Time to Laugh: Stand-up comedian Kathleen Madigan at the Wheeler
Comedian headlines the Wheeler Opera House and prepares for new special
Who: Kathleen Madigan
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $35-$65
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Kathleen Madigan has been a road warrior of stand-up comedy for nearly three decades playing clubs and theaters across the U.S. for some 250 nights a year. So the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of live entertainment was a shock, but she embraced the time off and the laziness homebound lifestyle, playing golf and doing little else.
“It’s amazing how seamlessly we slipped into retirement,” Madigan said in a recent phone interview from home in Nashville. “I don’t feel one bit bad about it, either. The government told us to stay home and watch Netflix and I am nailing it. I am an American hero.”
Madigan has been back on the road since summer, touring again across the post-vaccine landscape. She’ll headline the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, making up a gig originally scheduled for a year ago.
Madigan is working on material for a new hour-long special that she is set to tape at the Paramount Theatre in Denver in February. Though it’s left her stranded in a few winter travel snafus, Madigan has come to love playing Denver and ski country.
“Denver crowds are great,” she said. “They’re comedy-educated compared to lots of other places.”
During the pandemic shutdowns, Madigan started the podcast “Madigan’s Pubcast,” on which she drinks beer and bullshits. She didn’t expect to keep doing it once she went back on the road, but it grew too popular for her to shut it down.
“It was just something to do during COVID,” she said. “But it’s connected so much that I feel like I can’t stop doing it now. People are really into it.”
Madigan has been playing a ton of shows since July when venues around the U.S. first started re-opening. Comedians, she noted, were the first entertainers to get back on stage because logistically they’re so much easier to book than bands or musicians (“Comedy is just easier. I’m a lady with an overnight carry-on.”)
But before that, in May, she started doing shows at a local club in Nashville to get used to performing again. These weeknight gigs — “new material Mondays,” she dubbed them — helped her get back in stand-up shape.
“It’s $5 to get in so the crowd everybody’s in their 20s,” she recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’re the people I’m making fun of!’ But they laughed, so I guessed I was doing it well enough.”
Madigan hasn’t traditionally sat down and written jokes. She works out her material on-stage, growing an hour-long set and letting it evolve. So the time off-stage was a true creative disruption. Her work also generally comes from day-to-day life, which, as most everyone learned last year, was pretty unremarkable in 2020.
“I don’t write jokes, it just comes from life,” she recalled. “And we didn’t really do much living.”
The act that has evolved in the past few months does draw some from pandemic life, but mostly she is back to riffing on her Irish Catholic and Midwestern family, her six siblings, and bits on the news and pop culture (standout bits from her 2016 Netflix special “Bothering Jesus” hit her obsession with the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and cheating on her Fitbit).
Her pandemic material treads lightly. One joke, for instance: “I’ve always wondered, like, what you would do if you had a whole year off? Turns out nothing. I didn’t do anything. I learned how to gamble on my phone.”
She’s found the more divided and angry state of the nation has made it so that any material touching the more charged and politicized aspects of the pandemic will sabotage a performance.
“There’s a heightened tension, though at the same time people are super-duper happy to be out,” Madigan said. “So all of it is charged one way or another in ways that I’ve never seen in all this time. And God forbid if I if I mentioned Biden or Trump and then I hear ‘Let’s go Brandon!’ and I haven’t even said anything.”
So don’t expect her to go there.
“It’s just easier to make jokes about my parents because it’s too volatile,” she said.
Madigan last played here at Aspen Laugh Fest 2019. This weekend’s show, rescheduled from last winter, marks the return of major stand-up comedy to the Wheeler, beginning a winter lineup that also includes Kevin Nealon (Dec. 27), Jim Gaffigan (Feb. 19) and the return of the Aspen Laugh Festival (Feb. 19-23).
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Aspen’s annual comedy festival has canceled for the second year in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic.