where women celebrate their ageless authenticity

Recreating Yourself As You Go with “Mad In The Kitchen” Comedy Cooking Show Creator Madeleine Smithberg

If laughter is the best medicine, Madeleine Smithberg offers just the right prescription. She earned Peabody and Emmy Awards for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which she co-created and ran as executive producer, directly responsible for casting the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Ed Helms, among others. She also spent six years as a talent coordinator, then producer for NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman.” Madeleine’s motto “I do nothing unless it’s fun,” is what launched her into her latest 60-something venture as host of the deliciously hilarious “Mad In The Kitchen” cooking show on YouTube. As a breast cancer survivor, Madeleine’s inspiring take on navigating life’s highs and lows gives us all something to smile about. You can read more in her soon-to-be-published memoir, “Almost Funny: My Life in Late Night Comedy, Cooking, and Cancer.”

In this moment of your life, what brings you joy?

Many things bring me joy. Mostly my husband and my son; other human beings. People who I’ve shared love and laughter, hard work, and memories with.

woman on floaty in a lakeWater also always brings me joy. Three minutes from my house there’s a semi-private lake where I take my floaty that looks like a watermelon.

But I must share that in my post breast cancer life, joy has been a lot more elusive to me than ever before. The things that have been bringing me joy just aren’t working for me right now. I’m not loving cooking as much. And that was my secret weapon, my self-correct. If I needed to be happy, I’d just slice up a shallot, put it in some olive oil, and my mood changed. Now all I can think about is how much cleanup it’s going to be. Shouldn’t I just order something? So in answer to your question, I’ll add, ‘to be continued.’

Thanks for opening up like that. Paying attention to what we’re feeling is something we could all do more of. Returning to that intuitive part of ourselves, there are so many different versions of you already, with even more to come. You are such a fearless force. Do you see yourself that way?

I’m not scared. It’s the one thing that has been a constant theme in my life. When it comes to social, professional, earth-bound things, I really don’t understand the concept of fear. And I’ve never let it stop me from anything, other than skydiving.

A lot of other things have just kind of happened to me, but I don’t think they were accidents. “Late Night with David Letterman” was the first time where I watched it on TV and felt a calling that I needed to be part of it.  It was as if I willed it into being, but it still took two years to happen.

Looking back I would love to say that I had a 10 or 15-year plan, but it was more like, when the moment was right, I would make a move. I’ve always navigated life as if I have just a little piece of a map, and all I know is ‘we are going four blocks north… I’ll get back to you on the next turn in about 15 minutes.’

It’s more about thinking less. Our minds play these games with us, giving reasons why we shouldn’t — I’ll make a fool of myself, I’ll fail. And when you listen to that voice, you’ve closed a door. Whereas, if you can somehow tell that voice to just be quiet for a minute, it allows you to learn as you go. That’s the challenge. Lately I’m trying to be nicer, sweeter to myself. But I’m also trying to get part of me to sit down and zip it. I can talk to my ego. I think the trick is you need to hear it, because you’re not going to shut it up. You just don’t necessarily have to follow its orders. Just let it out. Like having a fight with your husband — don’t interrupt, don’t react. It’s more like, ‘I’m listening to you. Oh, interesting point. I see what you’re doing there. Very nice’… And now I’m going to go do what I was talking about.’

Is there a key ingredient that gives flavor to your life?

Laughter. I could not live without it. I live to laugh, and shared laughter is the best laughter of all.

How did you come up with the idea for a comedy cooking show?

Hot dogs on a trayI didn’t really think about it too much. It was during Covid, which was a rough time for all of us, for sure. It was also when I got my cancer diagnosis. I was spending so much time alone that I pretended to need things at Trader Joe’s just to be able to have some social interaction. One day I decided I’m not going to be depressed anymore. I’ve always loved cooking and have done it intuitively. When I was at Letterman, producing the cooking segments with Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck were some of my favorites. When I moved to Seattle (to be with a man who broke my heart in 1986 and found me again on Facebook) I pivoted (at the age of 60) from TV comedy to working as a chef teaching corporate team-building classes, after being recruited while taking a “knife skills” class. So I got out of my sweats and had my husband record me cooking on his cell phone.

It was wild. All of my TV experience was about helping people thrive in front of the camera. I’d thought of every detail. And suddenly with Mad In The Kitchen, all of that experience, all that skill, resurfaced. It was like taking a giant telescope and turning it around, using it to put on makeup. Focusing on me. And the dirty little secret is I loved it. I knew how to do it.

My husband loves to cook, while I’m a total fish out of water in the kitchen. But your tips give me confidence to explore a bit. Was that an intentional concept?

