Kathleen Madigan on Why She Prefers Comedian to Celebrity and How We Brought Donald Trump Upon Ourselves

Kathleen Madigan's comedic beginnings sound a lot like the start of a joke, except Madigan really did walk into a bar — a bar that just happened to double as a comedy club. It was right next to one she worked at, she says, and after going up during an open mic one night she decided to keep doing it.

"It was literally an accident," she says.

Now, more than 25 years later, it's anything but. Madigan spends much of her year on the road, playing casinos in small towns and famous clubs in cities, talking openly to audiences about everything from her childhood to her vices to her BFF, fellow comedian Lewis Black. For the 50-year-old comedian, the road is home, and though her name appears on top 10 lists next to television stars like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, she's not looking to make the jump to the screen anytime soon.

New Times caught up with Madigan on the road in Ohio, where she was finishing a series of dates before heading Southwest for three Arizona performances, finishing in Scottsdale with a set at Talking Stick Resort on Saturday, April 9. The veteran comedic voice talked about the appeal of the road, why she prefers "comic" to "celebrity," and how Donald Trump is great for stand-up — but bad for just about anyone else.

New Times: First of all, I want to offer my condolences about Garry Shandling. I understand he was a friend.
Madigan: Yeah. Absolutely horrible — like seriously, what the fuck. There was nothing wrong with him. There's a lot of comedians that, especially with some of my friends' behavior, if you told me they dropped dead today, I mean, I would be upset, but it wouldn't be shocking. It's still bizarre like, if you say it out loud. "Garry Shandling's dead." It just doesn’t make sense. … It really does make you realize, though, you better be having fun today. Nobody knows.

When you last talked to New Times it was shortly after Ferguson, and you're from right around there [Florissant, Missouri]. Did a piece on Ferguson ever make it into your act?
I talk about that I'm from there, and when people say, "Oh my god, can you believe all that happened?" I'm like, "Yeah. Yeah. I can." We kept a lid on it for 25 years, and the tension was palpable. Walking around as a teenager, we were like, "Shit is gonna go down." And it finally did. I mean, I talk about it a little bit. I don't go into it extensively, but enough that it's out there.

Do you think that comedians have a responsibility to be that topical in their act?
Because there's so many different comedians and so many different styles, I think your number-one responsibility is to make people laugh. That's what the contract says, however you want to go about that. If you take someone like Jim Gaffigan, he talks about his family and food. I don't expect Jim to [talk about it]; I expect Lewis Black to. Everybody's kind of got their thing, and if it's your thing, then I expect you to do it. Like, if I bought a ticket to see Lewis Black, I expect him to talk about the election.

And your act is very personal.
Yeah, like I don't think I'd be talking about Ferguson if I wasn't from there, because it's too much of a hot-button topic.

Is anything off limits for you?

Not really, but like, using common sense, I will never say something that I think could really hurt somebody's feelings on purpose. There's just no need for it. It's not necessary — and why do that? I try to be conscious of where I am, what is happening, what is going on, so that I'm not — it doesn’t necessarily mean that I'm changing things every night or every week, but just a general awareness. You know, if you went to New York after 9/11, I'm not going to do jokes about [the attacks], unless it's about the absurdity of the news reporting of it or something, but not the actual event. People could be sitting in the audience and they came for comedy, they came to be entertained, to escape reality. That's what entertainment is supposed to be sometimes. It's a mental vacation — you don't necessarily wanna jump on subjects that can bring up sadness.

They're coming to see you to laugh, so why would you make them cry?
(Laughs) Exactly.

I want to talk to you about the election, because even if it's not a part of your act, it's practically a made-for-comedy event these days. What do you think of this election cycle? What's your take on everything?
I think reality TV has taken over reality. It's crazy to me. As a comedian, it's great. Every day if you wanted to sit around and write any kind of jokes, [or] if you're a monologue writer for any of the shows, it just couldn't be easier. But as a citizen (laughs), oh my god, is this really our country? This is what we're presenting to the world? It's a little embarrassing.

The Republican field to begin with, when there were like 12 of them, I kept using the Survivor analogy: that they kept getting voted off the island, and some people voted themselves off the island. But even that line-up of guys — well, one woman — it's just uh, it's not within the realm of anything we've seen.

