Further proof that I’ve developed a bit of a niche within the pages of Pulse Magazine: my editor dropped me a line and asked if I was interested in doing a piece on Kathleen Madigan’s appearance at the Attucks Theater. Hey, there are worse things than being the go-to guy for interviews with stand-up comedians…
As of this writing, the Pulse piece hasn’t made it online or, indeed, even into print – keep an eye out for it on Thursday, and I’ll update this accordingly when there’s a link to add – but with Ms. Madigan’s performance creeping up fast, I’d like to give her gig a bit of additional publicity without cutting it too close. Not that Katie Anderson’s interview over at AltDaily isn’t top-notch, but a little more press can’t hurt, right?
News Reviews Interviews: When you come into Norfolk this time around, you’re going to be at the Attucks Theater. Do you have a particular preference when it comes to playing theaters versus proper comedy clubs?
Kathleen Madigan: Um…I like ‘em both, but for very different reasons. I like the intimacy of a club, but also…like, when you’re coming up through the clubs, they can be a lot more rowdy. Sometimes it’s almost like paid babysitting. Especially if you’re not a famous comedian. If they just go to the club, you can get a lot of the Drunky the Clowns. Which is fine! But usually if people pay to go see you at a theater, they usually kind of know something of what you do, and then they’re not gonna be crazy lunatics. So, y’know, it’s just different.
NRI: When did the transition start to take place for you? Was it when you appeared on Last Comic Standing?
KM: No, it really wasn’t Last Comic Standing. It really just has been the slowest crawl/build ever. [Laughs.] I’m good friends with Lewis Black, and we talk about how we do so much press now and that we’re so sick about talking about ourselves. If you were a narcissist, this would be a dream job, but if you’re not…? You just have to go on everything, you have to do everything… It’s literally just 23 years of a slow build. Last Comic Standing brought in a different group of people that probably wouldn’t have been exposed to me, because they have kids, they go to bed early, they’re not staying up late watching Comedy Central or Leno or Letterman. So it was more exposure to a different group, and I grabbed some people that probably normally wouldn’t be following comedy, but it wasn’t, like, a big boost. It wasn’t like a rocket boost. It was just another tank of gas. [Laughs.] It’s been a very long 23 years. You’ve just got to keep filling up the tank.
NRI: You mentioned how you have to go on everything. I was actually in the audience for your taping of Showtime’s The Green Room with Paul Provenza.
KM: Oh, really? [Laughs.] I loved that show!
NRI: It was a blast. I’m still really quite angry that it wasn’t picked up for another season, although probably not as angry as Paul.
KM: Yeah, I know. And I don’t get it! I mean, actually, I really did think that was a really good show. I would actually watch that show. But…I don’t know, I also watched this whole thing on Discovery about old women country singers. And I don’t even like country music! [Laughs.] But I’m interested in their lives. And if they were sitting around doing roundtables about country music, I’d watch, just because I would find it interesting. So I thought the comedy part, because of the way Paul did it, was so much better than it’s ever been done. I thought for sure it would be picked up. But, clearly, what do I know?
NRI: Yeah, it was such a diverse group of comedians he always seemed to have on each time.
KM: And he got everybody. Because we all know him, and we all like him, and we know he’s not going to drag us into some weird, uptight… [Starts to laugh.] We know if Paul’s doing it, it’s going to be fun.
NRI: When you do the TV circuit, do you have a venue that’s a particular favorite? You’ve certainly done Leno the most times, but is there one that you find better than another?
KM: Well, see, that goes for different reasons, too. Like, the actual physical space, Craig Ferguson, ‘cause it feels like a dark little comedy club. [Writer’s note: One wonders what Madigan will thing of Ferguson’s newer and larger studio, which surely has a different feel.] Leno has been so kind to me over the years, and I like going there ‘cause I like to see him. Letterman…I haven’t done it in awhile, just because I don’t put the effort into the New York stuff so much, just ‘cause I’m here in L.A. At this point, they all kind of have…the ratings are just… [Hesitates.] Y’know, it’s not like it’s that big of a difference, so now it’s a matter of convenience. It’s, like, why would I fly all the way to New York to do Letterman if I can just literally drive 12 minutes and go do Leno? [Laughs.] I loved Joy Behar’s show when she was on MSNBC. Now it’s on Current. I haven’t been on since it’s been on Current, but I’ve TiVo’ed it a lot, and I think she’s awesome. I don’t understand why there’s not more exposure for her, ‘cause I think her interviews are really, really well done. And she gets crazy people! And she’s fun, she’s smart, she’s hip. So that’s one of my favorite things to do.
