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John Hodgman Talks to Al Madrigal About The Daily Show and Al’s Stand-Up Special

John Hodgman and Al Madrigal. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images, Commedy Central

Al Madrigal has been on The Daily Show for almost two years, but it’s hard to not think of him as the new guy: Four of his five co-correspondents have been there for more than six years; Samantha Bee has been there almost ten! Yet he’s as hilarious and savvy as any correspondent the show’s ever had. And his success likely comes from his fifteen years as a fantastic stand-up, which we’re reminded of with his one-hour special, Why Is the Rabbit Crying?, premiering today at 11 p.m. EST on Comedy Central. To mark the occasion, we enlisted fellow Daily Show contributor and “Daily Show Live” tour-mate John Hodgman to speak with Madrigal. Herewith, the friends discuss what it takes to impress your kids, and the critical difference between tricking Daily Show interview subjects and just quietly letting them say dumb things.

John Hodgman: Al Madrigal, it’s me, John Hodgman.
Al Madrigal: Hey, Johnyyyyy!

JH: I have some serious questions for you.
AM: Okay, let’s go.

JH: I know that we met in the mountains.
AM: You want to tell it? Should I tell it? You’re going to tell it?

JH: No, I am setting this up for you.
AM: This is why we are the best double act in comedy.

JH: Yes. [Laughs.] You remember how we toured the country as Mad and Hodge?
AM: Yes. [Laughs.] I’m Mad!

JH: And I am also mad, but my name is Hodge. I am the angry man: “Oh, you! Stop being so silly, will ya!?”
AM: We joke, but it’s just a matter of time.

JH: The stories that you’re telling in your act now, first of all, they are stories. Has your act changed since your last special?
AM: I’ve always liked and appreciated storytellers like Garry Shandling and Bill Cosby — more long-form comedy. So starting in San Francisco, watching all these great comics — Patton Oswalt, Dave Chappelle — you get to see them a bunch and you go, “Wow, this is where I need to be.” I love all the detail and that there’s an ending, there’s a beginning.

JH: Do you remember the first time you went up?
AM: Yeah, it was horrible. I went up as a character called Joe Gonzales. Never did it again.

JH: So, what was the Joe Gonzales persona?
AM: Oh, God! I had no idea what I was doing. I just thought it was probably easier for me to hide behind this character, to go up and pretend to be someone else.

JH: Who were you pretending to be?
AM: Oh, he was actually a kid from my high school who used no plurals whatsoever. I got up and I’d cut plurals out of everything. It was just me regurgitating stuff this kid actually said.

JH: It is hard to imagine a poster at Caroline’s saying “Featuring the Non-Plural Comedy of Al Madrigal As Joe Gonzales.”
AM: Yeah, it was crazy. Well, it killed with my friends.

JH: Or your “friend,” in this case. Keep it non-plural.
AM: Yes [in an accent]: “My friend, bro, who love it.”

JH: [Laughs.] You are a 41-year-old man, named Al Madrigal, who has children. And your kids are a big part of your act now. Um, why?
AM: The horrible truth is that I am lazy and I am going to write and do bits that just hand themselves to me.

JH: You could just say that you are speaking honestly about your life experience and that’s the material that presents itself.
AM: That’s a much better way of putting it.

JH: Do your kids know that you are telling stories about them?
AM: I think they are starting to. That’s why I am very conscious of not being really filthy because I know that eventually they are going to go on YouTube. Their friends are on YouTube and I don’t want them to be able to use it against them at any point. So I am not saying anything too dirty or anything too revealing, a lot of fiction in there, just embellishments based on little things and ideas that they’ve given me. But nothing that’s really true.

JH: So, in your act are you lying when you say that they are as “huge a fan of House Hunters International as I am”?
AM: No, they do really enjoy it. They’d be the first to admit that they like House Hunters International. I think my son has seen me perform that bit. It was a pretty great moment where I had to do a corporate gig and I had to be clean, so I took him to the Laugh Factory in L.A., and he sat with comedian Elon Gold in the back. Afterward, Elon came and told me that that was one of the cutest things he had ever seen because “he thinks you’re hilarious.” [JH: Laughs.] My son was apparently laughing at everything.

They really do get a kick out of it. A neighbor told me my daughter was over at his house, and his daughter was bragging about how funny her dad was; she said, “My dad is so funny.” And then my daughter went, “My dad gets paid for it. That’s how funny my dad is: He went pro,” and she just sort of dropped the mike and walked away.

JH: Do they ever withhold comedy from you just to spite you?
AM: Nah, they have a pretty good sense of humor. When my son was 3 years old — I’ll never forget this — there was this homeless guy walking toward us, and my son looked at me and he said, “Who’s your buddy?”

JH: [Laughs.]
AM: I swear to you, it is sick. I looked at him and I said, “I am so proud.” Like, a tear welled up. They are with me 100 percent. To have a 10-year-old nudge you and go, Look at this guy, is one of the best things because I really do love making fun of people, and I do it onstage a little too much.

JH: [Laughs.] That was part of the thing that was interesting to me, traveling around with you. I definitely come from the McSweeney’s literary humor tradition of “Let’s all share a wry chuckle together and then we’ll make sweaters.”
AM: Yeah, and I come from “Holy shit, are those Russian mobsters sitting at table thirteen!” You come from a very nurturing environment where people actually like you, whereas I am just a miscellaneous comic who has to prove himself to a crowd that came there to see someone else.

JH: A lot of my experience traveling around with you was me feeling like I was being taken into the bar by my big brother.
AM: [Laughs.]

JH: Because we would do our shows for The Daily Show and then you would go and do seven other sets, all over town or whatever, and I am like, “Excuse me, it’s time for brandy and cigars, my friend.
AM: Well, a lot of that was practicing for the special.

JH: We came to The Daily Show from a different place. How did you adapt your comedy to that rather rigid format of the Daily Show, of interviewing people and trying to trick them into saying …
AM: There’s no tricking — they’re saying all of these things. I am really being myself, and it’s all about being prepared more than anything else. It’s really just like stand-up: It’s about being present.

JH: That’s true, of course I know that you’re not manipulating the interviews and you’re not trying to trick people, you’re trying to get out of their way and be quiet when they are saying stuff that is amazing. In a sense, it’s sort of like you are put into an improv environment, where the other person doesn’t necessarily know the game.
AM: That’s exactly it. You sound like somebody who has worked at The Daily Show.

JH: Well, I am a contributor, but I am not a correspondent. I’ve never gone in the field because it’s terrifying to me. What was your favorite piece you’ve done?
AM: I really do enjoy the field work. I think the piece that had the most impact was this Mexican-American studies ban piece, where the tea-party guys decided they were going to infiltrate lower-level politics and they had all gotten on the school board and were able to successfully ban Mexican-American studies in Arizona. And we were able to show what an idiot one of the school board members was. That’s where he said “Rosa Clark” [instead of “Rosa Parks”].

JH: Something I want to talk to you about — this is very serious: Do you know how terrible your posture is?
AM: [Laughs.] You should see me right now, shlumped over.

JH: I remember walking to the side of the stage and as your rant would go on, and gained momentum, you would crouch over and hunch your shoulders, and you looked like a scoliosis patient.
AM: Yeah, it’s always been bad. I’ve seen pictures of me. There are comics in L.A. doing impressions, and the first thing they do is hunch over and then start to do this bad Rick Moranis voice I do as well, when I really get going. It’s pretty horrible. I am trying to work out and straighten myself up. I went to a trainer and he just said, “Look at you. You are an absolute mess.” I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t really move onstage; all I do is just gradually hunch more and more and jut out at the people in the front row.

JH: So, when we’re watching the special, how hunched did it get?
AM: I was pretty aware of it; I was trying not to. I know I would hear it from my wife if I didn’t straighten myself up physically.

JH: Straighten up in stand-up. But mentally, how hunched did you get? 100 percent hunched?
AM: I was pretty hunched. I’m going to end up like one of those old Chinese women I used to ride the 30 Stockton with in San Francisco, just fully bent over.

JH: It seems like you are trying to get your head down and peer deep into their black souls.
AM: [Laughs.]

JH: What else you want to talk about? Anything?
AM: No, we’re good.

John Hodgman Interviews Al Madrigal