It was more just how to be a woman in front of a camera and how to let your passion guide you. And a relationship to food, more so than embroidery. Not everybody embroiders, but everybody eats. There’s a universal connection to food that’s undeniable. So if you want to eat and you can do it yourself, it’s better if you can make it fun.

At the very beginning, I was contacted by a woman who asked if I could send her a picture of me because she wanted to put it on a T-shirt for her best friend. Her ‘bestie’ had just retired at 65 and had never cooked in her entire life. But after watching my show she was obsessed, so she wanted to buy her some pots and pans. <laugh>

That connection made me feel so good. I would love to say that was my intention. But it really wasn’t. It was me following the little voice in my head (what we were talking about earlier). The beat of the drum when I hear the thing in my heart. I’m not really sure where it’s taking me, but I know that this is where I want to be. And historically as I have done that, the rest has followed along.

Your life’s journey has been all about keeping it fun. But along the way, have you ever felt any sense of doubt, or Imposter Syndrome?

Oh every second of every day. I think everybody does. I’m confident in certain ways, but then at times when it’s not right in front of me, confidence amnesia sets in.

Somebody once shared with me that David Letterman woke up every single morning of his life thinking he wasn’t going to be funny that day. And I feel like there’s this connection between neurosis and comedy that I sort of partake in. But I think that fear of failure becomes a motivator. And it’s unfortunate. So I’m striving for a pathway to release that.

I got some great advice from a friend, who told me to talk to yourself in the voice you talk to your dog, or your cat. We need a whole new language, especially in today’s world of discourse. So I’m trying to speak that way with myself.

I believe we’re all our own best friends and our own worst enemies. And I’m consciously trying to be a good friend to others and to myself. It’s about connections. I value my friendships probably more than anything. They’re more valuable than gold, diamonds, stocks, property, any of that crap that you cannot take with you.

Madeleine and her husband Sam

What is your favorite thing to cook?

Pasta. My favorite shape is ‘Mezze Maniche,’ (half sleeves), a wide rigatoni, but half the size. I like ‘al dente’ and I have a million ways to make it, depending on what mood I’m in.

What’s your weirdest gastronomic guilty pleasure?

Domino’s Philly Cheese Steak Pizza. It’s even worse than pineapple. I know they would kick me out of Italy. At customs the alarms would go off, and they wouldn’t let me in. It’s horrible and about a million calories, but for some reason there are moments when you need that. Nothing else will work.

Madeleine’s “Must Have” Pantry Staples

Different bunches of fresh herbs on the wooden table.

  • Onions, garlic, olive oil. Some form of pasta and Parmesan cheese.
  • Canned beans. Instantly delicious, just sautéed with an onion, and super good for you.
  • Fresh herbs: Italian parsley, rosemary, and sage (I put them in small vases filled with water and enjoy them as I do flowers, and then use them for cooking as needed.)

Can you give us a preview about the memoir you’ve got in the works?

It’s a collection of stories from different areas of my life. I’ve been really examining how things came to be. I try to write a little bit every day. To find the voice, the rhythm and the patterns. And I know for me it’s really just a very elaborate excuse to get me back on camera. There have been inspirational times and some harrowing parts. The working title is, “Almost Funny: My Life in Late Night Comedy, Cooking, and Cancer.” It begins, “If you were to look at my life as an EKG, you’d go running for the defibrillator.” How could this woman survive the highs and the lows? So I’ll get to the harrowing parts first, then kind of cap ’em off with the happy landing so people don’t think it’s a horror book.

Like right now, I’m writing about when I went from chemo to cancer free. No one used the word remission with me. So bam, I get my life back. And lately I’m feeling like a phone that’s charged to about 30%. For the first time in my life, I can only tell you what I don’t want. I cannot tell you what I see for myself.

It just shows you that you never really know how things will unfold. I’m in uncharted territory right now, so I’m just along for the ride with you. And the thing that’s interesting and why it ties into what you’re doing, is it’s also unique to this phase of my life. I’m asking questions.

I’m getting older and it feels like, okay, Madeleine, what is the next chapter? What are you gonna do to top “The Daily Show”? What are you gonna do to top Mad In The Kitchen? We’re waiting… But the only people that are waiting are the voices in my head, because no one else really cares.

I’m trying to practice gratitude. I need to take a breath. Remind myself. I created “The Daily Show” with Lizz Winstead, and we changed the way college students get their news. Can’t I go take a nap now?


Join Madeleine Smithberg on her website at MADINTHEKITCHEN.COM

Mad in the Kitchen, It has to be fun

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