I would say that, if anything, w e spend more time talking about ourselves than being ourselves. Because there’s so much media! It’s, like, in every town, here’s a radio station, but nobody’s really listening to that radio anymore, so now you’ve got to do this blog…and gladly I’ll do it all. But I would say that the biggest help to my career has been Sirius Radio. You can forget all TV. I never have somebody come up to me after a show and say, “I saw you on Leno that one time, and that’s why I came.” I mean, not that they haven’t seen me on Leno, but that’s not the reason they’re there. The reason they’re there…the most people will say, “Oh, my God, we listen to the comedy channel on Sirius Radio, they play you all the time, blah blah blah.” So Sirius Radio is my favorite people on the planet.”
NRI: Which really speaks to how comparatively ineffective talk-show appearances are today when put up against the days of (Johnny) Carson.
KM: Well, yeah, but how can they be? There’s 900 channels, literally. I actually feel sorry, ‘cause I was actually talking with Ron White about this, about how now when we do specials, how do we release them, how do we get the most people, how do you make any money…? I mean, I’m not even making specials to make money. I’m making specials so more people will come to the live shows. But if you’re one of the younger comics, I don’t even know how…how do you even get anyone to focus? There’s 900 channels, then they say regular radio’s dying, and then there’s Sirius Radio, but then there’s iPod jacks in cars, so people are just downloading what they want. I mean, Lew (Black) and I keep calling it the gray area. It’s not what used to be, where it was very simple and very black and white, but it’s also not where it’s gonna end up. It’s still this transition thing. People are getting…y’know, I’d say the twentysomethings probably don’t even own TVs! Everything’s online for them. Everything! So, yeah, doing a talk show now, like Lew and I, we go do ‘em all, and I have fun doing ‘em, so that’s good. And you get your scale $800 or whatever, and usually a free coffee mug or something. [Laughs.] But it does not have…no, when Carson was on, it was three networks, and 2/3 of the country watched Johnny Carson. So now that would be…I think there’s 400 million people, so to imagine that that many people would see you…? I mean, there’s just no way to reach those amounts of people anymore at one time. It’s almost like we have to go door to door. And that’s why it’s exhausting.
NRI: I talked to Vince Morris last year, and he said the only way he could imagine anyone having the kind of power that Carson did was if Oprah booked stand-ups. But Drew Carey’s response to that was that she’d still have to have Jim McCauley as her booking agent, because he was the biggest reason for Carson’s great stand-up picks.
KM: Yeah, I would agree. And Vince, who I do know, is probably right, but only if it was Oprah the way she used to be on. Now, though, no. Now we’re back to…you’ve just got to go do it all. Any show. I mean, I say “no” to some things that I just think are inappropriate. [Laughs.] They asked me to be on Top Celebrity Cookers or something, and I was, like, “First of all, I really hate cooking, and I don’t know how. Now if they’re willing to take me knowing that I don’t know how…” And they’re, like, “No, no, this is pretty serious. You have to have your own recipes.” I was, like, “Oh, my God, no. Call me when they have Celebrity Beer Drinking or Celebrity Pub Crawl. I’ll go on that.” So some of the stuff I don’t say “yes” to, but as far as stand-up goes, anytime there’s a slot for five minutes and I’m home, I’m there. Just ‘cause you’ve gotta keep doing it.
NRI: What, if anything, did you get out of the experience of going on Hollywood Squares?
KM: Oh, that was fun! [Laughs.] That was a lot of fun. Just ‘cause I watched it as a kid, and…I don’t know why, but I didn’t watch stand-up comedy as a kid. Probably because when I was a kid it wasn’t really an art form, per se. But I loved Paul Lynde. Like, when I was five. And I don’t even know why a five-year-old would like him, but I just thought he was the funniest human being. Even when he was on Bewitched, when he was, like, the big gay warlock. [Laughs.] I mean, the lines were so stupid, but it was his delivery. His head would be in a pot of beef stew. [Does a passable Paul Lynde impression.] “Sammy, I’m just stewing over you!” It was just ridiculous. But, yeah, that was a lot of fun. And Carrot Top was on there, too, and he’s one of my buddies, so I remember goofing off with him a lot. I’m surprised they haven’t brought that back again.
NRI: Oh, I’m sure they will. It’s only inevitable. It goes in cycles, I think.
KM: Oh, I know! Well, that’s the other frustrating thing. Like, when people say, “Oh, do you ever go out and pitch shows?” No. I mean, I have, but they will never take a chance, and I’m not gonna go in and pitch something that’s just run-of-the-middle, because why bother? And then what they do is just recycle. What was it, a couple of years ago, when they went, “We’re gonna remake The Bionic Woman”? I’m, like, “Are we this out of ideas? This town is full of lots of creative people. Why are we doing that again?” It’s like they don’t know, so they go, “What do we have that was popular?” I don’t think network TV has come to grips with the fact that their traditional model is being literally imploded. You know, the sitcoms, they want to spend all this money on, all this advertising. I mean, there’s 900 channels. Even if it’s a huge success, it’s still not what it used to be. But they’re still behaving as if it is.
