“Everyone in my family is pretty funny,” says comedian Kathleen Madigan, “but I don’t think we think of it as funny; it’s just the way we are. My sister married this guy whose family is German, and that’s when I realized we’re funny — because they are not funny. He would start telling a story, then halfway through we would ask him: ‘Do you even know what this story is about anymore? Start over, or don’t tell it.’ ”
Madigan first gained national exposure in 2004 on NBC’s second season of Last Comic Standing but was already a headlining comic making the move out of clubs and into theaters. One of the people she inspired was fellow Last Comic contestant and Cleveland native Tammy Pescatelli.
“Tammy is going to arrive at my house in a few hours, speak of the devil,” Madigan says. “I just had my bathroom painted and I chose red and gray, which I just realized look a lot like Ohio State’s colors. So I look like the most hospitable host ever. If you show up at my house I’ll repaint the bathroom in your college colors.”
Madigan returned to the show as a judge for the fifth season in 2007 but is not involved in the new season that starts May 22. Looking back, she says she’s surprised at the way some people behaved on the show.
“There are so few actual working comedians, there’s no way you’re not going to run into these people later,” she says. “That’s why I kept trying to tell people, ‘Be nice.’ We don’t go away. This is forever. Think hard about what you’re saying behind people’s backs.”
It was that common-sense philosophy, along with the influence of her family, particularly her father, that helped her become one the country’s top stand-ups.
“We’ve all been very fortunate,” she says of her family.
“I think it’s because my dad made us get jobs when we were, like, 10. We always had jobs, and we always had money, and he’d make us pay for things. So at the end of the day, you’re figuring out how to get some cash.”
Madigan’s siblings went on to work in education, engineering and finance. She went to college and studied journalism, largely because it didn’t involve math or science. After graduation she discovered she had no passion for the fourth estate, reporting in particular.
“I hated it, oh my God,” she says. “I just wanted to write feature stories.”
Her experience as a journalist did produce one practical benefit for her comedy career, though. “I knew how to put together a killer press kit,” she says, laughing.
Madigan didn’t approach the career move lightly. “When I first went on the road I was touring for free,” she explains. “And I said to myself, ‘If I don’t see progress every year, and by that I mean financially, then I’m going to go and do something else,’ because that’s an indication to me of whether or not you’re moving in the right direction. I have comedian friends that are 45 years old, and if I was them I would be like, ‘Clearly this is not working.’ But who am I to tell them? For me, I’ve got to keep changing and changing for the better.”
In addition to her frequent TV appearances, Madigan occasionally gets to work with old friend Lewis Black. Last year the two were part of an American version of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz.
“I forgot I did that,” she says, laughing. “It was great, but maybe too heady for North Americans.”
Her friendship with Black may seem a little odd, seeing as she’s observational and a little silly, while he’s all about anger, society and politics.
“Lewis is from the ’60s, and he still has hope,” she explains. “He follows politics very closely, but I look at it like a reality show. I think it’s a bunch of crap, but he still believes in all of it.”
Her pessimism about the political process stems from an early age. “My first memory of politics is Watergate. We had Nixon quitting, and the hearings that were interrupting my cartoons. As a 6-year-old I was thinking, ‘Why don’t they just open up the gate and let the water out?’ ”
KATHLEEN MADIGAN performs at the Taft Theatre Thursday. For tickets and more info: tafttheatre.org.