Q&A: Kathleen Madigan on YouTube, hecklers and being a ‘Catholic-school-kid rule follower’

Kathleen Madigan

Englert Theatre — Friday Sept. 6 at 8 p.m.

Kathleen Madigan performs Sept. 6 at the Englert Theatre. — Luzena Adams

On the heels of releasing her new Netflix special, Bothering Jesus, Kathleen Madigan will be bringing her highly acclaimed comedy set to the Englert at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6. Bothering Jesus made huge waves in the comedy world, premiering as the highest comic debut since 2014 and breaking into the Billboard top 200 Album Chart. It has remained at number one by every comedy metric: Nielson SoundScan, Billboard and #iTunes and streaming services.

Tickets to her Iowa City performance are $37.50-57.50, available online or at the Englert’s Box Office. I was able to talk by phone to Madigan, whose foundational wit was apparent as soon as the conversation began:

What is an example of something that you learned that helped you transition from an open mic stand up comedian to a touring professional to one of the 10 funniest people in America?

Here’s the problem for most stand-ups: It happens so slowly. Literally, like, in such tiny, tiny, tiny incremental things that it is almost like there’s no one thing, no two things. It’s sort of like: You go to open mic nights, then there’s a bar where they pay $15 to do five minutes. Then it goes to $25. Then at some point you quit your day job and go on the road full time. You’ve now taken the leap. There is some going back — I was only 23 because I knew I’d be employable at age 25. I never thought about it, but the minute you quit your day job is the “I’m going in” mark.

Where within you do you become inspired to take that leap?

You have to hate the job that you’re doing enough. I’m always amazed — there are people out there. Greg Geraldo was a Harvard trained lawyer — I can’t imagine quitting a job like that. I was doing an in-house magazine, which was fine and boring and I would never make that much money. Let’s say I was a lawyer — my dad was. I doubt I would have quit that job. I am from the Midwest. I’m still of the generation where I need a job — the job matters. It doesn’t matter if I love the job, you just have to get a job, period. If I had that, I wouldn’t have quit for comedy. I won’t lose that much if I quit.

Are you happy with the day job that you’ve ended up? Is it more than just a job?

The more famous you get the more … extra stuff you have to do. It’s weird, because it’s like, when I go to these places, they want a 40-person meet and greet after. When you did it before, nobody cared. But none of it is a problem. The press stuff that I do is fun and fine and I don’t have complaints.

Are you happy?

I think about it every day. Especially when I see morning traffic that most people deal with. Its one thing to go to work in this crap when you’re not awake, but coming home from it? Blech. To keep the job and these hours for this long is awesome.

As you look back at your early career — perhaps as you became a 10-year veteran — what kinds of personal qualities do you think helped you to continue moving forward into comedy as a career rather than a side gig?

I’m super responsible, which I cannot say for some of my friends. I am a Catholic-school-kid rule follower: I do follow the rules. I think the obvious parts — I never really did drugs, I don’t go crazy drinking. The next day, when we’re in a club in Ohio, and you get up at 6:30 in the morning to do radio — you have to be funny. A lot of idiots on the road forget it is show business. There’s a lot of gross, irresponsible things that happen. I’ve been up at 6:30 in the morning and the club owners forget. They’re club people, they’re bar people — that’s fine, I’m one of them.

But there’s a lot to be said, like music: We don’t have bosses. You have to be your own boss, and some people aren’t good at that and I happen to be. I don’t know if it was how I was raised, or my Catholic upbringing. I take it seriously. That’s why I lose my shit to this day when radio people — I’m up, happy to talk, and they won’t. They flake: I’m supposed to be the crazy person, not them! And I can’t just reschedule because of that. Even radio! If a print person bails, they have a legitimate reason. But radio people?

Is this because radio people are more like bar people?

No, print people are more responsible. Radio just keeps going. If the radio forgets me — the show gets going. I’m not vital to their Wednesday morning “morning show.” If you’re doing something in print, the person is vital. Radio people talk to a lot more people in the day, there’s more chance for error.

Aside from the ability to do Netflix specials, which you have clearly done, how has the internet changed what it means to do comedy? Do you think that the ability to stream performances and knowing that your audience may already be very familiar with your delivery and jokes alters your approach to your work?

I don’t think that the Internet hurts anything comedy wise. Here’s the problem. I’m too old to answer the question, because I don’t understand how YouTube people have billboards on Sunset. Someone gets drunk and makes spaghetti — that’s literally one of them. Take the YouTubers out — the Internet doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t build. You aren’t going to sell hard tickets based on that, initially. It can’t make you long-term famous. It can make you briefly … like these YouTube people. Will anyone remember drunk spaghetti woman in two years? No.

The only thing that I can positively say that an actual real time effect of mostly Netflix is that I have the same people who have always liked me, but there’s a new group of young people. I think it’s because it is a library — they’re the iTunes of standup specials. A lot of young people won’t pay for HBO or ShowTime — somehow Netflix reaches them. It’s convenient. You binge watch. I look for documentaries, end up finding four more that I want to see.

What about phones and being taped during a performance?

The filming and the taping — it’s a hurricane that never moves. You just give into the rain and say, “Fuck it: It’s just going to rain.” If someone is blatantly filming … sure. Don’t. But it is unstoppable. And even if Bob films me doing 20 minutes — what will Bob do with it? He can put it up on my channel, then I put it down. At music — I went to Florence and the Machine and I was behind a tall guy with a tablet filming and I was like, “Fuck.”

Do you think the ability to film changes how people interact during a set?

I think it changes things, as a customer — what would I do with filming things? I took a 10-second video of Heart, because they’re incredible. But if you’re filming, you’re not present. Fully. But maybe they just don’t give a shit. When you see videos when people didn’t have phones — they’re more mesmerized. But maybe it was drugs? My parents talked about people being “hopped up on goofballs” in the ’60s.

What has been the most important lesson, or lessons, that you have learned in the second half of your career, as you became one of the top comedians in the country? Or, if it is the same lesson, then how have audiences changed over the past 30 years? Or, if they haven’t, what surprises you most about something that audiences still do?

I don’t think audiences have changed. I’m always still amazed — it doesn’t happen, hardly ever, when there’s a heckler. I do this 300 nights a year and have a mic — you’re going to lose. You won’t win the battle of wits — nobody can hear you. I’ll win by volume alone. But this is so infrequent that I forget about it.

I think there’s a lot of pressure on stand ups to be actors, or get a sitcom, or get a movie — if that’s not what you want to do, just say no. I hate acting — why would I audition to be in a sitcom? They started to call and offer. Then they tried to give me more money — but it wasn’t a “no” for money. I’m not good at it, I don’t like it. Think about what you want to do, and do one thing really well, rather than a bunch of things in a half-ass, mediocre way. I don’t think mediocrity will get you too far anyway.

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