NRI: As you said, it’s all very much a shifting model at the moment.
NRI: I’ve got one more very distant flashback for you before jumping back to the present, but I was curious: there’s a 1992 special listed on IMDb called Bob Hope Presents the Ladies of Laughter that you’re credited in but, oddly enough, Bob Hope isn’t.
KM: [Laughs.] Well, it was his show. So, yeah, he was there.
NRI: I figured, but I haven’t actually seen it. Did you actually get to interact with him at all?
KM: Oh, yeah! We were there for two days. He was very old at the time…like, probably 85, maybe? And it was me, Margaret Cho, Wendy Liebman, and two other people who now I can’t recall. Two other women. But, yeah, ‘cause he was getting older – like, the cue cards were the size of a house – it took a long time to tape an hour special, so we were there for two days. He was very friendly. I mean, he was around. Just a very old, nice guy. [Laughs.] You know, I couldn’t believe…I’m, like, “Why is NBC still giving him specials at this age?” And then I read all this stuff how he was such a smart businessman that he literally made NBC sign a contract that he would get to do specials for 50 years. One a year, at least. I don’t remember the details, but I know it was 50 years long, and they honored it, so that’s why he was still making specials when he was however many years old.
NRI: That’s a pretty savvy deal.
KM: Yeah. He was a very, very smart businessman.
NRI: You mentioned doing specials a moment ago. Have you contemplated going the $5-per-download route?
KM: I don’t want to do that, because…like, I can understand why you would do that, but I want as many people to see it as possible, so putting it on my website…you’re not just gonna stumble onto it. A lot of people who didn’t know who I was stumbled upon my special when it was on Showtime, and then it went to CMT, and then it went back to Showtime, but, like, Louis C.K.’s fans, they’re rabid, they’re young, they will go immediately to his website, they will find out, and they’ll do what he wants them to do. It’s just…I don’t know, I think it’s a model that works really good for some people. Lewis and I were talking about it, and his special went on EPIX and then to Comedy Central, because the whole point of it is that we want as many people to see it as possible and they don’t have to pay. Well, I mean, you’re essentially paying for Showtime and EPIX, but you’re not paying for Comedy Central or CMT. Okay, in your cable package, I guess, yes. [Laughs.] Anyway, what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t want to go that route, but I can understand why people do.
NRI: Since you brought up Lewis Black again, I know you’re old friends, but how far back do you guys go?
KM: Oh, my God, at least 20 years. Yeah, at least 20. He was one of the first people I worked with on the road. He was the headliner, I was the opening act. And we’ve just been friends ever since.
NRI: You worked behind the scenes on his series, Root of All Evil. What was that experience like for you?
KM: Yeah, y’know… [Sighs.] I did it because I wanted it to be funny for Lew, and I wanted to be Lew’s voice, but I’m just not a big fan of writing by committee. You know, you’re in a writer’s room with all these people, and…it’s not arrogance, it’s nothing like that, but it’s just that I’ve worked alone for so long that it’s just very difficult to get me onboard with having a two-hour discussion about one joke. Oh, my God, it’s either funny or it’s not! [Laughs.] It definitely tried my patience. We did have a lot of fun, though. In general, we had a lot of fun.
NRI: You were also a writer on the Emmy Awards in 2004, if IMDb can be trusted.
KM: I wrote for the Emmys for a few years, actually. When Garry Shandling was hosting.
NRI: Well, see, there you go. I thought maybe it was a bad experience, given that you’d only done it once, but obviously not.
KM: No, I think we did it for three years with Garry.
NRI: What was it like to write for such a huge audience, knowing how many viewers tune in?
KM: Well, that’s the thing about comics: I don’t think we care. [Laughs.] We don’t think of it in those terms. I just went to the clubs every night with Garry, and he just got onstage and started talking, and we just wrote the jokes. And they worked in the clubs, so in our minds, it was, like, “Well, then, they’ll work on TV!” I never even think, like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s gonna be 30 million people watching this!” It’s not that I don’t care. I care that they are. I just don’t think about it. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s three people, 13 people, or 30 million: the joke’s either funny or it’s not. But I had a blast. I think Garry’s one of the funniest guys. I wish he would do another special. I wish he would do stand-up more. But, y’know, he’s got other stuff going, so… But I think there are some people who, as time goes by, their acts before less relevant, but there are some people who are just gonna be funny ‘til the day they’re dead, and Garry Shandling is one of ‘em. He’s definitely one of my favorites.
NRI: How have you enjoyed the talking-head experience? You’ve certainly done quite a bit of it, particularly on VH-1.
KM: Those things are fine, and I’m good at that. It’s one of my stronger points. But I would prefer the talking-head stuff to be about stuff rather than celebrities, because I’m not good with…like, I don’t really know who the Kardashians are, and I’m not really sure why I’m supposed to know. And then somebody explained to me, “Oh, well, it’s because one lady made a sex tape, and her sister’s a big ho.” [Laughs.] That’s how it was explained to me. And I’m, like, “Well, I’m too tired to make a sex tape, and my sister’s certainly not a ho, so I guess we’re never gonna be this famous.” I would rather talk about politics or the news or sports, but celebrity stuff…I mean, Kathy Griffin does it really well, she’s a master at it and I think she’s really funny, but sometimes I don’t know what she’s talking about, because I’m just not familiar with that stuff. I don’t watch the Real Housewives of anywhere, so I’m just, like, “I don’t know who you’re talking about!”
NRI: Speaking of politics, I was watching your special Gone Madigan recently, where you talk about the sparring between you and your father. Did you have any similar battles with him during the 2012 election?
KM: No, because Hilary’s still not involved, I voted for Obama. [Laughs.] I did think this election season, this whole round, was…I did an interview earlier, and it just amazes me how the G.O.P. are literally having a stroke about, “Oh, my God, what do we do with the party? Oh, my God, nobody likes us anymore, blah blah blah,” but either no one is realizing or maybe they’re just not saying out loud that maybe it was just Mitt. Maybe there’s nothing exceptionally likeable about Mitt Romney. It’s very much like John Kerry. There’s nothing that the normal person can gravitate to. I don’t lean right, but I would say to the G.O.P. that Chris Christie could still win, Jeb Bush could still win… There’s no reason to have a stroke over this! It’s just that Romney was unreachable as a human being. It’s, like, “You had a robot. People don’t have feelings about a robot. They just go, ‘Oh, okay, that’s cool.’” I think their meltdown is just a little bit over-the-top. They just didn’t have a great candidate. John Kerry wasn’t a great candidate, either, but you can’t say the whole Democratic party’s gone to crap just because John Kerry didn’t win. John Kerry was boring, aloof…you know, you’ve got to pick somebody with personality! Any kind of personality! [Laughs.] Because people hate to admit it, but on some level, it is a personality contest. And if I’m the Republican party, I guess Mitt… [Hesitates.] I don’t know. I don’t know what they were thinking in the nomination process. I think Rick Perry could’ve done better, ‘cause more people can relate to him.
NRI: You mentioned having occasionally pitched things in the past, but have you ever really seriously considered making the jump from stand-up to a sitcom, or is that not something that really interests you all that much?
KM: I’m not really interested, no. I mean, if somebody called and said…well, actually, Bonnie Hunt offered me something a couple of weeks ago, but I just couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t in town. But if somebody calls me and says, “Hey, we have something that’s appropriate, just come on down and be you, blah blah blah,” then, sure, I’ll do it. But to go through the audition process…I mean, I just don’t care enough. I never got into this job to be an actor. To me, that’s like when people ask me, “So what are your other goals?” And I’m, like, “Well, I don’t have any. This was the goal!” [Laughs.] And then I feel bad! But then I think, “Well, wait a minute, why should I feel bad about that?” The goal was to tell jokes, to have fun, to make enough money to pay the bills, and to put enough money somewhere in retirement so that I’m not eating cat food. Well, I’m doing it!
I don’t know, I just don’t have any other strong desire other than to keep writing and telling jokes, which I love. So if they offered me something, sure, I’d give it a go. But, like, I won’t even go on commercial auditions anymore. [Laughs.] I just say “no.” Because I don’t really care if I’m in a commercial. The odds are a billion to one that anybody’s gonna get it. It’s based on God knows what. Luck? How you look that day? I’d just rather spend that hour reading a book.
NRI: Are there any particular commercials you’ve done that you’re either proud of or completely chagrined that you were in?
KM: Well, I did this national commercial for this multimedia company called U.S. West, which was out west, and it was a lot of fun, but they just called and picked me. They picked me and Jake Johansen and…I think Drew Carey, actually. And we each did our own little series of ‘em, and that’s absolutely fine, but I didn’t have to go audition and I didn’t have to get tested. They just said, “Do you want it?” Well, sure! [Laughs.] Okay, I’ll take it. Why not?