The way Kathleen Madigan's stand-up career started sounds like a joke - "One young woman from Missouri walks into a bar ..." - but for the now 50-year-old comedian, it was the stuff of real life. She was working as a bartender at the time and joined another bartender friend of hers for an open mic night at a neighborhood tavern. The rest is history. Very funny history.
"It was a matter of random luck," she told me in a recent phone interview from her home in Missouri. "If I hadn't gone into that bar, who knows what I would be now? I could be a flight attendant. I actually wanted to be a flight attendant for a while, but I was a half-inch too short. So I'm a comedian instead."
Madigan, known for her three award-winning stand-up specials, including Gone Madigan and Madigan Again, will be at Wabash's Honeywell Center Saturday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m. as part of her Mermaid Lady tour. She modestly chalks much of her success in the notoriously fickle comedy biz up to luck, but anyone who's seen Jerry Seinfeld's bittersweet documentary, The Comedian, knows that being funny isn't as fun as it might seem on the surface. Madigan, who divides her time between home bases in L.A. and Missouri, is on the road constantly and is always working on new material to keep her act fresh and relevant.
Perhaps that's her secret not only to her longevity, but the love she gets from fans and fellow comics alike?
"I don't really have a secret per se, but a lot of people who come see me once will come back, and so I try to have at least 60 or more percent new material," she said. "If you were at the previous show, you might hear a repeat of a few things because people like that, but most is new stuff. And you know, a lot of doing well in comedy is just luck. People say, 'Oh wow, Kathleen, you work so hard!' and I'm like, 'So does my uncle who works at a brewery.' All kinds of people work hard. I just got lucky is all."
And it would seem that luck waits for her in the dark corners of hole-in-the-wall bars. Not only did she get her big break in one - a break that has taken her to the stage of basically every single late night talk show in America and to the top of the heap in NBC's Last Comic Standing (on which, by the way, no comedian wanted to challenge her because she's basically that funny) - but she also solidified a life-long friendship with America's favorite misanthrope, Lewis Black, over drinks. Scotch shots, to be specific.
"We were doing a gig at a Hyatt bar 25 years ago - I was opening and Lew was the headliner - and afterwards we decided to get drinks. There was this golden bottle of scotch at the top of a ladder, and they were selling shots of it for 20 bucks each. Neither of us had any money then, and Lewis was like, 'I'm doing it. I want to see that bartender to climb the ladder.' That was how we became friends, and the truth is, we've never really left the bar. We're still there."
Black describes Madigan as "the lady at the end of the bar with a lot of opinions and only half the information," and Madigan's conversational style, on full display in her one-hour specials as well as in her recent appearance with Jerry Seinfeld in his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, does come across as spontaneous and unrehearsed. She can go from a joke about middle-aged cancerous mole paranoia to one about the Taliban in no time flat, and because it's a natural extension of how her mind works in day-to-day life, it resonates with crowd after crowd, night after night, in clubs all over the country and on USO stages (she and Black have made it one of their missions to entertain the nation's armed forces) all over the world.
"When I was bartending, four old guy regulars would come in every night and say, 'So, what's going on?' And we'd just start talking. All I did was move from behind the bar to behind the mic," she said. "I think the other trick is being yourself. Being real. The audience knows when you're being your authentic self. That resonates, and that's how you find your people."
Madigan grew up in Missouri, one of seven children in a working-class Catholic family. When she's not traveling or in Los Angeles, she can be found on her farm in Missouri which, she told me, isn't really a farm. Not in the traditional sense anyway.
"There aren't any animals," she said, "so it's more like the woods. I live in the woods. There are four-wheeling trails for the kids and hunting cabins for my dad and uncles. I call it a 'farm' because people in California don't get how you can own a lot of property in the Midwest and not farm it. They all picture me in this big field of wheat, I think, and that's fine."
Like a FarmersOnly.com commercial? I asked.
"Oh, exactly," she said. "How is it that someone hasn't parodied that yet? I mean, let's tell it like it is. It's a dating site for serial killers. Right? You go and meet your date on this huge piece of property where no one can hear you die."
Madigan's Missouri roots play a subtle role in her comedy. Not only is she basically a nice person, adverse to shock comedy and any form of funny that seeks deliberately to offend ("I would be concerned if I hurt someone's feelings. That would bother me, and if I did upset or offend someone I'd want to know what I said that did that. I think about what I say before I say it") but she focuses a great deal on observational material, which she said is probably a direct result of being from the "Show Me" state.
"In the Midwest we're the underdogs; we're not cool. California thinks it's cool. New York thinks it's cool. People from Missouri are like, 'It's not the best state, but it's fine; we're fine.' The viewpoint isn't from the front of the pack or the back. It's from the middle, so I think we see things a little differently."
"I mean, Missouri was neutral during the Civil War," she continued. "We couldn't commit to one side or the other, so we just beat each other up. Same with the Syrian refugee crisis. I saw a map recently on CNN. The states that were taking refugees were in blue and those that weren't were in red. Missouri was a sort of lavender color. It was like Missouri was saying to the world, 'We haven't made up our minds yet. We're thinking about it, okay? We'll get back to you.'"