But you know what? This whole summer — because all day long I have on CNN, I jump over and see what they're doing on FOX or MSNBC — every single day this summer, Trump called in or showed up to one of those shows. The one thing I will say for Trump, the old-school ways of Mitt Romney and these "we are politicians, we don't engage with the media" — that shit is over. You have to, now, participate. Because Lewis [Black] and I were joking — he was calling in to FOX & Friends — I go, "You can't do phoners for television!" But Trump did it! And the media, to me, is 99 percent responsible because they took his calls. And they said, "Well, anybody else could've called and we would've taken their calls, but no one else called," and they're kinda right about that. But all summer long, I'm like wow, no one's paying attention. He had four solid months — June, July, August, September — and none of them were doing anything. They thought it was a joke. "Oh well, that's just Donald." (laughs) You got played! You don't want him, but you created the monster.

Do you and Lewis Black knock a few back and riff on whatever happened in politics that week?
He goes completely crazy. The difference between me and Lew is I said, "Lew, you're still kind of a hippie with hope." I never had hope. My first political memory is the president crying and quitting. (laughs) So to me, politics was a big downer right out of the gate. Lew gets seriously upset about all this, versus I'm more in an observer role. If I talk about politics in my act, I'm pointing out the absurdity of all of it: both sides, hopefully in an even-handed manner. Trump will say something and Lew will lose his mind. But that's what he does! You're angry that the beagle is barking. The problem isn't him; the problem is your expectations of him. Do the Clintons lie and are they sneaky and do they cheat? Probably. But you have to accept that's what they do. Now the question is: Are you okay with that? And will you vote for them anyway? Instead of dwelling on the fact that they do that or dwelling on the fact that Donald spouts shit out and changes his mind and lies about what he says, that's what he does. Do you want him or not?

Lew just gets enraged. He has a little corner bar he likes in New York, and we were there within the last two weeks, and I said, "Trump is going to win the nomination." He's going to get the delegates, just do the math. "No he won't, no he won't." But then, especially if we've had enough wine, I'll keep taunting him: "Tell me how he won't." And he really, he cannot believe that the Republican Party will allow it to happen, and I would have said that six months ago [too]. But now? They don't know how to stop the runaway train. Unless they take it away from him at the convention, in which case — or if he implodes. The thing yesterday might have been the start of the implosion, I'm not sure. I'm usually disappointed in Chris Matthews, but last night his debating skills — you can't let Donald get away with platitudes and no details. At least he kind of held his feet to the fire for once.

Meanwhile, [John] Kasich is trying to trick six people into coming to a doughnut shop with him. You can’t deny that with Donald, it's all adding up. The star quality, his name is everywhere, he looks successful — whether it's real or not, nobody in the general public is going to look into the fact that his casino in Atlantic City went bankrupt. That's Lew's favorite joke: He owned a casino and it went bankrupt. I mean, you can't be any worse at business than that.

In your stand-up special Madigan Again, you mention voting for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama during the last primary cycle. Do you still stand by a vote for her?
I do think that politics is a game, and I do think she knew how to play the game better than Obama did at the time. The problem is now, I think Bernie is a truer — he's a better person. (Laughs) I don't think he's ever lied in his life; he's like the Jewish grandpa you wish you'd have had. I think he's a better human being, and I am really a little sick of the Clintons in general. It's gone on too long. I really think Hillary Clinton, her whole political career her timing has been terrible, and timing isn't necessarily something you can control. It's sort of like Jeb Bush: terrible timing. That's just life; that's not anyone's fault.

You're spending a lot of time in Arizona this week, not just in Phoenix, but with shows in unexpected markets like Wickenburg. What draws you to smaller towns?
Here's the part I really truly still love, because people go "you've been on the road for 26 years, that's gotta be tiring." Well, the airports, that's bullshit — and still is. I just like to go to weird places, so the stranger the better. Last month, I did Idaho Falls and, I don’t know if you saw the show Big Love, but the Mormon casino they wanted to invest in right across the state line? Well, there is one, in Wendover, Nevada, and it's the weirdest place on earth. From the Salt Lake City airport to the casino — it's not long, like three hours — there's billboards that say, "Your secret is safe with us." I'm like, what secret? Gambling? Playing a Wheel of Fortune slot machine is a secret? I still really, really like to go to weird places. I've been to the normal ones: Omaha, Chicago, Cleveland, I'm in Cincinnati right now. I've been to these cities a million times and now I have friends in them, which is fun, but I've already seen the city. There's nothing left to see. I'd rather go to weird, like last year I did a run through Montana and Wyoming, and I was so excited because I've never been. I like to go where I've never been.

