Comedian and St. Louis native Kathleen Madigan credits growing up in the Midwest for her sense of humor. "We have an underdog attitude that makes us...observers rather than participants," She told host Ophira Eisenberg on stage at the Bell House in Brooklyn. "People that are in cool cities are actually participating in their lives...And we're just sitting there going, 'Why the f*** are we here?'"
Today, Madigan tours non-stop, performing nearly 300 shows a year. Her Irish Catholic family of nine is a constant source of material — a role they've come to love. Once, Madigan told her father that he was the inspiration for an upcoming Tonight Show set. He was so excited — that was, until she had to change the material. "I've never seen anyone so devastated...He was like 'I've told everybody, how am I going to un-tell people?'"
Her Catholic upbringing also inspired the title of her recent Netflix special, Bothering Jesus. "[With] my Christian friends...I was always shocked and amazed, and a little bit envious of their direct relationship with Jesus." Madigan noted that they turned to Jesus for even the smallest issue."'Well, the dryer broke...so I sent a prayer to Jesus.'" For her, things were a little different. "I was given a laundry list of people to contact — that's what the nun said. 'You're not to bother Jesus.'" Put another way, to Madigan, Jesus is "the CEO...Someone eats your lunch, you don't go to the CEO, you go to Human Resources for that!"
To honor the many miles Madigan has toured, we decided to quiz her about being on the road, and we invited her friend of 25 years frequent tour-mate, comedian Lewis Black, to play against her.
Heard on Kathleen Madigan: Life On The Road
JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. Soon we'll find out which of our contestants, Sonny or Rob, will be today's big winner. But first, it's time to welcome our special guest. She's a comedian who's on tour 300 days of the year. Her new Netflix special is called "Bothering Jesus." Please welcome Kathleen Madigan.
EISENBERG: Kathleen, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. You know...
KATHLEEN MADIGAN: Thank you.
EISENBERG: ...We have a few things in common. You are one of seven kids. I'm actually one of six kids. So I want to know what's it like to have that extra sibling?
MADIGAN: Well, that would be my youngest brother.
MADIGAN: Yeah, St. Patrick, if you ask my mother. That's the problem. Like, he was born too long after the rest of us and can do no wrong. Like, he could literally set the neighborhood on fire, and my mom would say - well, they shouldn't have parked there.
MADIGAN: And it's like, you know, it should be a group and then no more.
EISENBERG: So, you know, this is perfect because your family is a huge source of material in your act. Do they come out to see you often?
MADIGAN: Oh, yes. If there's a free ticket anywhere - are you kidding? - like, every special. But it's fun because they do participate.
EISENBERG: So when they come to your shows, afterwards, do they say - oh, I really liked that one about me? Kathleen, you're such a superstar. Are they supportive and lift you up?
MADIGAN: Oh, yeah. There was one point I was going to do "The Tonight Show." And I told my dad - this whole set is kind of jokes about you. And he was so excited. (In affected voice) I can't wait to tell everybody else. This is so exciting. And then at the last minute, they said, you know what, the Olympics are starting. Could you just do Olympic jokes? I said sure. And I called. He goes - it's not going to be about me? And I go no, sorry, Jack. He was - I've never seen anyone so devastated.
He was like (in affected voice) well, can you get on there again after this...
MADIGAN: ...And then redo all those jokes? I mean, I've told everybody. How am I going to untell people? I go - you know, I don't know how you communicate at your age, what goes on. But you need to send a pigeon out with a note...
MADIGAN: ...And tell people it's not about you, Jack. It's not about you.
EISENBERG: Right. I love that he was like - can you just get back on "The Tonight Show" and do the set about dad? Yeah.
MADIGAN: And I did. That's the crazy part. See? That's why Patrick will still be better than me, but I'm gaining on him.
MADIGAN: I'm gaining.
EISENBERG: Do any of your other siblings - of the other six go, you know, Kathleen's very funny, but I'm the real comedian in the house?
MADIGAN: Yes, yes. And he is funny. He is really funny. And he wrote one joke. And I did it on "Letterman," and I will never hear the end of it because I said - all right, I'll give you 50 bucks for that line. And he goes all right, 50 bucks but I want credit. I go, you don't get credit on "Letterman," Pat. There's not a thing that says Kathleen Madigan's jokes are written by so-and-so. And I've never lived it down that he's now the joke writer...
EISENBERG: Right, right.
MADIGAN: ...'cause one joke out of 28 years. Sorry, Pat. That's not a job.
EISENBERG: Now, I don't have the numbers on this, but it feels like comedians come from two places, Canada or the Midwest.
MADIGAN: All right, all right - Midwest, yay. St. Louis, yay.
EISENBERG: What do you think it is about the Midwest that produces such great comedy brains?
MADIGAN: (Laughter) Like, we have an underdog attitude that makes us more observers rather than participants. Like, people that are from cool cities are actually participating in their lives.
MADIGAN: And we're just sitting there going, why the [expletive] are we here? Like, I dont...
MADIGAN: In St. Louis, I'm like, Dad, the arch - it said it was a gateway. That meant to keep going.
MADIGAN: It didn't mean get through the arch and sit your ass down. Like, you're supposed to keep going.
MADIGAN: I think we just never came from the cool spot, so we're sort of an underdog mindset - literally more of an observer, I would say.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I mean, that's sort of how Canadians feel. Like, we observe America...
MADIGAN: Right, yes.
EISENBERG: ...And then comment on us.
MADIGAN: As I used to say, it was - Canada, to me, was like our attic. Like, you forget it's up there. But then when you get up there, you're like - wow, look at all this [expletive]. I totally...
MADIGAN: There's people up there. There's cities. They're smarter than us.
EISENBERG: So you grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and your latest special is called "Bothering Jesus." So why did you call it that?
MADIGAN: Growing up in St. Louis, honestly, I thought being Catholic was being Christian - until you go to the Deep South in the States and then they make it very clear to you those are not the same things. But it's not the words, it's the tone. When they'll go, (imitating Southern drawl) well, are you Christian?
And I go, well, I'm Catholic. And they're like (imitating Southern drawl) well...
MADIGAN: ...We're Christian now.
I'm like oh, OK. I thought we were on the same team, Team Jesus. But clearly, I've joined a cult you don't approve of...
MADIGAN: ...Which is fine. But throughout the years, like, I didn't think that there are big differences. And like, my Christian friends - I was always shocked and amazed - and a little bit envious of their direct relationship with Jesus. Like, anything - (imitating Southern drawl) well, the dryer broke, so I said a prayer to Jesus. I just unplugged it. I'm going to give him two days. Maybe he's busy. I'm going to see if he can get a miracle.
I'm like - as a Catholic, my brain is like (imitating sound of explosions). You can't go to Jesus about the dryer.
MADIGAN: I mean, no. In a Catholic school, I was given a laundry list of people to contact. That's what the nuns said - you're not to bother Jesus.
MADIGAN: I was not supposed to be bothering Jesus. You can speak to your guardian angel. He's sitting right here Kathleen, all day long. Or you could say a prayer to the saint in charge of whatever it is you're so upset about, Kathleen. You can even speak to Jesus's mother, say, Hail Mary - try to go to the back door to get the mother to pressure the son to do what you want.
MADIGAN: But unless it was life or death, we were not to be bothering Jesus. And I still to this day - like, I think I'd really like - well, I can't speak to him. So that...
MADIGAN: He's a CEO. That's the way it was presented. Somebody ate your lunch. You don't go to the CEO. You go to human resources with that.
MADIGAN: There's a hierarchy here.
EISENBERG: Kathleen, we have so much more to talk about about your life. But I'm going to ask you right now, are you ready for another ASK ME ANOTHER Challenge?
MADIGAN: Yes, I am.
EISENBERG: OK, Kathleen. We didn't want this to be easy on you. We recruited a surprise opponent to play against you in this game. And keeping in today's theme of returning contestants, please welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER comedian Lewis Black.
MADIGAN: This is already not fair. It's already not fair. He went to Yale. I went to Edwardsville. I mean, come on.
LEWIS BLACK: I went to a drama school. It's like two steps above mime school.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton also went to Yale, just so you know.
MADIGAN: Oh, my God. As a Midwest person, I seriously - I'm not even kidding. I thought those places were closed. I thought they were only in movies. Like, you might as well say I went to Narnia, and I would believe that.
COULTON: It looks very - the architecture is very similar actually.
MADIGAN: That's what I feel like.
EISENBERG: Lewis Black, welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER. Now, you - Kathleen and Lewis, you've known each other for a long time. How long?
BLACK: Twenty-five? Twenty-six?
MADIGAN: Twenty-five lifetimes.
BLACK: (Laughter) Yeah.
MADIGAN: About 25 years.
EISENBERG: Twenty-five years. Friends that whole time?
MADIGAN: I don't even know how because we didn't have cell phones. I must've really given a crap to talk him...
MADIGAN: ...Because we had pigeons and...
BLACK: Our correspondence through letters.
MADIGAN: (Laughter) Yeah.
BLACK: That was going to happen.
MADIGAN: Dear Lewis, I've contracted scurvy.
MADIGAN: I don't know if this ship will make it to the new land.
EISENBERG: Now, Kathleen, I don't know if you know this. But when Lewis was on our show, he said that you were the person that helped him with the evolution of his act because when he was first working on what we know as Lewis Black's signature style, you were the one that said it has to have modulations and different levels. You can't just be yelling all the time...
EISENBERG: ...And really...
MADIGAN: Well, it wasn't like - you probably could be...
MADIGAN: As a Midwest person, he's startling. Like, we don't talk like that. We don't act like that. I mean, we may agree or may think those things, but nobody just starts screaming (laughter). And he was like, yeah, all right.
EISENBERG: Kathleen, has Lewis Black ever given you any performance or - I don't know - writing advice?
