Madigan to Have the Last Laughs : Stand-up: These days, the comic is doing more headlining, including a show Monday at the Irvine Improv.

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Kathleen Madigan, who first stepped onto a comedy stage less than four years ago, has capped a fast rise to headliner status with a nomination for Best Female Club Comic, a category of the American Comedy Awards.

Madigan, 26, who headlines at the Irvine Improv on Monday, quit her day job editing a corporate magazine in 1989 to pursue comedy full time. Her rise through the ranks has taken her through opening spots to middle act, and now to about equal time in the middle and top slots. Madigan says she thinks she'll be doing only headlining gigs by the end of the year.

While headlining is more lucrative, "the middle's the best spot," she said in a phone interview from San Diego. Audiences "are not paying their checks yet, and they're not totally drunk."

The Missouri native still makes her home in St. Louis but spends as much as 40 weeks out of the year on the road.

Life in the Midwest forms much of the basis for the engaging young comic's act. "The Midwest is boring," she tells her audiences. "I live in St. Louis. We have that big arch. The whole time I was a kid I'm going, 'Yeah, Dad, you know they call that the Gateway to the West. I think the idea was to keep moving. ' "

In addition to club dates, Madigan has done her share of television appearances, including "Comic Strip Live" (twice) and a "Women of the Night" HBO special. This week, she taped a segment of Richard Lewis' new "A List" show planned for broadcast on the Comedy Central cable network.

The American Comedy Awards will be handed out March 28 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in a ceremony that will be taped for broadcast in May by ABC.

"It's incredible . . . I didn't expect the comedy award thing," Madigan said. "I've never seen" the awards telecast, she admitted. "I guess (it's) because I'm never home at night."

Kathleen Madigan and Andy Kindler will perform at 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive. Tickets: $7. Information: (714) 854-5455.

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