Talking with Al Madrigal about ‘The Daily Show’ and His New Standup Special

Al Madrigal is a correspondent on The Daily Show, a longtime stand-up comedian, and the co-creator of the comedy podcast network All Things Comedy with Bill Burr. As the Daily Show’s “Latino correspondent,” Madrigal has covered issues like Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation and Puerto Rican statehood, and he explores the subject matter of raising a family in a Mexican neighborhood in his new stand-up special Why Is The Rabbit Crying? – which will air this Friday on Comedy Central. We had a chance to catch up with Madrigal about his special, as well as what it’s like to work on The Daily Show during a time of such sobering headlines.

Recently, Jon Stewart was praised for his remarks on the bombings in Boston. Jon’s always the first one to remind people that TDS is a comedy show first and foremost. And you’re obviously a comedian first and foremost. But with so many people turning to The Daily Show for actual relief and information, have you ever felt so outraged by a topic that overwhelmed you as a comedian and made you feel a sense of duty to expose it?

As the Latino correspondent there’s been a couple of stuff I’ve been able to get in that I’ve found pretty outrageous. There was a Mexican-American studies ban in Arizona — that actually recently went in front of a higher court and did not get overturned, so it’s still in effect — which I feel is crazy. A bunch of Tea Party guys found that that would be a good Tea Party MO to infiltrate low-level politics, so they took over a school board and were instrumental in banning Mexican-American studies. I found that to be one of the most offensive things I’ve ever come across. And being able to have access to this forum, I’ve been aggressively pushing as many Latino DREAM-er stories as I possibly can.

I think people at this point are tuning in for Jon’s perspective on a lot of that stuff, even though a lot of the material we cover is not laughable. It’s pretty upsetting. It’s hard to hear day-in, day-out, and not get too discouraged. You know we comb the Internet for articles, and I was reading this scroll of articles, where it was “five dead,” or “ten dead” — every single article was people being shot and killed and dying and mayhem.

I feel like it’s increasingly the case where Jon has to open the show with some kind of statement like, “I know we do comedy here, but I have to take a moment to address this.”

Yeah. It puts everyone in a weird spot, because there are certain times you just don’t want to laugh. I got irritated the other day when the Boston bombing happened. I was in the airport at LAX, flying back to do the show — I commute back and forth because my family’s in LA. And it’s a bloody mess, people are rushing in, 20 minutes after it happened. And I’m at the airport bar, and there’s very little conversation going on. Everyone’s just staring up at the television, saying “Holy shit, what happened?” And the guy to my left turns to the chick next to him and says, “So, you’re traveling light, huh?” And I was just thinking, “Shut the fuck up! How are you even talking right now?”

The same thing happened when I was working a gig in Vegas. I’m not sure if you’ve talked to anybody about these horrible casino gigs. When you work Harrah’s, you get to eat in the cafeteria. So you’re sitting there with all of the employees. It was right at the moment when Katrina happened. Guy on rooftop with dog, desperate to be saved. People are going into the Superdome. Disaster’s happening. And the security guards to my left — I guess Harrah’s had just taken over Caesar’s — and one of them says, “So, do you think they’re gonna change the color of our uniforms?” Who gives a fuck about your uniforms? People are dying!

I mean, obviously people need to move on, and despite this series of – it feels like monthly – events, people still need to go on stage and do stand up, and do The Daily Show. And it’s hard, you know? I find it hard not to get discouraged.

As the show’s Latino correspondent, you mentioned that you’re uniquely positioned to cover some issues facing Latinos, like the crazy laws in Arizona. On the surface it seems like that’s just an extension of the show’s general parody of cable news, where ethnic reporters get assigned to stories about people from that ethnic group, but do you feel like you fill a genuine niche on the show, to dig deeper into some of those topics?

Yes, for sure. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to do so. And you know, just the other day, MSNBC had something where they were talking about Latinos in politics and their prevalence in society, and they had three black pundits on there. I mean, you couldn’t scrounge up one Latino to talk about this? Yeah, I think it’s a cool opportunity to get some of these stories out there.

Which segments have you done that stand out the most to you?

I love the field pieces more than anything. I really enjoy going out and doing the interviews. Some of those I’m really proud of, like the Mexican-American studies one, and the Detroit bridge piece. The show has allowed me to drive tanks, to drive a Chrysler 300 through the streets of Detroit while listening to Eminem. I’ve been able to do a lot of fun stuff.

You have a lot of experience acting and working in the industry, appearing in shows like Free Agents and Welcome to the Captain. How has working on The Daily Show been different?

It’s just not a job like any other. You’re doing your acting, you’re doing standup, you’re a reporter reading a teleprompter. It’s a combination of many different skills. It’s not like anything else. In the field pieces, you’re an interviewer, so you’re sort of this journalist with jokes. Oftentimes you’ll watch a straight interview that’s being done — you know, it’s Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports or anything on 60 Minutes — and you think, oh, that’s relatively easy. Without the jokes, it doesn’t seem as difficult.

You have dual functions as an interviewer: that mock newsman persona, as well as having to actually use some journalistic skills, like following up on details that might come up during the interviews. How did you go about developing those skills and that persona?

The only way you can do it is on the job, to just get out there and do those interviews. Sitting across from someone and having fun with them can pretty difficult, especially when they aren’t aware of what’s funny about the situation. So it’s a difficult gig. There’s nothing like it, and the only way to get good at it is to go out there and do it. John Oliver has been really helpful with me, coaching me along.

