January 2005
By Steven M. Housman

Rita Rudner

Luck Be A Funny Lady!

Am I lucky - or am I just meeting some of the most fascinating and entertaining people lately? I think both. I recently interviewed veteran comedienne Rita Rudner, who’s been entertaining audiences nightly in Las Vegas. Her “act,” that started out as a one-month booking at the MGM Grand in 2000, led to a permanent engagement at Las Vegas’ New York-New York’s Cabaret Theatre, a venue built exclusively for her. She continues to play to sold-out audiences, where her contract runs through June 2006.

Rudner has accomplished more than just strutting her dry comedic genius on the Vegas stage. Did you know she started out as a Broadway dancer but switched gears at age 25 to stand-up comedy in order to secure a brighter future? She’s also an accomplished screenwriter, the 1992 film Peter’s Friends was written with her proper English husband, writer/producer Martin Bergman, and together they have collaborated on four successful books, 2001’s Tickled Pink, the best-selling Naked Beneath My Clothes, and the hysterically funny Rita Rudner’s Guide To Men. Now, they have a new book, Helldorado, a satire about life in Vegas, set for release.

Throughout this interview, Rita never let go of her wonderful wit when discussing her family, her famous contemporaries, including the migraine she developed when writing for The Academy Awards when friends Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin summoned her. She speaks fondly of comedy legends and dear friends’ Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, and her mentors Woody Allen and Jack Benny. She also spoke of her innate sense that stand-up comedy is reverting back to a man’s domain, what it meant to be “approved” by Johnny Carson, her feelings about her gay fans, gay marriage, politics, her syndicated television show, and most importantly, her husband and her two and a half year-old daughter, Molly. Rita is settled in Las Vegas, a town most people would find the word “settle” to be an oxymoron. According to her, “After you’ve been to Las Vegas, every place else is just beige.” After this glimpse into Rita’s life, you’ll realize how interesting her life has been, and now, at this stage of her life, it’s developed into full Technicolor.

Rita will be stepping off the Vegas stage to appear at The McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA, for two shows on January 23rd.

Tell us something about your upcoming show.

I will be very, very funny for an hour and a half, possibly an hour and forty minutes. And I always enjoy Palm Desert. The McCallum is one of my favorite theatre’s. It’s where I taped one of my HBO specials.

You’ve had some great specials. Which one was taped at the McCallum?

It was Married Without Children. Now, of course, I’m married with children, so that changes everything.

How many children do you have?

One- I have a little girl that’s two and a half. So, I also have a lot of new material because of her!

I’ve been a fan of yours since I saw you on Johnny Carson.

Wow! That was a long time ago. How long ago was it that he left? Hasn’t it been at least ten years?

He left in ’92.

Whoa! I can’t believe it.

Was Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show your first network appearance?

No. It took quite a while to get on Johnny Carson. I was on David Letterman for at least five or six years before I got on the Johnny Carson show.

Is it true that Carson could really make a career?

You know, he definitely helps. It was a goal of mine to make it on his show, so I was very excited when I actually made it on the show. But the television universe has changed dramatically, because it was a time when there were just three channels and all of America was tuned in to one of the three channels. And now there’s five hundred and it’s a very fractured television universe. At that point, when I started getting on it, it really meant a lot more than these shows do now because nowadays there are so many different outlets.

You always spoke of men, relationships and jewelry, and it was always very funny - Where does that come from?

I just look around and I write things and hopefully they’re funny. My husband went to see Carole King while I was doing my show the other night, and she said, “I know I must be a songwriter because, look, I’ve got this whole book and it’s filled with songs that I’ve written.” I feel the same way. I must be a joke writer because I’ve got hours and hours of jokes that I’ve written. But every time it’s a blessed event when another one occurs to me.

How old were you when you realized you had a special gift for comedy and could make a successful career from it?

Well, I was never aware that any gift was around, but I was twenty-five and I was a dancer on Broadway and I decided to make the big switch.

Were you not happy dancing?

No, I loved dancing but I had been doing it for ten years. I wasn’t happy with the fact that there were fewer and fewer auditions and there were very few opportunities for a dancer after thirty, I was five years away from thirty. So, I kind of looked ahead and said, ‘What can I do when I’m a bit older?’ And I noticed that George Burns was ninety-five and Bob Hope was one hundred and eleven, so there you go.

Who do you take after - Were there other members of your family that were funny and witty?

My Dad is kind of ironic and he was a lawyer, and my Mother was kind of a scatty housewife, she would do funny things, but neither one of them were in the profession, so it just came out of nowhere. People still have meetings in New York and I think in Miami, where I from, and say “Do you ever remember Rita being funny?” And they would say, “No, how did that happen?” So, it’s kind of a mystery…a happy mystery.

You have become one of the few female comics to become a household name. Is this because comedy is still a man’s domain?

For a while, I thought it was changing over and it was going to be half and half, but it retreated back to a male domain. It’s a very difficult position. You may not like a female comedian because it’s a position of power, and you have power over people’s emotions, so it’s a tricky thing to get it right as to where the men aren’t upset with you and the women are laughing. It’s a balancing act, definitely. But it seems to have gone the other way and female comedians have disappeared again. I’m sure they’ll be back again, and I’m certainly glad that I’m one of the household names. I’ve worked hard and I’m going to continue to work hard.

