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Stand-up comic Kathleen Madigan keeps it simple, stupid

Ahead of her Green Bay Meyer Theatre performance on Oct. 21, the comedian explained how her humble roots and dedication to making people laugh got her where she is today

By Jim Cryns

Stand-up comedian Kathleen Madigan, photo courtesy of Luzena Adams photography

Like many comedians, Kathleen Madigan uses her own family experiences to construct her stand-up act.

The road warrior is bringing her stand up show to the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay on Oct. 21, continuing a tradition of playing blue collar cities across the country.

As a child Madigan attended Catholic school. Eight years of rigor didn’t allow her to spread her comedic wings, not even a little bit.

“It’s all about the timing and place,” Madigan said. “Being funny in a Catholic school— it just wasn’t the time or the place.”

Madigan, a Missouri native, studied journalism at the University of Missouri and when she got out of college she wrote for suburban papers around St. Louis.

“I did a lot of human interest stories,” she said. “I had to cover the cable company fight in St. Louis and I realized I wasn’t cut out for that kind of work. I had a friend in school that solved a murder through her reporting. I said to her, ‘Who are you, Lesley Stahl?’ That just wasn’t me.”

Afterwards, she said she got a job at the Missouri Athletic Club where she enjoyed writing in-house stories and an atmosphere where people didn’t bother her.

So, how did the comedy thing come about?

Madigan worked her way through college as a bartender.

“We always used to drink after work to wind down,” Madigan said, “the owners allowed it. But someone misbehaved and blew it for the rest of us. No more after-shift drinks. I just wanted to relax someplace, have a drink and count my tips.”

Madigan said after her friends and her lost their drinking privileges, the group needed somewhere to go. The group ended up at a comedy club, which in the early 80s were just starting to hit their stride, but they were there for the beer, not the comedy.

“We walked into an open-mic night pretty much by accident,” Madigan said. “Just to see what was going on. After listening to an act or two, I realized I’d said something funnier earlier in the day.”

Madigan began going to the comedy clubs with regularity, mostly for the beer, but suddenly a little bit for the comics. Madigan said when she decided to go into comedy, it wasn’t a life-goal.

“I don’t know one comic today who said ‘gee, when I grow up I think I’ll be a comic,’” Madigan said. “It just doesn’t happen like that.”

When Madigan was a kid she’d watch “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” regularly, with her parent’s permission. Madigan learned early-on she could hold her own in a conversation. 

Later in life, she held a job at a horse racing track in Illinois and said she worked with a lot of older guys who were bored.

“I used to tell them stories about how my week went and I seemed to keep them entertained,” Madigan said, “from that I realized I could tell a story in front of a stranger. Even if I faked a story, I was never nervous.”

Madigan’s comedy comes from day-to-day living. She focuses on relatable stories with extemporaneous humor. She said it never matters to her how she’s feeling when she gets to the stage.

“I owe it to the people to be as good as I can be,” Madigan said. “Some nights I might be tired, but that’s too bad for me. These people got a sitter for the night and looked forward to getting out. I will do whatever I have to so they have a good time. I’ll bang cymbals. This isn’t an art, I’m not here to please my own ego, I have a job to do for these folks who paid their money and gave me their time.”

She’s affable and accessible, someone with a demeanor perfect for daytime sitcoms, but she’d rather stick to the stage. 

“I just want to tell jokes,” Madigan said. “I didn’t start doing open mic to become an actor on a sitcom or in a TV commercial. Those things never ever crossed my mind. For a few of us working, telling jokes was our main goal. I don’t have any more goals. Can’t you ever have a goal, reach it and enjoy it? Our society is being driven by type A lunatics who say you have to set more goals.”

When asked if she ever tried to emulate another comic, the answer was “no.”

“There were comics I liked,” Madigan said, “but I never tried to consciously be like them. It’s important for me to be honest with my comedy. If I’m not being honest, I think other people can see and feel that.”

Madigan said she always respected the comic Brett Butler for being herself.

“(Butler) always talked about being from the South and you just knew she was real,” Madigan said. “I talk a lot about the Irish-Catholic thing because that’s who I am, that’s what I come from. It’s insane to try and do something else.”

Born in the number nine slot of ten children outside of Chicago, at ten years of age Jim Cryns knew he wanted to write. The early years yielded only a few short stories, but the seed had been planted. It was only after earning his bachelors and post graduate degrees that he decided to begin writing again. He started writing for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club and that led to a freelancing career for the next 25 years. He writes regularly on topics ranging from ballet to baseball for virtually every major publication in Wisconsin.

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