, live person, person.
FD: Is there a pitch that has come across your desk that was just so absurd you had to print it out, put it on the wall, and remind yourself later how ridiculous it was?
KM: Well, one time Katt Williams… He’s crazy. And he knows that. Nobody gets himself arrested more by calling the cops on himself than Katt Williams. And we’re friends, and he had this crazy idea. He didn’t write it. He just called. And he was like, “Yeah. So here’s the thing. It’s going to be an alien spaceship. And there’s only two people left on Earth guiding the ship. You are going to be the lady at the controls on earth.” And then he went through all these comedians that he had pictured in it, and how they were going to fight aliens. It was so absurd. I thought, you know what? Out of all the people in the world, I think Katt Williams might have the funny idea. It made me laugh. But also the way he talks makes me laugh. So I don’t know. What was it really the idea or was it just that Katt was saying it? Other than that, no, not really.
Kathleen Madigan plays the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35+, www.lctix.com/kathleen-madigan for more information.