Pat McGann is a former South Side packing salesman who ventured into the world of stand-up comedy at the age of 31.
Since then, McGann’s career has taken him from stand-up comedy to the theatre. Along the way, there were late night appearances with David Letterman and Stephen Colbert and an iTunes special. On April 22, 2023, he will make his starring debut at the iconic Chicago Theater.
WTTW News: I read that you didn’t start stand-up until you were 31. What did you do before?
Pat McGann: I’ve sold packaging, like retail packaging.
Frankly the world of comedy looks a lot more interesting than that. What made you want to make the leap into stand-up comedy and have the confidence to do it?
McGann: I love writing and thinking about funny things. And I love stand-up and I love comedy and I would like to see things and get inspired by them. All my life I’ve always tried to make people laugh. And my friends were always so funny, and I think it was just like a part of my existence.
My parents would take us to see Seinfeld when I was young and every time they went to New York City, they’d come back and talk about the comedy club they went to. It was always something like that in the back of my mind, but I was never on stage, so that element was terrifying.
The idea of being a stand-up comedian, the one in the spotlight, with just you and a microphone trying to entertain a crowd, what gave you the confidence that you could do it?
McGann: I went to open mics in Chicago and looked and got a sense of what people were doing and it gave me the confidence to think I might as well pack up a three to five minute set to rehearse. And that’s how I started. I did it at one place in Chicago and had enough laughs.
What was it like when you started? Were you immediately able to connect with an audience or was it a process?
McGann: It took a while, but I wasn’t being very personal. And I think once I started getting more personal, I really started connecting on a different level. I’ve evolved to just talk about my life because when I started, I was just an observer and maybe a little distant from the material. And as I got more comfortable with it, I started getting more personal.
When you were starting out, how did you recover from the bad nights where you were dying on stage? How do you digest those experiences and recover from them?
McGann: Well, I think everyone has them, you know, everyone has bad nights and I think that translates. There are so many parallels to similar sports and I played many sports growing up. And if you really pay attention, you realize that everyone misses shots, everyone chokes at some point.
There was someone who told me that you don’t learn anything from good shows. You really only learn from the times you struggle and that still holds true. Like when I have new material, sometimes it bombards me, sometimes it really struggles and it takes me a while to figure out how to shape a concept or an idea to make it recognizable.
Sometimes you abandon an idea altogether. I mean, you have to embrace those nights as much as they are deflating, but you bounce back. But you know, this whole thing is like a conversation with the audience, right? And if they don’t give you anything back, then it’s not really a conversation.
Do you find that you have to tailor your performance to the particular audience? I guess there are probably regional differences, obviously, international differences with the comedy crowds and what they find funny.
McGann: Well, I try to stick to being me, but sometimes there are boundaries, you know, if you’re doing a corporate gig or if you’re in a certain part of the country where you need to change something references, but, but in general , most of my act I did not have to change too much. I try to take them. Try to be myself and react and respond to the moment.
Who were your role models or comic heroes?
McGann: I mean, when I was growing up, Eddie Murphy, Seinfeld, Roseanne, those are all like the big names that were taking positions in these other directions and it was evolving. And then I was a big fan of “Saturday Night Live”. I loved Johnny B (Jonathon Brandmeier), the Chicago morning radio guy. I only loved ridiculous and funny people.
I was really influenced by all of that and my friends as well. I grew up in Chicago on the South Side. I grew up in a very Irish Catholic neighborhood and everyone is a storyteller. If you like to separate from the pack you usually get teased, so it was just like part of our DNA.
Tell me about your next show at Chicago Theater in April. Will it be your first time playing there?
McGann: I’ve opened for a comic there and done an event with the Chicago White Sox there, but I’ve never performed there myself. So this is really the first time with my name on it.
What it feels like to have grown up on the South Side and of course the Chicago Theater is iconic. How does it feel to be the main act?
McGann: Man. It doesn’t even look real, it’s unbelievable. I’m so excited. I’m not like a vision board guy or like that’s my goal, I have to do Chicago Theater someday. But in the back of my mind I’ve always fought for it especially when I was there and opened for Sebastian (Blacksmith) and you see other comics and their name on the marquee. It’s something you work on for sure.
A few years ago, you were the host of the “Chicago Standup Project” here at WTTW. You can coach someone to be funny or think they should already be there, even if you have to coach to bring it out.
McGann: I think you could help someone shape a set with their own thoughts and words. Good comedy is good editing. I don’t think you can teach someone to be funny. I don’t think you can give someone a sense of humor, but I think you can work with someone to help them deliver a funny speech.
It’s really like editing, right? So many times you hear someone tell you a great story that you had to be there or it goes on for too long. So I’m just helping someone tighten something. And that was perhaps my biggest benefit from that experience.
I wonder where that show would have gone if we had continued and then it had legs. I was so green at the time, I just stood up for a while and I didn’t know anything, you know. Not that I do now, but I think I would take a different approach if I did these days. But I still stand by that idea and enjoyed it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Note: This article will be updated with the video.