The first time Jackie Kashian appeared in a comedy club was in 1984, as a 19-year-old UW-Madison student at a long-defunct club called the Comedy Cellar.
It’s not a debut she’s very proud of. She wasn’t performing on stage. She was heckling from the audience. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the comedian she was heckling with the legendary Sam Kinison.
“I went to the show and proceeded to get so drunk that I heckled Sam Kinison,” Kashian said. “Genuinely, there’s nothing work than a woman heckler. Even if you’re a woman comic, for some reason the audience is entirely on her side. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Finally, the club manager came over and said the words that would change her life: “Hey, open mic is on Sunday. Shut up.”
“Three weeks later I came back and did open mic,” Kashian said. While she wouldn’t recommend the heckling route for any other aspiring comedians – especially if she happens to be onstage – it seems to have worked for her.
She’s been a successful standup comedian for decades, hosting two podcasts (“The Dork Forest” and Nerdist’s “Jackie and Laurie” show with Laurie Kilmartin). Last week, she was recording a new comedy album at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis, and she’ll be back in Madison to play at the Comedy Club on State Thursday through Saturday.
Kashian grew up in South Milwaukee, and said she got all her comic timing from her father, an aluminum siding salesman. But she hadn’t ever been to a comedy club before she went to school in Madison, although performing was on her mind. Sort of.
“The reason I went to Madison is that I wanted to be in the marching band,” Kashian said. “Because I’m a dork. (Mike) Leckrone. That guy was like 100 then. He’s so great.”
Kashian never actually joined the band, convinced by her brother (who also attended UW-Madison) to spend football Saturdays standing outside Camp Randall selling bootleg T-shirts and hats. (She not so fondly remembers the baseball cap shaped like a jockstrap that read “I’m an Athletic Supporter.”)
She spent a lot of nights at the Comedy Cellar working on her material and getting better and better as a standup comedian. “There aren’t that many baby geniuses in standup comedy,” she said. “I certainly wasn’t. I think I was relatively lucky. I wasn’t good at standup comedy but I remember pretty early having topics that I wanted to do. When you first start out, you’re just throwing things against the wall.”
After graduating with a degree in political science in 1988, Kashian relocated to Minneapolis, where she did stand-up with comedians like Maria Bamford. She said that she’s been amazed by the explosion of good stand-up comedy in recent years, especially comedians (like Bamford) who use humor to explore some uncomfortable areas.
“We’re definitely in a golden age of comedy,” she said. “There’s so many great comics who are speaking from a really personal space. When I was starting, there were 100 of us, which means that 10 of us were great. Now there’s 1000, which means 100 of them are great.”
Kashian said she’s looking forward to coming back to the Comedy Club on State, which she calls one of the four best comedy clubs in the country. She said the staff treat the comedians really well and have made it a place that’s welcoming to intelligent comedy.
“They bring a consistent kind of standup comedy that trains the audience to look for something different and interesting,” Kashian said.
And, also, they don’t tolerate hecklers.