ARCHIVE: Take Us Home, Kathleen


Kathleen Madigan loses her Count Basie Theatre virginity, as the standup comic takes the stage of the Red Bank landmark for the first time this Saturday.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit January 16, 2009)

Long before there was an internet bubble and a housing bubble, there was a comedy bubble — the Comedy Explosion, they called it back in the 1980s, when a hole-in-the-wall “chuckle hut” sprouted up in every vacant storefront (Monmouth Street in Red Bank had two at one brief point in time) and guys like Bobcat Goldthwait and Emo Phillips were actually making big bucks, thereby inspiring others to follow in their tracks.

Fueled by salt-silo quantities of coke and populated with a talent pool that was as watered down as the drinks, the reckless tsunami of club expansion turned the explosion into an implosion before long. Still, out of the wreckage came crawling a new crop of savvy young standups — among them a cheerfully cheeky native of St. Louis named Kathleen Madigan.

A frequent flyer on the late-night gabfests, the diminutive Madigan has almost surreptitiously built up a huge reel of TV and radio appearances, highlighted by two seasons of Last Comic Standing, a gig as consulting producer (and occasional guest star) on her friend Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil, and apparent standby status for commentary on topics ranging from sports and politics to 80s pop culture.

She’s also racked up the mileage and minutes over two decades of live gigs at our nation’s clubs, casinos and theaters — including the Count Basie, where she’ll be appearing for the first time this Saturday night.

Red Bank oRBit caught up with Madigan, while she was prepping to leave Santa Ana-kissed California for the more matter-of-fact climes of a Jersey January.

RED BANK ORBIT: So I understand you’re making your Red Bank debut, and at the beautifully refurbished Count Basie Theatre yet. I know you’re friendly with Lewis Black, and since he comes back here every year and sells the place out, was it he who recommended putting the place on your itinerary?

KATHLEEN MADIGAN: I’m really not sure how it came about, but I do like playing the theaters. These days I do about a third of my shows in theaters, a third in casinos and the rest in clubs, with some TV appearances in there also.

You seem too nice a person to be a creature of the skeevy comedy clubs. Are you glad to be done with them for the most part?

I actually tend to write while I’m onstage, and being at a club helps you get into your rhythm. If the owner’s cool, it’s the best place to work things out. Some of my favorites are in Denver, Zanies in Chicago, Comedy Works in Minneapolis — a low ceiling, Batcave-y, old school kind of place.

Surely you must have had your share of shit gigs along the way?

Yeah, the worst was probably a one-nighter at a bar in Garden City, Kansas. They had barbed wire around the stage! The owner told me that a comic the other night took a bottle to the head. Plus there was a giant snowstorm and nobody showed up but me and the other comic, and I still had to do my show for the guy. I remember thinking it can’t get much worse than this.

But it could, couldn’t it?

No. Actually it couldn’t. That was the worst. But I’ve had a lot of interesting gigs. I played at a casino in Reno, on a bill between Tony Orlando and Joan Jett — it was like a dream. On acid.

How do the crowds differ between the clubs and the theaters? Do you actually get families with kids?

My act isn’t geared to teens, I talk about adult topics. But I’ll have young teenage boys show up and ask me for a picture after the show. It’s funny; the boys will kind of nervously ask, then they’ll pose and take the shot, and literally run away.

But a theater crowd, they’re there because they know who you are and they paid good money to see you. They’re paying attention, they’re into it. In the clubs, a lot of people come to drink, just to go to the club. Especially the midnight show on Friday — they’re all completely hammered before you begin.

You really started in the business pretty much at the tail end of the whole “comedy explosion” thing.

In 1989. Yeah, I missed the years when you could make thousands of dollars for a club gig. But I caught the tail end of the coke years. I’ve always been more of a drinker, but there was all this cocaine going around then, and all these comics just going completely nutty on drugs. It literally, literally made people insane.

But even though you’ve been in the business for twenty years, a lot of people regard you as a fresh new talent. They’re only really getting a sense of what you’re about from your recent TV appearances.

Lewis really only just “made it” a few years ago, and he was well into his fifties. He got invited on Oprah as one of a group of “new” comics, and he didn’t feel like part of the young crowd at all. By the time we’re making it in this business, we’re exhausted.

I’m going to lift something from a colleague; a fellow freelancer at the Asbury Park Press named Ed Kaz, who asks every comedian he talks to about the worst bathroom they’ve ever encountered at a gig.

There’s a place in Nashville where the ladies’ room smells of dead things and chemicals; the owner hasn’t spent a dollar on his place since 1978. Actually, the worst was a port-a-potty in Afghanistan. One that hadn’t been attended to for a while. Afghanistan made Iraq look like Vegas.

Tell me more about your trip out to see the troops. Was it a far cry from theBob Hope sort of thing you might have envisioned?

You know, all I did was visit and I wanted to run away. What these guys and girls have to endure there is so difficult, I just have a completely reinvigorated respect for everyone there.

I saw the tent where you eat, the tent where you shower, and I was like, “Where’s the tent where you quit?” I mean, this is nothing like the commercial. There’s no guy on the giant chessboard, fighting monsters.

Well, let us be the first to welcome you to truth-in-advertising Red Bank. Before we call it an interview, what other activities can you clue us in on? 

I’m doing a TV show with Lewis called History of the Holidays — I’m a consulting producer and I’ll be appearing on it along with other people, like Joy Behar. It’s a look at how all these various holidays got started, and it’s a followup to another one that Lewis did called The History of a Joke — it’ll air later in 2009 on The History Channel.

Really? The History Channel?

They’re a joy to work with. They say “we don’t know funny, you guys know funny,” and they let us do whatever we need to do. It’s an experience not to be found anywhere else in TV.