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Making a name for yourself at the University of Minnesota can be nearly impossible without being a star athlete. Kate McCarthy did it by being the class clown.

While she performed stand-up on the local comedy circuit during her college years, it’s her ability to morph into distinctive, diverse characters that earned her a cult following on campus.

At her cabaret show this summer at Honey nightclub in northeast Minneapolis, McCarthy greeted the standing-room-only crowd of students as the Statue of Liberty, urging people to leave the country if they didn’t cry at the end of “Marley & Me.”

A few weeks earlier at Cedar Cultural Center, she had fans swooning over Ricky Lagoon, a lounge singer who crooned big-band standards in between digs at his nemesis, Tony Bennett.

This weekend, she’s starring in the Southern Theater’s “Hot Air,” a film-noir spoof about over-boiled detectives. Other past personas include E.T.’s bitter best friend, a girl from rural France who has never been to Paris and a 1970s variety-show host modeled on Dinah Shore.

“There’s not many people willing to take the kinds of risks Kate does,” said Bob Edwards, who routinely books her at his Comedy Corner Underground. “She’s trying to see how far you can take playing characters as an art form. Nobody else locally is trying to do comedy through a lens like that.”

McCarthy, 22, has always followed her own path.

Growing up in San Francisco, while her classmates were waiting in line for the latest “Harry Potter” movie, she was re-watching “Taxi Driver” and discovering Moms Mabley.

When she was 8, she went trick-or-treating as Groucho Marx, rehearsing her one-liners before knocking on doors. She wrote a five-page fan letter to “Election” director Alexander Payne and got a signed DVD of “Nebraska” in return.

“I brought it to my high school the next day,” she said last month, nursing a Shirley Temple at a West Bank bar near her apartment. “Nobody cared.”

McCarthy credits her deep knowledge of film and comedy to her mother, a former journalist who fed her three kids a steady diet of MGM musicals and offbeat titles like “The Summer of ’42.” One year, she made sure the family got through all of “Roots.”

“I know most kids aren’t interested in their parents’ approval, but, in my eyes, Mom is larger than life. I wanted to be around her and whatever she wanted to show us.”

John Fisher, executive director at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, hired her to help around the office when she was 16. Within six months, he had put her on stage.

“She was just one of those crazy kids who knew everything about theater and comedy,” he said. “I mean, she loves Wayne Newton even though nobody else does.”

After arriving in Minnesota on a scholarship, McCarthy got hooked on stand-up through the university’s comedy club, which was quickly followed by appearances at various open mics.

During her summer breaks, she secured internships at Conan O’Brien’s show in Los Angeles, Second City in Chicago and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” in New York. After work, she’d soak up the local club scenes. On her first evening in L.A., she got kicked out of the Comedy Store for being underage.

The experiences showed her it was possible to combine the best of various worlds.

“In the Twin Cities, you’ve got a separate stand-up scene, then the improv scene and the sketch scene.” she said. “But in other cities, there are no rules. It’s about making space for new approaches. It’s hard to keep that spirit alive here.”

The many faces of Kate McCarthy, who performs in the film-noir spoof “Hot Air.”
The many faces of Kate McCarthy, who performs in the film-noir spoof “Hot Air.”

Provided photos

Creating fully developed characters is her top priority. For her one-night stand as Ricky Lagoon, McCarthy spent several nights rehearsing musical numbers with a student band and getting her lounge-lizard costume just right. She didn’t actually write any jokes until a few hours before the show.

One might assume that McCarthy is building up the kind of résumé that might convince Lorne Michaels to recruit her for “Saturday Night Live.” But McCarthy isn’t obsessed with becoming the next Kate McKinnon.

“Everyone’s dream is to be on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ But the chances are so, so low,” she said. “You’re just setting yourself up for failure if that’s your only goal.”

But McCarthy is ready to try her luck in New York or L.A. (She wasn’t sure which.) She’ll be leaving the Twin Cities days after “Hot Air.”

“Sure, I could become the queen of comedy in Minneapolis,” she said. “But then I’d turn 30 and when I would go out to a bigger arena, they’d say, ‘Who are you? We don’t care what you did at Comedy Cellar Underground.’ ”

Fisher has no doubt that McCarthy — and her cast of characters — will make her mark beyond Minnesota.

“She’s got the chops. I think she could star in a Broadway show,” he said. “Why not? We need young people like her.”

Hot Air

When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.

Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $12-$24. southerntheater.org.