Comedy Q+A: Kathleen Madigan

Kathleen Madigan performs at the Wilbur Theatre on Friday, April 20th.

Comedy veteran Kathleen Madigan is making her way back to Boston for an appearance at the Wilbur Theatre. She’s made countless appearances on the “Tonight Show” and the “Late Night With David Letterman” in addition to writing for Lewis Black and Garry Shandling. When Madigan was in town in 2010, she was preparing to tape her Gone Madigan hour-long DVD and TV special and is now returning with new material. We had the chance to speak with her about her USO tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, why comics from the Midwest have such wide appeal, and the state of comedy today.

Thomas Lewis: Are you looking forward to your visit to Boston this Friday?

Kathleen Madigan: I’m really excited to be staying at the Liberty Hotel, which I guess used to be a jail? That’s awesome! That’s so fun! There’s actual jail bars still there, I’m told.

Am I correct in understanding that you’ve done some USO tours of combat zones in support of U.S. troops?

Yeah, I’ve done a few of those now. The first one I did was with Kellie Pickler, Kid Rock, it was so much fun, also Lewis Black was there, comedian John Bowman, and the Zac Brown Band guys, who were a lot of fun. The next one was with Lewis Black, Robin Williams, and Lance Armstrong. That one was so funny because Lewis said “What’s Lance Armstrong going to do?” And I said, “He’s going to go up before the show and lead a Spinning class.” Lou goes, “Are you serious?!” [Laughing] And I’m like, “No! They’re not going to have 50 stationary bikes in a tent in Kabul!” Although that would be hilarious now that I think about it. Both trips were fun for different reasons but the first one really sticks in my mind. I’m still really good friends with Kellie Pickler somehow even though she’s like only 24 years old. Iraq and Afghanistan are awful, I don’t know how those guys can do it, but being with her made it so much fun.

What time of year did you make these trips?

These are always at Christmas time. It was so cold over there and it’s weird, because in Afghanistan, it’s freezing, but there’s sand blowing in your face. When sand is blowing in my face, I should have a colorful drink in my hand. There are sandstorms out there but bitterly cold, and Lance Armstrong is out there, jogging the perimeter of the base with the troops, meanwhile me and Lewis Black are huddled in bunkbeds, smoking, trying to get warm, complaining that there’s no alcohol, and Lance comes jogging in saying “Hey, guys!! What’s up!” What a freak!

You used to be journalist at one point in your life.

Yes, I was so bad at math and science, and in the Midwest, they tell you about five different choices of what you can do with your life. I knew I could probably write a sentence, so I did journalism. I liked to do feature stories, but I really didn’t like to do hard news. My friend was writing about toxic waste dumping in St. Louis — oh my god, no! I just wanted to visit with and write about a 100-year-old lady who had a Ronald Reagan stamp collection, those kind of stories. So I did journalism for a couple years, but I knew I didn’t have my heart in it enough to really be good at it. I wasn’t making enough money at it, either. I was making more money bartending, so I knew I couldn’t do it forever. I had to figure something else out, not that I figured out comedy on purpose, it was just an accident. I was bartending and we couldn’t drink there, so we would go to the comedy club to drink, and that’s where I started doing comedy. It was in this weird era before the internet came along, but newspapers were dying already, so the whole thing journalist career path seemed like it was collapsing, going down a waterslide into muck.

You mentioned the Midwest earlier, and there’s a Midwest flavor to your attitude and how you approach your material, which sometimes isn’t so politically correct — but you still have broad appeal. Is there something about coming from that part of the country that helps you connect with such a large audience?

I think there’s something about the delivery from some of us “Midwesties” that is accessible without being threatening. An East coast comedian at times can be perceived as abrasive and rough in a Midwest person’s eyes because we’re sometimes polite to a fault. Then we just become passive-aggressive. I don’t think Midwest people know what to do with someone being aggressive out of the gate. I walk out, I’m 5’1″ and usually smiling, not aggressive. Look at Louie Anderson, who is going to be put off or threatened by him? 90% of us in the Midwest don’t come from someplace “cool” that we feel attached to, so we don’t have an attitude about it. We don’t have that kind of crazy state pride like, there was this guy in Texas who right before he was executed, yelled “Go, Cowboys!” There’s no way that anybody from St. Louis, right before you kill him, is going to yell “Go, Rams!” It’s just not going to happen.

Do you think there is a big surge in comedy happening right now? Boston lost another comedy club recently, so where is this surge people are talking about?

So many great people have come out of there, Boston has produced so much talent so that’s too bad. I think what’s also sad about a club closing is that’s where new talent gets a start. Before the economy went in the toilet, the comedy club was a destination, you didn’t care who the comedian was because you just wanted to go there and laugh for an hour and a half. Now people don’t have the $40 to throw away so they have to look at who is at the club and ask themselves “Is this somebody I really want to see? Perhaps I should go out to dinner at the Mexican restaurant and have some margaritas instead.” But the clubs are where everybody starts and if you don’t have the clubs I don’t know what people do, I don’t know what to say to young comics if they don’t have a club in their town.

A lot of people try to start something on their own, the comedy “nerds” try to create something, in taverns, hotel lounges.

Those places have always existed but they really are different than a club. I got my start in those places in St. Louis, there was this guy Steve who was a go-getter who would run around and make up comedy nights wherever. He even tricked a Taco Bell into hosting comedy on Wednesday nights, he was amazing, he made things happen instead of just sitting around and bitching about it. So these places always existed, it’s just now that’s all there is in some cities. People are doing what they have to do but it just sucks that it’s such a struggle right now. I am sorry to hear about that club closing in Boston, but I am excited for this show at the Wilbur, I really enjoyed the last time I was there, and this time I get to stay in a jail which I think is pretty cool!

Kathleen Madigan performs at 7:30pm at the Wilbur Theatre on Friday, April 20. To find out more about Kathleen Madigan’s comedy and tour schedule, check out her website. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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