Who were your early comedic influences when you were starting out?

When I was starting out, the people that I noticed had kind of the same personality as I did, because I was kind of quiet. I identified with Woody Allen and Jack Benny. I ignored the fact of who was a man and who was a woman, and I just went with the fact that they were kind of laid-back and they weren’t very aggressive, because that was my personality. I’m friends with Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and I think they’re fantastic comediennes, and fantastic women, but my personality was very, very different from theirs. So, as much as I admired them, I studied Woody Allen and Jack Benny.

I understand that you have contributed your writing skills to the Academy Awards when it’s been hosted by Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg. Do you feel extra pressure when writing for another performer?

Oh, to me, it was a thrill that they considered me worthy to write for them, but I did get a migraine. I’m the kind of person that likes to be responsible for myself, and if a joke doesn’t work, I like to know that I wrote it, and if it works, I like to know that I wrote it. I didn’t want to let them down in any way. That’s not my experience. My experience is writing for myself. I felt much more pressure writing for other people than I ever do when I write for myself. Also, I don’t have a deadline with my act. I can think of things whenever I want to think of them. I can try them every night in Las Vegas, whenever I want to try them. With the Academy Awards, it has to be ready, and everything has to be done by March 16th. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it, but I did feel very pressured.

How do you like working Vegas on a regular basis?

I love it. My husband and I have changed our lives. We’re here with the baby, and we live in Las Vegas now and I don’t travel. For a long time I would travel once a week, and lived in Los Angeles and we were writing for Hollywood Studios, it was a different life. It’s been great. I loved that then, I love this now.

You mentioned your husband, Martin Bergman. You two make a wonderful professional team. I really enjoyed “Peter’s Friends.” How did you two meet?

Do you know that movie is still on? It was on last night again. We met…First of all he was a comedy performer, and he was a writer and producer of comedy shows. He saw me perform at Catch A Rising Star in New York City and hired me to do something called the Edinborough Festival in Scotland. So, he hired me to do these shows with him and then I married him. I said, ‘I’m one of the few people who slept with the Producer after I already had the job!’

Do you still work closely together on projects?

Yes, we’re just finishing our latest book which we have a new title for it called Helldorado, and it’s a satire about Las Vegas. And we wrote Tickled Pink, he co-wrote that with me, which was my novel about being a stand-up comedian. We co-wrote Peter’s Friends together and he produces my show here in Las Vegas so we’re very busy.

How did your syndicated television show come to be?

That started when a local news station in Vegas did an interview with me and we noticed that there was a little studio, so we got busy and said, ‘Let’s try and do a show,’ and we got NBC here in Vegas involved and we got it syndicated across the country and did that for two years and then that went out of production. Recently we got news that ABC has bought it for late night and it’s coming back in September. I think it will be once a week beginning in September. We’re not sure. My husband said he’s not sure what network it will be on, but it will be syndicated.

Did you find you were giving a lot of advice to friends before you made it a staple on your TV show?

Well, I always thought I ask friends what to do about life, and they don’t know anything- so why not just ask me? I don’t know anything either. I like to give advice! Everybody’s an expert on other people’s lives.

You have a large gay fan base - Why do you think that is?

Oh that’s good! I think gay people have good taste. (Laughing) Gay people have good senses of humor and I’m very flattered.

Since your act is so topical, do you think gay marriage should be legalized?

Yes, I don’t see what the big deal is! Anybody who loves another person should be able to legally drive them crazy.

Do politics enter into your act?

No, and you know why, because it changes everyday. Then after Bush gets the vote, everybody forgets who Kerry is already. I think it’s great for comedian’s who have a nightly television show and can do the jokes everyday, Letterman, Leno, and Jon Stewart, it serves them well. They get new jokes and they have writers that do a lot of the work…It’s a different skill. My jokes hang around for a long, long time, so I like to do things about relationships. Different people always have different relationships, and that lasts.

What’s your take on this past Presidential election?

I don’t think anybody should vote for anybody because I like them. I do say in my act that I am not a political person. The last thing I voted for was the lavender M&M.

Between your performances in Vegas on nightly basis and your television show, what are your future plans?

Well I have a lot of things to do with my baby Molly, and she’s lots of fun. Right now she’s running around in her little Elvis outfit .

(Laughing) Well you’re in Vegas, how appropriate.

(Laughs) I had our picture taken with both of us in Elvis outfits for a magazine here and she found it in the closet and put it on. And we’re going to go Christmas shopping, and she’s starting to go to school three mornings a week so I look forward to spending as much time as I can with her.

You sound really happy. I’ve always admired your talent, and now getting to know you a little bit, I’m happy you’re happy.

Well, this is a whole new thing I get to do and I’m very lucky. Martin and I have already struggled and scrimped and runaround and done everything with our careers. Now we’re kind of relaxed now and get to spend our time with the baby.

The Holidays are perfect time thank you for all of the joy you’ve brought to me, and to many, many people.

Well, thank you. I keep trying to be better.

See you at your show.

I’ll be the one on stage in the big dress.

© 2005 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.