Kathleen Madigan on Giving Fans What They Want and Her New Special

Kathleen Madigan
Luena Adams
Kathleen Madigan

Kathleen Madigan is one of the few stand-up comedians who can get away at laughing during her set. She does it often, but it’s because she finds that the situations she writes about genuinely amusing. Whether it’s her continuing obsession with the missing Malaysian airliner, the fact that Catholics have saints for everything, or how difficult it is to put in a car seat, she has been spinning her funny observations into laughs for nearly three decades.

In her latest special, Kathleen Madigan: Bothering Jesus, which debuted on Netflix last month, the veteran of five specials, Last Comic Standing and countless gigs talks about the subjects above, as well as the new retirement community where her parents live, her home state of Missouri, and more. She talked to TV Insider about the special, why she has her publicist send an FAQ to people who request an interview, why she gives fans what they want, and why you’ll never see her guning for a sitcom or book deal.

Do these specials get easier the more you do, or is it the same difficult kind of process, working on material in the clubs?
I don’t think the special part is difficult. I go on stage every night and tell jokes. I write pretty fast just because I get bored otherwise, then I know when I have an hour ready. There’s a lot of comedians where they don’t do stand up for a long time, and then they go and try to write an hour, and then they do a special, and that’s one way to go about it. I’m just working every night, so the jokes are being written anyway. Then it’s, “Okay, I have a new hour that I like.” It’s not [just] a new hour, it’s got to be a good new hour that I’m proud of where there’s a bunch of things in there that are … I’m not going to slack off and go, “Yeah, I have an hour.” I know if it’s half-assed, and I won’t do it.

The hardest part is dealing with the business end of it. I’m not a … I don’t like it. I’m not a business person, but I have to be involved and I don’t like to be involved. It’s just on some level I have to be involved.

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Is that “good hour” purely what is funny? What the audiences at the clubs will laugh hardest at, or is there something about what you feel about the material yourself that makes it good or mediocre?
It’s both. Some of them are for them and some are for me. The Malaysian airline thing [in the special] is for me. Not everyone is going to be that obsessed or even on board with me talking that long about it. That’s for me. The Catholics bothering Jesus stuff, that’s for everybody. It’s for me, too, but it’s not as selfish. There has to be some balance or I would feel like I’m ripping people off.

Do people come to expect you to do the Catholic family stuff?
They like the jokes about my parents a lot so I will keep doing them, because I feel like this conversation goes on in comedy clubs and bars all the time but to me it’s a job first and an art second. I know there’s other people that feel differently but my Midwest work ethic tells me, I signed a contract to make these people laugh and I have to do that. I will always do what they want. Some of it, not the whole hour, but I’m going to do the stuff they’ve come to expect.

Within that though, how do you find new angles, new avenues, new things that make it interesting to you?
Seriously, the direct relationship with Jesus thing, in the South particularly is mind-blowing to me. I can’t imagine speaking to Jesus about my broken dryer. It’s unfathomable to a Catholic. It’s trying to point out the absurdity of my own religion but a little bit of theirs also. It’s just pointing out the absurd.

The layers of Catholic bureaucracy. I like that joke and I’m not even Catholic but I understood it quite well.
It was clearly presented as a corporation and Jesus is the CEO, God is the owner but only in title, and it goes all the way down the line.

The stuff about your obsession with the missing Malaysian airliner, It has been two years and people have forgotten about it a little bit. Any reluctance to do that material because of that?
No, I had that conversation. Lewis Black is my BFF and I said, “You know, this could look dated.” He said, “Yeah, but you are truly obsessed with it, you’re getting Google alerts, there was one two days ago of a new theory about that guys were actually heroes and how it all went down.” He said, “The point is, you’re obsessed with it and no one cares.” Yeah, there was a thought. This happened two years ago, but that’s my whole point! Lew convinced me that it wouldn’t be … It is about being outdated, that’s the whole point, that it’s been forgotten and everyone’s fine with that. Except for the families, I’m sure. Governments, federal aviation boards, they’re like, “Eh, you know. Is it okay to say sometimes we just lose one?”

What influence has Lewis Black had over your career?
It’s so weird, because I met him in Chicago at this comedy club that was in the Hyatt, it was called Catch A Rising Star, and we went out drinking that night after the show. I was the opening act, he was the headliner. We have stayed friends ever since and I don’t even know how we did it because we didn’t have cell phones, there was no computer, we actually called each other. We dated for a while 100,000 years ago, and then even after that we just stayed friends. If he has a day he’s not really excited about, he’ll make me come and do it, and same way. Corporate things or charity things or just offbeat stuff. I think every comedian out there has their little pod. The people that they’ve, over the years, resonated with the most and he was just the first part of the pod, I guess.

It feels like Netflix has become a huge player when it comes to comedy specials. What have the streaming networks like Netflix done to open things up for comedians?
I think it’s really helped change things because I’ve had all of them—HBO specials, Showtime, and Comedy Central—and here was the problem: They would tell you when the premiere date was, but then they would never tell you … You’d say “Well, how many times will you air it?” “We don’t know that yet.” “Okay, well, when you know, will you tell me?” “No.” “Okay, great. This is a great relationship.” You’re going to tell me nothing to help you or myself. Excellent.

If you liked me or whomever, you would either have to know when the premiere was and set your DVR, or get home and stumble upon it. Until there was “search for” on TiVo, it was just random. Netflix is on all the time, it’s like a library. You say, “Oh, I want to know who Kathleen Madigan is.” Boom, you go, and there’s two of my specials. It’s the ease and the accessibility and it’s literally, you demand it and it appears. It’s the ease of it, I think, compared to everything else was just random. It was so frustrating.

There was an arrogance with the networks that does not seem to apply to Netflix. That’s why the networks are going to go down in flames if they keep ignoring the monster that is right behind them.

Do you think at this point in your career, almost 30 years into it, that people are still discovering you? A younger generation or people that have heard of you but maybe saw you on Last Comic Standing in 2004 and want to catch up?
Yeah. I know they are, because of social media. I do my own Twitter. Facebook I check in on, but it’s a lot. Facebook is a lot. Twitter’s so much faster and easier and I like it more.

With Last Comic I realized, “Wow, I’ve been on The Tonight Show five times, I had an HBO half hour and a Comedy Central half hour, and all kind of people don’t know who I am.” I thought I would have resonated a little bit. The problem is all of the things mentioned, whether it’s Letterman, or Comedy Central, or a pay channel. We’re missing the whole primetime viewer people. Then Last Comic Standing got those people.

I think Netflix is the next level of finding people. Lew and I drink a lot of wine talking about this. When Johnny Carson was on, two-thirds of the country watched Johnny Carson every night. There’s no way you can get those numbers anymore except for the Super Bowl and the Hillary-Donald debate. That’s it.

Is it interesting that it Last Comic still resonates in comedy circles?
It was just one of those things that appeared on primetime and it was this lightning in a bottle, that that’s when reality shows were starting to get super popular. Nobody had seen anything like it. We had 13,000,000 people watching episodes. For a summer series, that’s crazy. That is crazy numbers. Now a network show in primetime in the fall would kill to get 13,000,000. Kill. It was a timing thing and it got very, very lucky.

Now I think the comics view it as something they should probably try and go do, but I see the guys that did it last year. Some of them open for me. It would be the equivalent to me, back then, doing Evening at the Improv. It’s good and it matters a little bit, but it’s not going to change the world.

What has changed between … I wouldn’t even say how you did stand-up when you first started, but even your stand-up from 15 years ago compared to now?
For better or worse, mine really hasn’t. I don’t know. I can verify that because every year you do the Montreal Comedy Festival, if you’re one of the ones they pick, you do this TV show. It’s for Canadian TV. It’s this big gala-type deal and they send you tapes, video links, to every set you’ve ever done on Canadian television to remind you not to repeat any of that material. Not that I would, but you have to click this thing saying you’ve watched it. It’s like homework. I’m like, “Really? You’re going to make me watch what I did from 10 years ago?”

Nothing has changed. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. The material’s all different but I’m still talking about traveling, current events, politics, sports, my family. Those are the five main things. I haven’t ever talked about popular culture. My life consists of those things and that’s what I keep talking about. Nothing, really.

When did you hit on that formula? Was that early on?
I’m the same person as I am off-stage, onstage. Whatever I’m talking about … Let’s say I’m sitting in a bar talking to Lew. We’re going to be talking about his mom and dad, we’ll talk about my family, then we’ll talk about the election, or sports. It just is what I do every day. I don’t like to go shopping, so I don’t go. I really can’t write joke about … I don’t have any information about that topic. It’s just been a thing.

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You’re the first comedian whose publicist ever sent me an FAQ which is interesting. It’s good because you probably get asked these questions all the time…
I made her do it. I said, “Pam, if somebody asks me again-” … Here’s where I get angry because I went to journalism school and I graduated with a journalism degree and I know what you’re supposed to do before you pick up the phone and call somebody and at least half don’t. I’ll humor it. I will be kind, but I really want to vomit in my own mouth because I think, “You know what? This is online everywhere. It’s not even hard.” In olden days you’d have to go get old newspapers or read a book or something. Now all you got to do is click. It’s all over my website. It’s all online. They just don’t do it. I said to Pam, “Here’s the 10 things I’m not answering anymore because I’ve answered them 100,000,000 times.” It’s not like I’m being an a–hole. You’re being lazy and flippant. She was like, “Okay.” She thought it was weird, too.

