During his opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, host Louis CK noted that he had been doing stand-up for 32 years, and that it’s only been going great for the past four.
He was exaggerating, but only a little.
In the comedy world, overnight stardom happens about as often as a visit from Halley’s comet. It can take decades of toiling in the trenches — open-mic nights, corporate gigs, fleabag motels — before approaching anything resembling success.
No one understands that better than Jackie Kashian, who returns Wednesday to Minneapolis, the first city where appreciative fans started to outnumber the hecklers.
“Why do you keep going? Well, my typical answer is, ‘Why not?’ ” said Kashian, 51, reflecting on the 2½ years she spent ping-ponging from one Twin Cities comedy club to the next before emerging as a viable contender.
“You get on a one-track road. It’s like asking why someone stays in the Navy after 17 years. ‘Well, I want the 20-year chip. I want the pension.’ ”
I first saw Kashian perform in 1996 at the Aspen Comedy Festival, where her set was nearly drowned out by the bar’s cash register. She was so low on the totem pole that Jon Lovitz gave her the cold shoulder in the hotel lobby. In terms of her breaking through, I had my doubts.
Fortunately, someone with a sharper eye for talent felt differently.
“During the ’90s, comedy had almost become a formula, where either everyone was trying to be Jerry Seinfeld or work dirty,” said Louis Lee, owner of Acme Comedy Company, where Kashian and other club favorites will be helping to raise money with a benefit show Wednesday for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. “She didn’t follow those rules. She was following her own voice, and over the years that voice has just gotten louder and louder.”
These days, Kashian is much in demand as a road comic, booking more than 150 gigs a year and building a loyal following through her podcasts “The Dork Forest” and “The Jackie and Laurie Show.” Her latest album, “I Am Not the Hero of This Story,” debuted at the top of the comedy charts on iTunes and Amazon. Like most of her previous albums, it was taped at Acme.
“If I walk into a club and the waitresses and bartenders are joking with each other, then I know it’s a good club. Everyone’s not worried about alcoholic dad being mad at them,” said Kashian, speaking by phone from the home she shares with husband Andy Ashcraft, a freelance game designer. “It’s a real thing Louis has done there.”
Kashian, who grew up in South Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ended up thriving on the Twin Cities scene, but by 1999, she was ready to test her skills from a Los Angeles base.
She hasn’t dumbed down her act in the slightest. During a recent set at Pasadena’s Icehouse Comedy Club, she challenged the audience by tackling procreation, genocide and other $10 concepts with an urgent delivery, tempered with Midwest Nice. She was followed by a comic whose entire act consisted of grousing about being a gay horndog. He got more belly laughs, but Kashian got the brain cells churning.
That approach has made her a favorite among her peers. During a Q&A in Lawrence, Kan., last year, Duluth native and “Lady Dynamite” star Maria Bamford deflected a compliment about her rising fame by urging the audience to pay more attention to Kashian, whom she frequently recruits as an opening act.
“L.A. and New York comics can be full of themselves, but Jackie is always aware of the room and what people would like,” said Guy Branum, host of truTV’s “Talk Show the Game Show,” who got his first stage time during an Acme open-mic night. “She’s a clean comic, but if the room wants something edgier, she’s amenable to that. She’s sensible.”
But being practical doesn’t mean chasing the latest trend — and that may be keeping Kashian off the A-list. She has performed on “Conan” but is not a regular on the late-night talk show circuit. She’s never enjoyed sitcom success. Her most significant appearance on network TV was as an airport security guard on the 1988-98 sitcom “Murphy Brown.”
As usual, Kashian isn’t giving up.
“I’d like to do more acting, and I’m starting to embrace more respect for the craft,” she said. “When I was asked to act before, I would show up and not be prepared. That’s not OK. You have to be committed.”
Don’t bet against her headlining her own sitcom — even if it takes another 30 years.