Kathleen Madigan has performed on every late night show you can think of, from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman to Conan and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. She’s also done many comedy specials — one of which, Madigan Again, is currently available to stream on Netflix — and won several comedy awards, including the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian.

But the comedian began her comedy career on a whim. Twenty-five years ago, she was working as a bartender next door to a comedy club and one day, she and a friend went to the club for a drink. The comedy club happened to be hosting an open mic night, and she and her friend each tried it out for fun. After that, Madigan just kept doing it. “You just keep going to open mic nights until you get enough time to do, like, 10 solid minutes,” she says. “Then there are gigs around every city that pay $20, $50, and you just hope you get asked to do one of those.”

Through her persistence, Madigan’s comedy career emerged. She can’t point to one moment when she realized that she was going to be able to make it as a comedian. “It’s kind of a day-by-day thing. There’s no one thing or time or moment, you just keep doing something every day, and you just keep getting a little bit better each day,” she says. “It’s very, very slow.”

Even though she’s now an award-winning comedian, Madigan feels the experience of getting up on stage is essentially unchanged. “I get maybe excited, but I don’t really get nervous. In the beginning you’re probably a little more nervous than excited and now I’m probably more excited than nervous. It flip flops.”

Known for her straightforward, honest comedy, Madigan finds her subjects in everyday life. “It’s my family and traveling, sometimes politics if it’s heated, if it’s an election year. Sports, current events. It’s the same stuff, the same topics, just different things that happen,” she says. Madigan doesn’t write out her jokes beforehand, which lends some spontaneity to her work.

She’s compared telling jokes to hitting a golf ball; she just wants to see if she can do it again. While many comedians have used their stand-up careers as a starting point for acting, Madigan was never interested in that. The connection with an audience is all she’s after. “For a few of us working today,” she says, “this was our goal. We don’t have any more goals. Can’t you ever have a goal, reach it, and then enjoy it? This society is being driven by type A lunatics that say ‘You have to set more goals.’ No, you don’t. Have a seat and enjoy the fact that you’re here.”

In fact, Madigan enjoys being where she is so much that she likes to work for free when she can. Her favorite performances have been the ones she’s done for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That was probably the best, you just feel like, you know, we’re not getting paid, they’re not paying — we’re all just doing it to be nice to each other,” she says. “That was a once in a lifetime experience, and they’re very happy that you came, and they’re probably the greatest audience on earth, because quite frankly they’re a trapped audience. So they have to listen.”

Madigan’s opening act will be Vic Henley, who’s performed at past Charleston Comedy Festivals.

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