What made me curious is that one of the questions on the FAQ was, “Do you think women are funny?” Why do you think people still ask that question? I don’t get it. If that makes you vomit in your mouth, let me know.
No, because that’s the first time somebody’s agreeing with me. Why is this even a topic? The more you keep asking about it, the more it still becomes a topic, and it’s not a topic, but this is how we keep topics alive. We continue to talk about “Well, you know, it’s such a struggle for us.” No, it wasn’t. Not any more than the guy next to me. That was my experience, though, so if other women have other things to say about it, great, say them. The one thing that does keep this s–t going, though, is in the Academy Awards and all the music awards they have different categories. Men and women. Until they stop that, there’s always going to be in people’s mind and the common vernacular there’s going to be two categories because they’re doing it. Why does it have to be “Best Female Actor”? “Best Male Actor”? How about the “Best Actor” and this show would be an hour less long.

Women in comedy have been around forever, so I don’t get why it’s all the sudden a new thing. Were people asking Joan Rivers about this 40 years ago?
Moms Mabley was the first comedian, period, to sell 1,000,000 albums and she was an old black lady. We already beat the guys in that if you really want to break it down. Joan Rivers, are we not counting here? Phyllis Diller? It goes on and on and on.

I think it’s because there’s less women than men [in comedy]. Somehow there’s more of a spotlight on us. I took advantage of that. When I was super young, 25 years old, they were having auditions for HBO’s Young Comedians Special or HBO’s Women of the Night. Okay, if you want to divide it, I’ll take any advantage that I can get and clearly I’m going to go audition for Women of the Night. 50 women showed up and five of us got it. The Young Comedians ones were dealing with the guys. Probably 500 showed up. The complaining … I don’t know. I’ve felt the exact opposite. “Really? You’re going to give me a 50-yard start over my buddy Greg? Okay.”

Are you going to keep doing this until you can’t do it anymore or are you always looking for a next project, like a book or a sitcom?
No, no, no. No there’s … No. I am not searching for any projects. I have no more goals. I have bucket list things. Me and Lew, in the fall of 2017, we’re going to tour Canada back and forth in his bus, but it’s still stand-up. I have zero desire to be involved in a sitcom. If somebody wanted to put me in a movie and it was easy and it was a day or two, I would do it.

They called and said, “Will you come read some lines for American Dad?” I didn’t have to audition or anything. I was like “Yeah, sure.” It’s in the daytime. What else do I have to do at 2:00? But I’m not going to go audition for it. I’m done with that. I don’t like it enough to give away my day. I’d rather go golfing or fishing or anything than go audition with 2,000 people. I don’t even care.

I remember sitting there one time at a commercial audition thinking, “I don’t even think I want to be in this commercial. Why am I here?” Just because somebody said you have an audition at noon, you get it in your head, “I have to go.” No, you don’t. No, I don’t want to keep doing this.  I don’t want to write a book, I don’t have a secret script. Then my sister goes, “That sounds really bad when you say that out loud to the press, that you don’t have any more goals.” I said, “Why? I reached mine.” Just because Oprah told me to build a dream board, doesn’t mean I have to do it. I’m having a lot of fun. Finally the slot machine is paying off. There’s money just falling out of the slot machine. I’m not leaving the casino now! The machine is hot.

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Is that because of all the outlets out there or is it because you’ve been doing this for 28 years?
It’s the slow build. I never had a big thing. It’s just been a slow, slow, slow … Like Ron White always says, “You’re more successful, Madi, you did it all without one thing.” He said, “I got the Blue Collar tour and I got lucky. But you just keep going and going.” It’s just over the years and then more people know who you are, so I got out of the clubs and now I’m in theaters. You’re more of a draw so you can ask for more money. Time put in, I guess? But I was having fun. If you’re having fun the whole ride you don’t care where the ride is going. You’re just having a good time.

I never had immense goals. I would go on the road and do jokes and then somebody’d say, “Oh they have this show Evening at the Improv.” And I’d think, “I’ll try for that.” I never said, “I’m going to have a sitcom by the time I’m 32.” Or “I’m going to do Letterman by the time I’m 30.” I just kept … More like one step at a time, instead of some big giant dream that you have to make come true at a certain time. I think that’s setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment.

It’s interesting that you don’t hear more stand-ups talk like you’re talking, that “This is what I want to do.” Why is that?
I think the late ’80s and early ’90s when every comedian that went to Montreal was getting development deals and sitcoms. That’s what put it in everybody’s brain. “Oh I can do more than this.” Then if you rewind the clock … Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, most of those people, performing was their thing. They might get some other things in the mix but they still were out on the road a lot. Then the sitcom thing came in.

I’ve been with Lew to a million sitcom tapings. I literally can’t even handle being there eight hours, much less being a part of it. I’m sitting in his green room drinking wine and I’m bored. I’m like, “Ugh. Get me out of here.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t have other goals, for the other comedians that want to do a million projects. Jim Gaffigan’s got a million things going on, good for him. I like Jim, we’re friends, his TV show’s good, his books are good. That’s just not something I would be interested in.

Kathleen Madigan: Bothering Jesus, Now available, Netflix