Kathleen Madigan is one of the funniest people on the planet, without any qualification. She can write her ass off, her delivery is one of the strongest in the business, and she’s funny in any environment- in person, on the phone, on the radio, on Periscope, on social media- but most of all, she’s one of the best in the business on stage. This month she released a brand new Netflix special, Bothering Jesus, and every minute is proof that Madigan is at the top of the game. I talked with Kathleen about the new special, her fifth hour, which she filled with laughs without every once bringing up Trump, the election, or any of the other “topical” issues cluttering up comedy stages this year.
I asked her why she chose not to cover politics- it’s a subject near and dear to her heart, and one she tackles so well. The decision, she says, was purposeful. “It’s been completely fun to talk about,” she said. “There were so many absurd things this election. It was easy, it was fun and it can still be. ” In fact, she did cover it when she taped the special- about eight minutes on Bernie, Ted Cruz, Hillary and more- but she decided to pull the political talk from the final edit. “I didn’t want it to be in the special because it will date it so severely that I thought, let’s take it out,” she said, adding, “If you start watching it in the spring, you’d be like, why is this lady still talking about Marco Rubio?” But those eight minutes aren’t lost, she made the brilliant decision to make that material available, for free, on her YouTube channel. There it serves as an extended teaser for the rest of the hour which is available now on Netflix.
Madigan also doesn’t cover any pop culture in her new hour, or anywhere else. She said she has zero interest in celebrity or red carpets. She’d rather watch the news or sports or a documentary. “Or even stupid stuff like House Hunters. I love it. I love it. That kind of brain dead stuff.” Just not pop culture. “Let Kathy Griffin do it. I don’t even know anything about it. If a Kardashian walked in my house, I would not know that was a Kardashian. I would be like, there’s a strange lady in the family room.”
With no politics, and no pop culture, Madigan takes on a wealth of topics- unique to her special. “I talk about weird people, my family, traveling, current events, sports and politics. Those are the things that I enjoy in life so that’s what I’m doing most of the time,” she said. “It’s not on purpose– it’s just who I am.” Who she is, is funny, smart and interesting. “For better or worse, I am the exact same person off stage as on stage. Maybe a little more energy on-stage,” she said. “If you and I were standing backstage, I would be talking to you… I could hear them saying, ‘Please welcome…’, I would just walk right out … There’s no difference.” Having spent time talking with Madigan one on one, I can confirm that.
In the course of the hour, she covers a lot of Madigan family stories, her home state of Missouri, the nightmarishness of installing car seats, religion, and one not-so-ripped-from-the-headlines news story that she addresses early in the hour- the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time, and Kathleen isn’t letting it go until it’s solved. “I will make the people that are obsessed with it feel good about the fact that we’re not the crazy ones. It’s the whole world that just decided it was perfectly fine to lose 250 people off the face of the Earth in the year 2016,” a fact that Madigan just can’t accept. For the record, I share her obsession and we talked about it for ten minutes. She pointed out to me that people are still hunting down the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s remains, but nobody seems concerned with the resolution of a large missing airplane, full of passengers. “Seriously, they may find Amelia Earhart before Flight 370. No one is bothered by that either.”
Madigan takes on issues like a bulldog- if bulldogs were funny and could talk. It’s no wonder her best friend is Lewis Black, the two are like-minded when it comes to tackling hypocrisies and un-tended to issues. But it wasn’t Lewis who gave her that determination, it was her dad who first inspired her critical thinking. “He made us,” she said about her dad, a defense attorney and very civic minded. “I can’t think of any other kids that in grade school… we had to watch the nightly news.” It wasn’t just the news. One year it was eight nights of Roots. “That was fun,” she said. “Then it was the Holocaust. That was a seven night mini-series. History and what’s going on in the world. Yeah, we were expected to pay attention.” Not everyone in the family was happy about it. “My mother hated it,” she said, and some of her siblings decided they would never watch the news again, but Kathleen enjoyed it. “I was totally fine in the Jack Madigan information camp,” she said and would even get laughs as a kid from her siblings doing an impression of her mom’s reaction. “I’m like, this is going to be Mom in an hour in the family room– “Jack, why do we have to watch people being tortured? Jack, this is awful. Jack, I don’t think the children are old enough to handle this. Jack, this is absolutely horrific. I don’t understand why you find torture entertaining. Jack?” That’s what my mom would do for two hours in the family room. Including during commercials.”
Her amazing family is all over the special, the source of many great stories, and they don’t mind. “They’re totally fine with it. They always have been,” she said, quick to point out that they benefit plenty from being the source of some jokes. “There’s fun trips, not that they even need it. They all have good jobs, they all have money, everybody’s fine, they have kids, and lives, and everything else. We’ve all had a lot of fun with it.” She’s taken siblings to festivals, and says her parents cruise her website for casino dates. “They become little mini stars along the way, and I think they’ve enjoyed it. I mean if they’re angry nobody’s said it yet, it’ll probably come out at some holiday after 20,000 glasses of wine. ‘I’m really mad.’ It’s not happened yet.”
This is Madigan’s third time putting out a special on Netflix, a move many comedians have made in recent years. She’s put out specials on HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central, but says that she sees some big advantages to working with the streaming platform. “The biggest boldest difference is that on Netflix, it’s always available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Before, if I had a Showtime special, you had to do all this work for the premiere was going to be on Friday at 8:00 on September 30th. Then you would ask Showtime, ‘when else are you going to show it?’ They would go, ‘we don’t know.’ ‘Will you let me know when you know?’ ‘No, it’s going to be a surprise.’ You couldn’t even be involved on your own helping them promote your show. Then random people had to stumble upon it. Then they would have to have Showtime or HBO, which probably half the country doesn’t. Then Comedy Central, they would pick weird very late times. Who’s up? It’s one in the morning on a Tuesday. My special is on. Well, I don’t know how helpful that is. I’m happy, but it doesn’t really do anything. People go to Netflix and there’s the whole library. It’s the same way I’ve found stuff on iTunes with music.”
Another benefit is that through Netflix, fans have found her older specials, too.”If you see I have one special, then people click on the other special because now because of the new special my old one has moved way up too. Then they go, ‘Oh, I like this lady or I don’t like this lady.’ There was one drawback to going with Netflix, but Madigan laughs about it- the recommendations viewers get when they like her special. “I did think it was hilariously fucked up that it said, ‘if you like my first special you might like the movie Leprechaun.’ I was like, ‘Okay, that’s some Irish racist bullshit. Do we have an Irish person thing I can call and tell somebody?’ Just because I’m short and Irish doesn’t mean I’m evil lurking in a forest ready to murder people. Although, I’m getting close.”
Stand up specials aren’t the only thing that’s changed over the course of Madigan’s career. Late night has undergone a revolution of sorts since the days she would appear on the Tonight Show or Letterman and the appearance could be career altering. I asked her whether late night has lost its way with stand up. “Nobody seems to know the answer,” she said. “I sit there and argue about this with comedians at bars and with my publicist.” It’s still fun to do late night, Madigan told me, but says she isn’t going to bust her ass to get to LA or New York to do one. And if you ask her if she’d be interested in hosting a late night show her answer is an unqualified no, and says she thinks the real reason there aren’t more women hosting late night is because it’s not a great gig. “Who would want to? I mean if they offered me one, not only would I say no, I would run away until I couldn’t hear them anymore in case they started offering more money. It’s a lot of work, it’s a true grind.” She added, “you’re just trying to get a fraction of the people and hope stuff goes viral and I just think it’s a hell of a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. Unless it’s what you always wanted to do, if it’s your dream job. Conan always wanted to have the Conan show. Okay, well then that makes sense for him. I didn’t.”
The lack of late night power in stand up doesn’t seem to have hurt Madigan whose new special is killing on Netflix. Watch Bothering Jesus on Netflix now, or any damn time you want. Just make sure you watch it. It’s one of the great ones. Watch a clip below, and you can check out the clipped out segments on the election on Madigan’s YouTube page. And of course you can keep up with Kathleen’s tour dates and more on Twitter @KathleenMadigan.