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Al Madrigal: A comic who knows how to let go

Christopher Borrelli

August 1, 2013

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Last fall, comedian John Hodgman toured for a while with comedian Al Madrigal. It was a special, magical time, Hodgman recalled. They have much in common, they're both 42, both regulars on "The Daily Show" — Hodgman as the blowhard "Resident Expert," Madrigal as the amiable "Senior Latino Correspondent." They're both semi-recognizable, Hodgman from his best-selling books of fraudulent trivia and appearances on Apple commercials (he played the PC), Madrigal partly from his string of small roles on failed sitcoms.

They've also both been stand-ups for years. And yet Madrigal, Hodgman said, schooled him on stage.

And Hodgman liked it.

Madrigal — who joined "The Daily Show" in 2011, five years after Hodgman — "truly mentored me in how to get better in front of people," Hodgman said. "I went from being the guy who would only recite material on stage that he wrote to understanding the value of being ever-changing as a performer. I realized because of Al the true art to stand-up is not just in writing but being in the moment and seeing what works and what doesn't and recognizing when a joke isn't working and adjusting on the fly. But also, before you speak, there's body language to communicate, which Al does with his terrible posture, becoming this disturbing, scoliotic, hunchback thing — like a cartoon Disney vulture. He basically showed me how to be a performer. And I am dramatically looser on stage now. But Al's better."

A comic's comic.

Madrigal — who is appearing Thursday at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago, Friday at Zanies in St. Charles and Saturday at Zanies in Rosemont (as well as Aug. 31 at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, on the Dave Chappelle-led Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival) — spoke by phone last week from New York, from the set of a TV commercial. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.

Q: What did you do before you were a stand-up?

A: Well, I fired people. "Up in the Air" with George Clooney? I did that for my parents' family business in San Francisco. I was a corporate hatchet man, and it's impossible for me to turn that off. It's this curse when I walk into businesses: "That needs to be fixed, that needs to be fixed." It was a human resources company, the kind that takes on all of a business' problems, basically. You get to deal with other peoples' headaches for a living. Which is probably why I started doing stand-up in the first place, to attempt to balance that out.

Q: How old were you when you first fired someone?

A: I fired my first person at … 19! I worked there until I was 32. I was well-dressed and good at firing people because I really did care. I cared about giving them the opportunity to talk through the situation and was always sincere. I would explain that "This was a bad match," and they were probably meant to do other things if they weren't giving their all to this, which paid $10 a hour. Unfortunately, I got very good at that.

Q: Did you ever try to install some levity into a firing?

A: All the time! I once called a guy into his own office and spun around in his own chair to greet him. That kind of thing may be why I quit, before I got into serious trouble. I would smile and the person would get so upset. But you do a thousand of those things and it makes you weird. On the other hand, I was in so many scary situations (that) by the time I got on stage, I had no stage fright. Speaking in front of a group was nothing.

Q: So what did you talk about when you first went into comedy?

A: Volunteering, being a big brother (with Big Brothers Big Sisters). That was a huge part of my act, the child manipulating me because he was so poor that he knew I could be messed with. The kid would go: "Did you have Pokemon cards growing up? Because we only have Kikkoman cards" — meaning, the soy sauce packets. "Big brother, did you have hot dogs on a stick when you were a kid? Oh, because you know what we have big brother? The stick. They just rub it on a hot dog in the back and tell us to smell the stick and get out of there." That was the first bit.

Q: You studied stand-up?

A: I was a huge fan. Two successful comedians lived on my block when I was growing up: Michael Meehan and Michael Pritchard, who are both very well-known around San Francisco. My dad, though, was 100-percent Mexican, a blue collar guy, and when I told him I was doing stand-up, he was like, "This is not a job. We want to give you this company. Are you crazy?" But people don't realize there are different kinds of jobs, which may be why there aren't many Latino comedians; a lot of people don't know it's a real job. A Jewish kid cracks a joke, "Oh, you should be a comedian!" A Latino kid? An Asian kid? It's "Do your homework."

Q: You auditioned for "The Daily Show" after a dozen years as a stand-up. Why?

A: One of the producers, Adam Lowitt, who does a lot of stand-up himself, suggested that I audition for the show, basically. We were at Caroline's (comedy club in New York) and because he suggested it we did a piece, about Debbie Riddle, this member of the Texas House of Representatives who wanted to make it safe for illegal immigrants to remain in the United States as long as they were employed as domestic help. So we did that piece, and I read with Jon (Stewart), who then shook my hand and said, right there and then, "Welcome to 'The Daily Show.'" I was a contributor at first — I was on a different show at the time, a comedy named "Free Agents" with Hank Azaria. It lasted four episodes. Then I went full time at "The Daily Show."

Q: Is there something about speaking truth to power on that show that satisfies an itch you don't really scratch on stage? Your stand-up routine is generally family-based and not political at all.

A: Not at all. I don't know. It's hard not to be enraged at things, and being "Senior Latino Correspondent" is a joke, of course. You get used for all sorts of things. But maybe because of immigration reform, other issues, it's the right time for me to be here. That segment I recently did with John Oliver about how all Latinos are not the same? That is how I feel. I'm on a series on NBC next year, "About a Boy" (adapted from the Nick Hornby novel). Not one mention of me being Latino on it. Which I like. A lot of the time I audition, I'm there to "color up" a show. Or audition for the "Latino part." I love doing a show that makes no mention of ethnicity.

Q: A friend we have in common told me that you refer to yourself as "the least Mexican Mexican."

A: Because I am assimilation-mission-accomplished, third-generation Mexican, but also, Mexican-Sicilian. And my wife is Korean-Greek. I don't feel any less Latino but I get made fun of by Latinos for poor Spanish.

Q: On one of your first big pieces on "The Daily Show," about an Arizona school district that decided to ban Mexican-American studies, you didn't take the bait when the school district board member you're interviewing says incredibly stupid things — you kind of just let him hang himself.

A: That was my second piece, and to be honest, I didn't know what I was doing. It was a great piece and had a lot of impact (federal courts have since reversed the ban), but if I had to do it again, I would have played with him more. When someone offers you something like "Rosa Clark" (instead of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks), you should make a meal out of it, and if I could go back in time, I would have roasted that guy on camera.

Q: Do your children approve of your act?

A: Yes, whatever is acceptable for them to see, yes. They think I'm hilarious. But my kids are also 11 and 10 years old, and all kids that age think their parents are great. My son is at an age — and Jon (Stewart) has this, because he has similar-age kids — where he assumes I'm his best friend. It's a good place to be, a sweet spot. This little girl down our block told my daughter her father was funny. My daughter came back with, 'Oh, really? My dad gets paid to be funny …' Which is tremendous. Just — boom, microphone drop, you know?

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli