Kathleen Madigan is in the business of making people happy. She’s been on the road doing just that all of her adult life, beginning when she was 23.
Originally educated in journalism — picking up a bachelor’s from Southern Illinois University and later working as a reporter — she said journalism and comedy had “nothing to do with each other.”
Bartending, however, had a lot to do with her current profession.
“Journalism might as well have been nursing school or something. Bartending, you’re talking to people all day, hearing and telling funny stories, things like that,” she said in a phone interview. “Your job is to make people laugh, make them happy, provide entertainment.”
Although she is a practicing comic and a well-known one who has appeared on all of the late night shows — 14 appearances on “The Tonight Show,” five on Letterman, and every TV show from “Last Comic Standing” to “Celebrity Poker Showdown” — Madigan said she has no overall theory of comedy.
Asking her about a general theory of what is funny, she said, is like asking what’s a good song. “Some people like Metallica, some people like Pavarotti. Something is funny to some people but not to others.”
She has been interviewed by students doing college dissertations and claims she is probably the worst person to ever sit for one of those interviews because she has no set theories. “It’s like asking how you hit a golf ball. You just walk up and hit it.
“Lewis Black would be better to answer these questions because he’s a playwright and went to Yale for theater and drama and all that,” she went on. “He thinks about these things. I don’t. Me, I just started out in a bar telling jokes. It’s just that simple. I don’t have a deeper theory. The longer I keep talking, the more I realize I don’t think deeply about much of anything. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. I’ve never thought about all that.”
Madigan is on the road 250 nights a year.
“I’ve got it down to a science,” she said.
There are drawbacks, like not being able to have a pet. “It wouldn’t be fair to the pet, so that part sucks, but otherwise it’s a good life for me. I have a wonderful time on the road. I enjoy it. You’re either cut out for the road and it’s great, or you aren’t and it’s a horrible experience.”
The hardest part is the danger of losing your core identity along the way, she said. The people she admires in the business are the ones who have avoided that. “Jim Gaffigan [built] a wonderful career without losing himself along the way. Lewis Black does a wonderful job of staying himself. Most of my friends, Ron White, for example, are good at being themselves on a larger scale, and they’re not losing themselves along the way, which is pretty awesome.”
She is determined not to lose her own way, to remain the woman who told jokes in a bar, but recognizes that it is a struggle for any comic to remain authentic. There are sidetracks that lead you off the track, a million distractions. “I don’t need to be a wife on a sitcom. But what if someone offers you a boatload of money? What if the character’s not like me? Nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not me. I guess it all depends on how much you need the money or want the money.”
Madigan believes that the job of the touring comic is simply to make an audience laugh.
She is currently touring to promote her new Netflix special, “Bothering Jesus,” which she is proud of, having “worked really hard on it for a few years,” but she’s not going to be doing that entire show when she hits the Weinberg Center on Jan. 14; she’ll throw in some new content.
“The show’s never going to be exactly what you thought it was gong to be. But it’s going to be enough of it so people will be happy.”