If there is a “comedy of the people,” its contemporary spearhead is Kathleen Madigan. The wisecracking Midwesterner is adept at riffing on expected standup topics like family, world events and the American dilemmas, in way that is, by definition, populist. Madigan’s humor is fueled by a witty sarcasm in lieu of cynical snark, an approach that helps her unify the crowd. For the last 28 years, Madigan has been a ubiquitous force on the American comedy scene. She’s appeared on HBO, CMT and Comedy Central comedy specials, TV (including Letterman, Conan and an impressive 25 appearances on The Tonight Show), Montreal’s acclaimed “Just for Laughs” comedy festival — and she was nominated for “Best Concert Comic” by the American Comedy Awards. Madigan, along with longtime friend Lewis Black, has made numerous USO trips overseas to entertain our troops stationed in the Middle East.
Most recently, Madigan has appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and can currently be seen on her new live special, Bothering Jesus, streaming on Netflix. Over the course of the show’s 71 minutes, Madigan riffs on everything from the idiosyncrasies of her family to the conspiracies surrounding the 2014 vanishing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to noodling, the decidedly blue-collar sport of sticking one’s arm deep in a riverbed with the hopes of grabbing a catfish. Madigan’s appeal to such a wide array of comedy lovers is evident in Bothering Jesus, as the audience encompasses a wide range of genders, races and ages — an accomplishment in its own right.
Madigan spoke to Folio Weekly via phone while at her folks’ home in her native Missouri, where she was taking a break before gearing up for her next run of shows. We riffed on her new special, going down the rabbit hole and bringing comedy to the combat zone.
Folio Weekly: My girlfriend and I watched Bothering Jesus this past weekend and it’s really hilarious. This show is on Netflix and you’ve previously done specials for everyone from HBO and Comedy Central to CMT; those are fairly disparate and distinct networks as far as programming. I imagine that’s a reflection of how diverse your audience is. Why do you think you appeal to such a wide array of people?
Kathleen Madigan: I don’t know. I think it’s just because I really am a “good time Charlie” and I’m not really picking sides, even if I’m talking about politics, and if I am at the bar after a show, that really is me. I don’t have a need to be “right.” I just want to have a fun bar conversation that’s intelligent … if possible. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I really am like that fun aunt at the end of the bar you’re happy to see. So I do think that has a wider appeal, compared to if I was really one way or the other or kind of set in my ways and needed to be right. I’m not trying to make serious points with current events; I’m just trying to point at the absurdity of all of it. You know, I don’t want to be all, “Rah! Rah! The media’s bad!” Like, I don’t want to be a cheerleader of the “common thought” or an invisible enemy. Because when I talk about things, I try to point out the specific absurdities so it’s not hacky.
So when you’re hanging at the bar and you’re not in Manhattan but rather you’re in …
The Ozarks? [Laughs.]
Yeah! [Laughs.] But do fans ever goad you into taking a side? Like, “Kathleen, waddya think about Trump?” Do people wanna pull you into a donnybrook about politics or current events?
They’re mostly like, “Oh, I bet you guys have hours of material now because of Trump” and it’s like you do but you kind of don’t because it’s being done by regular people. I mean, if regular people are writing things on Twitter and saying things that work, it’s kind of crossed the line. If Saturday Night Live has it every week and then he says so many things that, even if you tried to write a joke about it, by the time you get onstage, that night he’s said something else. It’s become like a rabbit hole of crazy. [Laughs.] And we’ve all gone down it! I once read a book about crazy people and they said one of the most telltale signs is that they’re chaos creators and he’s definitely one of those. And he’s certainly not boring. [Laughs.]
Those Russian hooker and golden shower jokes only lasted for a day. Sad. For the record, I’m still trademarking “My Country ’Tis of Pee” and “Bladder Hymn of the Republic.”[Laughs.] Oh man, those are good! That’s what I mean, he’s so crazy that it moves too fast. But I think the hooker thing will still stick around to haunt him because that’s the kind of thing everybody can grasp. Let’s say he didn’t pay a corporate tax in Maine. Well, nobody really gets that. Hookers they get. And we can laugh at that.
I want to talk about your overall style onstage. I think you have a very languid delivery that rolls along and the punch line kind of flows out of the story; I don’t feel like you’re “building up” to the punch line; it’s very subtle. Do you feel naturally comfortable onstage or do you really have to find ways to calm yourself when you get up there?
I’ve gotten calmer over the years, I guess, since nothing really gets me “nervous” anymore, but it’s always kind of been the same. In Montreal when I do that festival [the annual Just for Laughs comedy festival], they make you watch everything you’ve ever done on this certain TV show, and not that I don’t want to sit around and Google and watch clips of myself, but you have to watch them and it’s like homework; they know if you did it. And I have noticed what you’re saying and it’s weird because it’s always been the same and most of the things I’m saying, for whatever reason, are 20 to 30 seconds long. Like, to get to a joke. I never did that on purpose; it’s just a natural cadence for me. Like, Ron White is the perfect example. Ron’s just a funny guy. He’s not even trying. Everything he says is just funny, whether he’s onstage or not; his accent, his cadence … it’s the whole intangible thing of comedy.
I’m kind of fascinated by one particular element of standup: when a comedian walks onstage and tells that opening joke. How crucial is that lead-in for you? Do you ever agonize over continually writing and editing that?
It’s definitely always the hardest part on a TV show, because you’ll obsess over, “What am I going to open with?” And then you have to keep changing it where you have a bulletproof opener and a bulletproof closer, so if things go sideways in the middle, you know that you can save your own ass. And you need to open strong to make the audience comfortable. That’s an ongoing conversation and thing. Lew [Lewis Black] is 20 years ahead of me with this thing and he’ll still say, “I don’t know what I’m going to open with. I don’t know how to get into it.” It’s sort of like diving off a diving board; you gotta figure out what dive you’re going to do … . [Laughs.] And then commit to it.
You’ve done multiple USO tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with Lewis Black. What is it like performing for servicepeople over there?
Well, they’re so fun and so happy that you’re there that you just have great shows every night. Robin Williams was also on one of them and I thought, “Somebody should be taping this.” And Robin said, “No kiddin’, right? This is like the free, greatest audience for a special.” But the greatest moment was when you get on the Blackhawks, and it is dangerous, flying over Afghanistan. Well, they make you put on the whole military uniform: flak jacket, the helmet, the whole nine yards. And Lew put on his gear [laughing] and he’s got his glasses and they’re always dirty. He always looks disheveled. I told him, “That’s why you like Bernie Sanders so much: He’s the only person who’s more disheveled than you.” So he put on the whole outfit. But they didn’t have any extra small gear for women. I had a women’s small but I think they assume that woman’s going to be at least 5’3” — which I’m not. And we looked so ridiculous, staggering around in these getups. I told him, “You look like you’ve already been attacked. And we haven’t left the building.” And Lew said, “So do you, and this is a reminder why we will always play these shows for free for these people so we never have to get involved.” [Laughs.] That was probably the most unforgettable thing I’ve ever done. We don’t want to be soldiers [laughs] but we’ll do something else.