Is that how you keep from getting worn down? I mean, spending 300 days on the road, a different city, different hotel every night, it's got to catch up to you sometime.
Oh there's snap moments, yeah. I was somewhere and the key didn't work and I threw my shit down — literally, like a baby, at the very most a 6-year-old — I just threw my purse down, I sat down, and I just cried for like five minutes. Then I got myself together and went back and got the key. It was just a breaking point like, "Are you kidding?! I just dragged all this shit up here, the front desk is a million miles away. I am so tired, I only have 45 minutes 'til the show." There's little temper-tantrum moments. I know which airports I've cried in, and it usually involves Denver and Miami. There's meltdowns, but they're normal. You just want the goddamn key to work. If I were president, we're going back to keys. The keycard shit? No. "But did you have it by your phone?" No! I know that. I travel every day. I'm aware. You didn't program it right.

You've been very vocal about preferring stand-up and the road to a sitcom jump, but with the popularity of Netflix and Hulu and the freedom those platforms offer, have you or would you ever consider a web-based series?
No, it's way too much work. [Jerry] Seinfeld is so famous, that like the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, anybody would have taken that. Chuck [Martin], the guy in the backseat [of the episode she's featured on] who's our friend, Chuck kept telling Jerry, "Don't make a deal with those people. Then there's going to be all these rules and you're gonna hate it. Just do whatever you want and throw it out there." And that's exactly what he did. It's weird, if you look at his thing, some of them are nine minutes, some of them are 18 minutes, and there's no rules, which is great. But Jerry's so famous, and he has a bazillion dollars to work with that like, that's a fun project. I could see wanting to do that. But not like a series of scripted stuff and, no.

In the 25 years you've been doing this a lot has changed in comedy, especially because of social media. How has the comedy scene changed for women?
A lot of it seems to be what I call "shock" comedy. They're just saying outrageous things that I guess it's fine for awhile, but I don't know how you really cultivate an audience. I also feel like there's really — I don’t know if it’s more so [women] than the guys — but a lot of younger comedians that are clearly using stand-up as a steppingstone to something else. Celebrity, unfortunately, seems to be an actual profession now. I don’t get that.

When we all started, stand-up was the goal. It wasn't a steppingstone. And I'm not saying one is good or bad, they're just different. The people that I like as comedians and my friends that are comedians, none of us really want to be celebrities, we want to be comedians. You just want to be known enough that you can sell the tickets. I went to the Emmys when I helped Garry Shandling write the monologue. Torture. No thanks. I'm a comedian; I'm not a celebrity. But I think the culture of celebrity is a whole new thing, and some of the younger comedians are just part of that. It's a normal thing for them, versus my group we would say celebrity at what? They don't have a definition: That is a job.

It's easier too, because with you and the comedians that you came up with you had to seek out clubs and shows and go up every night. Now you can just post on Twitter or Instagram or whatever, and cultivate it that way.
Yeah. It's a whole new — I don’t know if they went through with it, but I heard that [a major promotion company] was going to do a tour of YouTube stars. I was saying to my brother, it's kinda going backward to vaudeville, where you have 12 acts that have five minutes apiece. There is no headliner; there is no main act. In LA there were these billboards [for YouTube stars] and I was like, "What does that lady do?" I'd look it up and oh, she gets drunk and makes spaghetti.

You're like, "I do that every night, it's not a big deal."
[laughs] Who knew that that could be a thing? It's just a different era of entertainment.

Kathleen Madigan performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, at The Showroom inside Talking Stick Resort, 9800 Talking Stick Way in Scottsdale. Tickets range from $30 to $65 for this 21-and-over show. To buy tickets and for other details, call the box office at 480-850-7734 or visit Madigan has two other dates in Arizona this week: the first at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson on Thursday, April 7, followed by a set at the Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts in Wickenburg on Friday, April 8.
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard