Dallas — Kathleen Madigan wants a dog, a beagle of course, the party animals of the canine community. But she can’t have a dog right now, being on the road all the time with occasional pit stops at her farm in Missouri. “If you can’t travel without having your dog with you, then maybe touring isn’t the job for you,” says Madigan in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
Touring is what Madigan does, generating a new hour of wry material every few years, taking it on the road and taping for television. Her third one, Madigan Again, hit many best-of lists. She occasionally jaunts overseas for the USO and tears up the place every year for Ron White’s Salute to the Troops on CMT. The comedian pulls into the Majestic Theatre on Jan. 23 as part of The Mermaid Lady Tour, a reference to the sculptor who set off Norfolk, Virginia’s obsession with mermaids that extends even to its airport.
But this show is different. In the past year or so, the comedian systematically reviewed recordings of her many broadcast and live shows, looking for something specific she’d once said. Instead, she found the golden thread of her life, the core of where the funny comes from:
“It’s almost the whole story of my life, from age 23 till now, a road trip of 25 years performing. My family grew up with my stand-up,” referring to her four brothers, two sisters, their spouses and children. “I don’t really write jokes. Everything I say happened. It’s really just a long funny story. Someday I can give it to my nieces and nephews, and it’ll all make sense.”
Madigan describes her uncles as “hilarious” and wonders why her younger brother never tried to be a comic. Growing up with six competitive siblings, two parents and all their witty kin, “You have to become quickly adaptable. Nothing bothers me.“ From that comes her freedom to be funny.
Since she was 13, Madigan has been regaling audiences with wise cracks and gentle ribbing while taking tips in St. Louis restaurants, working her way from bussing to waiting tables to bartending. She excelled at the latter. A natural raconteur, she kept customers coming back for the comedy and good service.
With a natural affinity for sports, Madigan was a high school hoopster—the shortest person (5”2’) to win the Mid-Missouri Hoops Shoot Championship. She made efforts to do the conventional career track, attending a couple of colleges and eventually gaining a journalism degree. After all, her beloved Irish Catholic wag of a father, Jack Madigan, toiled as a pipefitter by day and attended college in his off hours, becoming an attorney and eventually a judge.
But some friends signed her up for a comedy open mic without her knowledge and thrust her onto a stage. Spinning the shtick that her bar regulars loved, it was a success. Her path was set. Madigan told herself, “Forget the journalism, forget the sports, this is what I want to do.”
Madigan has stayed at it for 25 years, working her way up the comedy club hierarchy and made the leap to performance halls, even headlining the Mirage in Las Vegas and garnering a nomination as Best Concert Comic at the 2014 American Comedy Awards. Many comics see stand-up as a launching board for television and film gigs. For Madigan, it’s all about the show—being live and in relation to people. Imposing the confines of a sitcom role on her would be akin to keeping a racehorse in a stable.
Madigan may not be an ambitious person who craves fame, but she has an astounding work ethic. A staple on nearly every late-night talk show, she's now a regular panelist on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. She’s featured in the current season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and hosts Blue Collar Comedy on Sirius XM Radio.
Though she’s on the road constantly and considers Los Angeles her base camp, you can’t take the Midwest out of Madigan. She deflates foibles with congenial humor, not putting people down so much as shoving them with a laugh into the same human pool we all share. A touch cynical at times, yet ever approachable, she is Midwest sensible in her gently debauched way.
Madigan loved The Pabst in Milwaukee, a late 1800s jewel-box of a theater that she chose as part of The Mermaid Tour to tape her fourth stand-up special. In the elaborate Baroque opera-house tradition, the theater boasts an Austrian crystal chandelier, Italian Carrara marble staircase and gold leaf accented proscenium arch. But in true Madigan style, it was the people who shaped her decision: “Everyone at The Pabst was excited about the taping. Milwaukee is a great, fun, beer-drinking town. Who knew Germans could be this much fun?”
With this tour’s opportunity to ruminate over 25 years in comedy, and no desire to go Hollywood, retirement looms in Madigan’s mind: “I was watching a Joan Rivers documentary, she must have been in her 80s. She looks at her datebook and says ‘No bookings. That’s my nightmare.’ What is she talking about? That’s my dream!”
“I have tons of plans for retirement,” says Madigan. “I think about it a lot. It will definitely not be in California. All my friends are here, but they’re comedians who came from other states. You know what, I’ve never been to a funeral in Los Angeles as an adult. If I lived in St Louis, I would’ve been to 100.”
Madigan pondered owning a bar like McGurk’s, an Irish pub in St. Louis that straddles old-country culture and modern sports fandom: “I’ve had a great time on the road, but there are so many things I’d like to do. I can’t have a dog.” Her dog of choice is a beagle, of course. Beagles just want to know where the party is, if the food is good, and if there will be plenty of baying.
“I’m all about retirement. I’d like to get a couple goats. The farm is so much fun, especially in the fall. But somewhere without all the snow, like Nashville maybe. Missouri will get 10 inches of snow at a time. It’s real fun for about an hour. Then I’m over it.”