For Kathleen Madigan, Comedy Is a Job First and Art Second
When I talked Kathleen Madigan she was at Dollywood celebrating the release of her new Netflix special, Bothering Jesus, with the director and some of the key people who worked on the show. “This is our big party. We’re going to go see Dolly Parton tonight!” A 28-year veteran standup, Madigan has accumulated an impressive resume of comedy credits, all while maintaining a 300-show-a-year performance average. For her, comedy is a job first, and an art form second. That Midwestern work ethic pairs well with her down-to-earth standup style. Onstage she’s incredibly accessible and equally hilarious. We talked about her formula for comedy, why she hates writers’ rooms, and her ongoing obsession with missing Malaysian Flight 370.
Watching the special I felt like I was at my local watering hole sitting next to my favorite regular at the bar.
Thank you. Somebody wrote something about it — and some people might be offended by it, but I wasn’t — that said, “Nothing particularly groundbreaking, just a good time.” I’ll take that. I agree with that. I’m not onstage doing anything avant-garde or groundbreaking. It’s how I feel about Christopher Guest movies. I just laugh. It’s an escape. I don’t know if I’m capable of being anything more than what I am. I would love to be as weird as Maria Bamford, just for one day of my life, just to experience it. But for better or worse I am Middle America. Lewis Black says I’m the old lady at the bar with all of the opinions, but only half the information. I say, “Exactly Lewis, but you only have half the information too and that’s what makes for a great conversation.” To me, comedy is supposed to be fun. Shock comedy, alternative comedy, this comedy, that comedy…somewhere in some of that the fun gets lost. I’m not saying everyone should be exactly like me or anything like that. But what happened to the fun?
You can try to challenge everyone and change perceptions, but what most audiences want is that escape, that feeling of lightness and fun. Making people laugh is your main job.
I think this is where my Midwest kind of work ethic comes in because I view this as a job. It’s a job first, art second. Whereas the other opinion is that it’s art first and job second. I go about it as I’ve been hired to make these people laugh. This isn’t my basement where I can sit there with a hairbrush and do whatever I want. These people paid money and the agreement is that I will make you laugh. To stand up there and be avant-garde or alternative to the point of walking people, I’ve never understood that. I don’t want anyone to walk out. If that happened I’d feel like I failed my job.
You’ve credited your work ethic to your father. What is it about your dad’s way of doing things that influenced how you approach comedy?
It was both my mom and my dad. When we were kids there were seven of us and you had to go get a job. I remember at times going, “There’s this thing going on Friday night, but I have this job at the restaurant,” and he would say, “You made a commitment to those people,” meaning the restaurant. Then he would do his disappointed lawyer thing, “I mean, Kathleen, you could call in sick if you want, but I think that would be very disappointing.” I would feel this overwhelming amount of guilt. There’s this guilt thing whether I am bussing tables or telling jokes in a 1,500 seat theater. It’s still a job. I’d really like to be proud of what I do, whatever it is I do.
I think a lot of younger comics don’t think of it as a job. The things you have to do at any job aren’t always the most pleasant. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s inconvenient. Sometimes you have to compromise. I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about art versus work. If you want this to be your job you might have to push yourself in new ways and do things that might not be a part of the original vision you had for yourself.
The compromise definitely comes in. Every Friday night second show in clubs, when the crowd is really drunk and tired, I’m like, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to get up there and tell drinking stories.” Is that what I would prefer to do? No. But is it easy to follow for a drunk? Yes. Will they like it? Yes. Will everyone feel like they had a good time? Yes. Well then, I’ll do that. It’s not mostly what I wanted to do, but I’ll compromise. It’s like, “You guys get one show out of seven this week. This is all for you.” I didn’t even think about being a standup comedian, so I didn’t have some vision of what I would have been like onstage. I just got onstage at a bar and it just kept going. There wasn’t a preconceived notion of what it would be. It just is what it is. In the 28 years that I’ve been doing this I’m still talking about the same subjects. They are just different jokes within the subjects: my family, traveling, current events, the news. It’s just who I am. It’s not what I decided.
You’ve never been focused on TV or film. You’ve even turned down work just to focus on standup.
Yeah, all kinds of it. No desire.
Do you feel fortunate to have the luxury to turn down work?
Well, I didn’t always have the luxury when I said no a lot, which makes me pretty proud of myself. In my early thirties a couple of my friends made conscious decisions to pivot out of standup into writing because they saw the writing on the wall. They were like, “I don’t want to be a 45-year-old white guy middling in Omaha, but I’m a good writer.” So go be a writer. That’s perfect. But I thought, “I’m in it to win it.” The devil would make an offer over here for this show or that show and the money would have been better than what I was making. But I just knew I wasn’t going to like that. I would rather bartend than sit in a room and…because I did this for Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil because he asked me to do it. I said, “I will do this for you because you’re my best friend, but I’m not going to like it.” I don’t like voting by committee. I don’t like discussing jokes. The writers’ room to me is just a waste of a lot of time. Everyone strolling in at 9:30, making bagels, waiting on their toast. I’m like, “We could be done by 3 o’clock if you people would kick it into gear.” And then they would be like, “What are we doing for lunch?” and would pass around this thing and then somebody wouldn’t have ketchup and…the amount of wasted time was incredible to me. It’s like, “Is this an excuse to be here till 7 o’clock? Do you hate your wife? What’s going on?” And that was with funny people. I wasn’t even in a shitty writers’ room. I was in a good writers’ room and it was brutal.
Before we wrap up I just wanted to know if there were any developments on Malaysian Flight 370. I feel like you would be the best person for me to ask.
Oh my God. The latest was last week, according to my Google Alerts. They’ve decided that no one was in the cockpit when it went down and that they may have locked themselves out. Now first of all, we don’t even know where the plane is. We have no idea where it entered the ocean, so I’m not sure how they’re coming to these varying conclusions. Well, they’re not even conclusions. They’re just guesses. We’ll probably find Amelia Earhart before we find Flight 370. I seem to be the only one who’s actually bothered besides the family members. But you can’t just move on. I get on planes every week and I never thought it was possible that I could just go missing. It’s 2016. That’s not okay. The whole world sat back and said, “Well, sometimes we lose one.” We have shit going to Mars and we still can’t find an airplane on earth.
I think if the families of the missing get a chance to see your special they’ll really appreciate you keeping the lighthouse burning.
I said to my dad, “If you could just sneak me your law degree I would gladly represent these people.”