For comedian Kathleen Madigan, coming to the Chumash Casino Resort this Thursday, you can take the woman out of the Midwest (and move her to Los Angeles), but you can’t take the Midwest out of the woman. She’s been in Los Angeles for 20 years and still doesn’t feel like a West Coaster.
“I don’t hate L.A. like most of my New York comedy friends,” she says. “I understand how they think. New York is like being on cocaine. Los Angeles is like being hungover on the couch.”
But for the Midwesterner, she says, everything’s an upgrade after her upbringing, even if L.A. strikes her as soulless.
Ms. Madigan was born in Florissant, Missouri, and after college did a stint as a local newspaper reporter, putting that journalism degree to good use. It’s a degree she chose more because of the dearth of options than for any great need to communicate.
“I just couldn’t do science and math, and in the Midwest, they don’t really tell you about a lot of jobs,” she says. “They’re like five majors, and you just have to pick one … I just wanted to write feature stories, but instead, I had to go to city council meetings. I wanted to kill myself. I don’t care who gets the cable company deal. I don’t care if it’s corrupt. But I do want to do the feature story about the lady who is 104 years old.”
While she was doing that, she was also working on her first stand-up routines, performing at St. Louis comedy clubs on open-mic nights. Two years later, she moved out West. Journalism had left her with one good thing: an awesome press kit.
She came with a plan: to get on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She moved to Hermosa Beach because it was by the ocean and near the Comedy Magic Club.
“I couldn’t get over that you could live near the ocean for $700,” she says. “I mean, really? The ocean! It’s right here.”
Her good friend at the time was Lewis Black, who she had met in Chicago. “I thought he was the funniest thing on stage, but he was also weird. And I like weird.” But while Mr. Black went for coruscating political commentary, Ms. Madigan’s comedy was developing into a laid-back, observational humor, friendly and warm, but also cutting and self-deprecating.
It took Ms. Madigan two years to get on Leno. She’s done his show nine times, Letterman six.
“There’s no big breaks anymore,” she says. “Back in the Carson era there wasn’t cable. So if you went on his show, two-thirds of the country knew who you were … But when I got on Leno there are 500 cable channels. As Mr. Lewis says, we spend more time talking about ourselves than being ourselves.”
Now the secret is longevity, not overnight success. “You just have to keep doing it,” she says. The endless repeats of stand-up shows on cable has kept her in circulation, and she counts Sirius Radio as one of the other boons to her career. For a while, she hosted a show on the radio network, but touring interfered.
When asked about the new world of social media for comics, including Twitter and YouTube, she goes off. Facebook likes don’t translate into jobs, she says. Money could be better spent flying to Chicago or New York and working that club circuit, instead of making YouTube videos. She sees all of it as a distraction from the grunt work of working on a comedy set, day in, day out.
“If I had a comedy workshop, it’d be this,” she says. “Two things: Get up in the morning and write jokes. And occasionally put those jokes together in five-minute chunks and go film yourself and submit it to a TV show.” And always realize you can’t be in it for the money.
“I don’t do this job because I want to be famous,” she says. “I do it because I want to tell jokes.”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chumash Casino Resort, 3400 East Highway 246, Santa Ynez