‘Daily Show’ Correspondent Al Madrigal discusses his early days in stand up

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

For the past two years, comedian and actor Al Madrigal has been a contributor and correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, traveling the nation and interviewing some of its strangest thinkers and activists. As a stand-up comedian, however, he broaches subjects closer to home, ranging from buying a house at the height of the housing bubble to watching the magic that is gang members exploring a waterfall.

Tomorrow, he’s coming to the First Niagara Pavilion as part of the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival tour, and he took the time to speak with The Pitt News by phone about making his way into the world of stand-up comedy.

TPN: You’re on a comedy megatour right now with Flight of the Conchords, Dave Chappelle and other big names, but you’ve been in comedy for 15 years. How does this differ from the early days?

Al Madrigal: The biggest difference is people actually want to see you.

When you first start out, you’re just surprising people with comedy. I remember there was this horrible run of gigs in the San Francisco Bay area where it’s called a triple run. You go out and you do a string of bars that is set up, and, you know, you go through Weaverville, Calif., and you hit all these spots. You’re in venues not suitable for comedy and you’re going through and surprising people with comedy. Sometimes it can be great. Sometimes, the basketball machine is on and there’s a video arcade next door or a pool hall. It’s really night and day.

TPN: Would you say it’s harder when you’re first starting out and trying to surprise people, or is it harder when you have a pressure to perform for an audience that expects a lot from you?

Madrigal: Both stages pose different problems. First, you have to prove yourself to people who don’t know who you are, and that’s a serious challenge.

But I remember Michael Richards used to look at all of us at The Comedy Store who were unknowns killing and be pissed. Be furious. Because he would get huge, huge, huge applause. A ton of people would go insane to see Kramer. I mean just out of their seats. He’s one of the best sitcom characters of all time standing in front of you and there’s ten rows in the place to speak of. And then after three minutes he’d start eating it, because his act wasn’t very good.

With us, you’d go up and everyone would not react at all or give just a courtesy applause. Then you’d prove yourself and by the end they’re clapping for you like they were for Kramer when he first got up. With him it’s difficult because you need to produce. When you’re starting out … you need to introduce yourself. You’re not under quite so much pressure to produce quality material. But I don’t think it ever gets easy.

TPN: You signed a talent-holding deal with CBS in 2004 and landed a role in a show called Welcome to The Captain in 2007. But the show only aired for five episodes because of the writer’s strike. Was that discouraging?

Madrigal: I heard this great quote from, I think it was from Neil Patrick Harris who had some old executive on [“Doogie Howser, M.D.”] tell him that, “Riding Hollywood, it’s like you’re a surfer and you just catch waves and you enjoy the wave while you’re on it.” Whether it’s Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Welcome to the Captain, just ride it for 100 episodes or five episodes. Have a good time, then just paddle back and go get another one. So I’ve tried to have that attitude.

TPN: When you go out into the field for The Daily Show, you get to do some crazy things.

Madrigal: I’ve driven tanks and swam with manatees. It’s pretty weird.

TPN: What about the interviews? When you interview some of the crazier individuals you’ve spoken to, how do you conduct that interview?

Madrigal: You need to sort of stay in the pocket, like a quarterback handling pressure. Just remain calm and do your job and know what you need to get out of people. You need to take advantage of any opportunity you’re given. Without divulging too much, give them questions and have an idea of what’s gonna be funny for that. You need the character to go along with the piece, as well.

TPN: Do you get people who are on their heels about being on The Daily Show?

Madrigal: Yeah, some people are very cautious. They’ve had all their friends tell them not to do it. But we’re just asking them to say what they said on the phone that they believed in and tell us their story. We’re not asking anyone to lie or make anything up. People want to be on TV.

Have you ever seen a sportscast or a local news anchor and noticed the people who run by and wave? It’s like that. When a national show walks up to you and says, “We’ll give you three minutes to say whatever you want,” they’ll take it.