Back before Kathleen Madigan was packing clubs and theaters as a stand-up comedian, she was making people laugh behind a bar in St. Louis. There were a lot of locals at the bar, and one in particular, a guy named Bill, used to come in every Monday when the horse track was closed. He wrote the racing picks for the local paper and was considered a “hard gambler,” according to Madigan. He wore a horseshoe ring and had a tough demeanor. No one thought Bill could laugh.
But Madigan made Bill laugh “all the time,” she says. “He was the nicest guy in the world. He just looked serious.”
Confident that her regulars found her funny, Madigan decided one night to go next door and see if she could make a whole crowd laugh at a stand-up comedy open mike. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can make money doing this?’ ” she says. “At work I’m doing that part for free. I’m making money because I’m pouring drinks. But I could just stop pouring drinks? That’d be great!”
She hasn’t had to pour a drink in a long time. These days, her tour schedule is packed with theaters and opera houses. She sold enough tickets at the 1,200-seat Wilbur Theatre to add a second show Saturday.
Her success has been gradual, but that’s fine by Madigan. “The only thing I wouldn’t be able to tolerate is no change or a backward slide,” she says. “I wouldn’t do that. I would go open a bar.”
Her highest-profile TV appearances came seven years ago on “Last Comic Standing,” but she’s a staple on late-night talk shows, and she appears frequently on Ron White’s “Comedy Salute to the Troops” on CMT. She has no interest in sitcoms. Her good friend Lewis Black had to do some convincing to get her to join him on the set of “The Big Bang Theory” when he taped a cameo. “All right, but I’m bringing wine,” she told him. She found the waiting around while the show was taped excruciating. Stand-up is her calling. “I like telling jokes in a bar and getting paid,” she says. “I really like what I do.”
She laughs when she gets a contract that refers to her as “the artist.” She’s flattered, but what she does for a living is just “Irish conversation” to her, a legacy of growing up around funny people. “I think when you’re Irish, you just consider it what we do at the bar. You talk. You tell a story. Like, my whole family can do this. If [comedy is an art], then everyone in my family is an artist and they don’t know it and they have other jobs right now.”
Her point of view bridges her plainspoken Midwestern outlook with her rougher-edged Irish upbringing. “I didn’t even know what passive-aggressive was till I was like 35, because no one in my family included the passive part,” she says. “It’s just aggressive.”
And that sensibility naturally transfers to the stage. “That’s why my jokes are not obscure,” she says. “Because I’m not an obscure person. I’m just a normal American. And sometimes I wish I wasn’t. Sometimes I wish I was as creative as Maria Bamford. But I’m just not. And you’ve just got to get comfortable with what you are.”
She says she will go onstage and simply recount something that happened to her. Starting with a weird experience might help, but being a skilled storyteller helps even more. Madigan cites an incident with a bat in her hotel room in San Diego that became part of her act. “It was a big bat, too,” she says. “I’ve seen bats, but I was like, whoa, that’s like Count Chocula walkin’. That’s a crazy bat. Then the exchange I had with the front desk and the exchange I had with the quote ‘maintenance guys,’ the whole thing was so ludicrous that now I just repeat it onstage.”
Madigan pays close attention to politics, but there is no partisan bent to her act. In her view, not much has changed since her first political memory — news of President Nixon’s impeachment interrupting her cartoons. “I just go to the absurd when it comes to politics,” she says. “Because I really do think most of it is completely absurd.”
Politics, family, sports — it’s the stuff of conversation at a bar. And if it appeals to a broad audience, it’s because Madigan knows most people are pretty much the same. “It’s like when comics get so jolted by a region,” she says. “Where they’re like, ‘I never work in the South.’ Well, they’re the same people. They think. They feel. They’re human beings. Human beings are human beings.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.