And if you look at those field pieces, they’re way different from when Carell was on, or when Colbert was on. It’s evolved into, you know, “What are we saying here?” There’s much more meaning involved as we move forward.

What do you think about John Oliver guest hosting the show while Stewart is gone over the summer?

I think it’s awesome. It’s an incredible opportunity for him. He’s a writer and a correspondent, and he works so hard. He really understands our department and the field department. He’s great. We’re lucky to have people like Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, John Oliver — they’ve been here for so long, and they’re great for advice on my end. But yeah, I think the show is in great hands, and it probably means the correspondents are going to see a little more action.

You co-host the podcast Minivan Men. It’s interesting to hear comedians using podcasts to connect with fans on a more personal level. There’s less pressure to hit with a joke every few seconds, and you have more time to explore topics.

Minivan Men — that one’s been tough. I started a network with Bill Burr called All Things Comedy, so I’m familiar with several podcasts, and I talk with the Earwolf people all the time, so I’m familiar with the landscape. The podcast that we do is a little more difficult because of the schedules of everybody involved. Maz Jobrani leads this double life where he’s this Persian Seinfeld, an international superstar, and then you’ll see him in LA at the Laugh Factory doing 15-minute sets. He can sell out five nights at a 2000-seater in Sweden. And then we also do it with Chris Spencer, who created the show The Real Husbands of Hollywood with Kevin Hart, which is a huge success. And I’m so busy, going back and forth to LA, and doing The Daily Show, and doing stand-up shows. The fact that everyone is so busy is the biggest challenge there.

Since we’re three comedians with kids, we talk about that, and the challenges there, and we thought that would be interesting. Other than just, you know, comic interviews, we could talk about parenting and spouse challenges that come up. And it’s been interesting to do. It’s not for everyone. And been a challenge for me, you know, to be the best father possible considering my schedule. Fitting in the family time is something a lot of parents struggle with, so we talk about all of that shit.

I noticed a lot of your stand-up focuses on your relationship with your family as well. Your special is airing Friday on Comedy Central — Why Is The Rabbit Crying? — which I assume is a reference to your “Cholo soccer dad” joke.

It’s talking about everything that happens in my life, and every bit is grounded in reality, so there’s not a lot of fiction. And I find myself, you know, a half-Mexican living in a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles, surrounded by these characters, raising a family in this weird, multi-ethnic neighborhood. It’s a lot of that. There’s strip malls, and the neighborhood is kind of boldly blue-tarp, so it’s very fruitful for material to live around a bunch of weirdos.

You’re constantly doing standup. When you do a show, do you view it as an opportunity to get back to what you truly love, in a “back to the basics” way, or is it something where you’re working on other projects like The Daily Show, and you’ll get new ideas that you’ll be inspired to work back into your act?

I’m not doing as good a job at that as I should. There’s a writer here who’s a standup, and we were talking about opportunities for material as we’re going through it on the show. And again, I feel like I’m so busy, it’s just creative mayhem over here — I’m working on All Things Comedy, I’m working on The Daily Show, and my stand-up and acting — there’s so much going on, and there’s zero method to any of this. I have a great time on stage, and I love interacting with the crowd. My style also is such that I’ve become this six-minute bit storyteller with a lot of tangents and detail, and those don’t come too easy. So in terms of writing, I need to actually sit down to piece together my bits. They start on stage, but I need to make a conscious effort to work everything out. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. This special, Why Is The Rabbit Crying?, is a combination of a lot of those stories that have been crafted in clubs over a long period of time.

A couple years ago you did an interview with Paul F. Tompkins and Maria Bamford on KCRW’s The Business in which you talked about comedians like Paul Reiser, who become TV stars and never do standup again, which was notion you were grappling with. Do you think that era is over? Can comedians afford to think that way nowadays?

I think there will always be people who get a little too busy. I was talking to another comic who had just taped an hour, and he was like, “I’m excited! Here comes the new hour. I get to write a new hour.” And that whole thing, with all the shit I have going on right now, it just seems a little bit daunting. So I can totally see how people want to take a break, and how it’s difficult to jump back into it.

But at the same time, I would never want to take that much time off. Meeting John Oliver has been really good for me — just watching how he goes about doing standup and balancing out family time. At this point, with me being away from my family, it’s very difficult for me to fly back to LA and then say, “All right, see you guys later, I’m going to the Comedy Store.” So I did my club time, which used to be constant, easily 10 sets a week at the Improv, the Laugh Factory, and the Comedy Store. It’s been tapered way down. I think as people get busier, yeah, it’s harder to stay in the clubs, to stay fresh. But there is a bit of a balance that I’m watching John Oliver employ, going out to clubs constantly and working on material as much as you can. But I can totally see how people like Mike Binder and Paul Reiser and standups over time sort of dropped out.

I get it. I get both sides. I think I may have mentioned this on the show with Maria and Paul, that standup will always be there for me. You know, I got into this to do standup, and everything that has come from it has been great, but I really do enjoy being on stage. I’ve never been as polished as I’ve wanted to be, and I think that’s what I really enjoy — just messing around with material and never doing the same bit twice.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

Talking with Al Madrigal about ‘The Daily Show’ and […]