MADIGAN: Yeah, he's giving me good advice. I'm not sure that I acted upon it, but...
MADIGAN: ...I'm not comfortable with silence because I am not of the theater world. I am not - I started comedy in bars, and there's drunks. And sometimes I do rush too much because I just want to...
MADIGAN: Go laugh, laugh, laugh. And he's like, they already - you already have them. You should just, like, slow down. So I try. But, I mean, you've seen. It's probably not really working, but it's good advice. It's good advice if you can take it, but...
BLACK: Yeah. My mother said, she's very funny. She talks too fast. That was what Mom had to say.
MADIGAN: And then I say, you got to keep up, Jeanette.
MADIGAN: It's not that fast.
EISENBERG: Now, you two travel together. You've toured all around the world. And, Lewis, you do a cruise.
BLACK: I did a cruise.
EISENBERG: You did a cruise. How many times...
BLACK: You do that a couple of times.
EISENBERG: A couple times. And, Kathleen, you were on that cruise?
MADIGAN: Both of them.
EISENBERG: Both of them.
EISENBERG: So it's - it is clear that you've toured together throughout the world. So we have a quiz for you about life on the road. Buzz in to answer. The winner is going to receive an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube and a 30-gallon drum of Purell.
EISENBERG: OK, here's your first question. What is the single dirtiest object in a hotel room when you're not in it?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Good answer but not the dirtiest. Can you steal, Lewis?
BLACK: The countertop in the bathroom.
EISENBERG: Also a good answer. Both those things comparatively are fine.
MADIGAN: It's the rug, I bet.
EISENBERG: No. It's the remote control.
MADIGAN: Well, I'm not holding that.
EISENBERG: And it's - the problem is that the remote was found with the highest amount of bacteria because one theory is that people go straight from the bathroom to the television.
BLACK: I don't - it's just no. The whole concept that that could be the dirtiest thing makes you wonder what they're doing with the remote.
EISENBERG: That's right. Sure does. Here's your next question. What U.S. airport is the subject of numerous conspiracy theories thanks to a prominently placed Freemason plaque, a series of mysterious underground tunnels and a bizarre mural...
BLACK: Of course, you know it.
EISENBERG: ...Featuring a soldier...
MADIGAN: I know it.
BLACK: ...In a gas mask under a rainbow.
MADIGAN: I know exactly what it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Yes, Kathleen?
MADIGAN: He'll never get this. He's not a conspiracy.
BLACK: No, I'm not.
MADIGAN: I drink boxes of wine and go deep in the internet.
MADIGAN: This would be Denver, Colo.
MADIGAN: And I will update everyone. They took the gasmask painting out, but check out the floors.
MADIGAN: They forgot to fix the floors.
EISENBERG: Which of these 24/7 restaurant franchises has the most locations. Is it Waffle House, Dennys or I-Hop?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
BLACK: Waffle House.
EISENBERG: That is correct. Yes.
EISENBERG: All right, so I have to say when I'm on the road, the restaurant that I'm happy to see is Perkins. What do you like?
COULTON: I like a P.F. Chang's.
EISENBERG: Reliable. Reliable.
MADIGAN: Oh, listen to Yale, grown up.
MADIGAN: We were...
COULTON: It's a little high-class, I know.
MADIGAN: We were talking - I have Waffle House and you went P.F. Chang's.
MADIGAN: But Lewis's real road love is Cracker Barrel.
COULTON: Yeah. That's - I'm also a Cracker Barrel fan.
MADIGAN: Lewis has some furniture on his deck.
COULTON: He's got a couple of rocking chairs.
BLACK: I do some rocking.
MADIGAN: Oh, he's got a fancy New York apartment, but the deck is littered with Cracker Barrel.
EISENBERG: Final clue - what is the most popular car color in the world?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
MADIGAN: Oh, look at you, thinking you know this.
EISENBERG: Blue? That is incorrect. Kathleen, can you steal?
BLACK: Yeah. That's my favorite color.
MADIGAN: Well, she already said - she already said that's not - blue? Lou (ph), no one has a blue car.
MADIGAN: Yeah, really.
EISENBERG: That is also incorrect. Kathleen...
EISENBERG: ...Can you steal?
MADIGAN: I'm going to say black.
EISENBERG: Black? Incorrect. Lewis, can you steal?
BLACK: Green, blue, what - how many colors - yellow?
MADIGAN: Oh, God.
MADIGAN: This is from a man who doesn't own a car.
EISENBERG: Kathleen, one more...
EISENBERG: White is correct.
MADIGAN: Boom. Boom. (Imitating gunshots).
EISENBERG: It is the most popular color in the world. Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do?
PUZZLE GURU ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Kathleen, you won an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for coming, Lewis Black. And Lewis is on his "Rant, White And Blue" tour. Kathleen Madigan's latest Netflix special is "Bothering Jesus," and information on her "Bothering Jesus" tour is at kathleenmadigan.com. Give it up one more time for Kathleen Madigan and Lewis Black.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.