I’d never spoken with Rita Rudner before, but hanging up the phone I felt the warmth and glow of finally catching up with a good friend. And then I realized I’d just asked one of the greatest comedians of our time for her shoe size (more on that later). Fortunately, Rita Rudner is known as much for her kindness as for her comedy.
She is brilliant, original and hilarious and she does something that’s been in short supply throughout the millennia and especially these days: she tells the truth without an ounce of meanness.
Speaking with her, listening to her stand-up, reading her popular and bestselling books, or attending a show, the effect is the same: the sense that you’ve found an honest friend who gets you, makes you laugh and reassures you that this precarious world is navigable after all. To spend time with Rita Rudner is to feel at home.
She has had to feel at home herself in different careers, cities and circumstances since her solo move to New York City from Florida at the age of fifteen. Rita came to New York to dance on Broadway and she did. She appeared in the original Follies, Mack and Molly and many other productions. During the 1980s while performing in Annie, she looked around and realized that comedy offered more longevity than dancing.
She started making the rounds at the city’s open mics and showcases. Her vibrant, insightful style resonated with audiences and soon she was a touring headliner and a regular on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. She has played to capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall and starred in specials on HBO (One Night Stand, Born to Be Mild, Married Without Children) and in the first ever stand-up special on PBS (Rita Rudner: Live From Las Vegas). She also had her own eponymous show on the BBC.
In 1989, she married the British producer, director and writer Martin Bergman, who is an alum of the famed Cambridge Footlights. They collaborate in life and often in work. One of their hits was the award-winning film Peter’s Friends, in which Rita starred with Footlights folks Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery.
Her career reached another milestone with a record-setting gig in Las Vegas. In 2000, the MGM Grand asked her to fill a six-week spot. When the six weeks ended and with another act scheduled to move in, MGM said, “Don’t leave!” They built a theater just for her. The family, which now includes their daughter, stayed in Vegas through 2015 while Rita headlined at the MGM, Harrah’s and The Venetian. She became the longest-running solo comedy performer in the city’s history, sold nearly two million tickets and won multiple awards, including Las Vegas Comedian of the Year nine years in a row.
“I don’t care where you’re from, Las Vegas is the opposite of it. Gambling is legal. Prostitution is legal. I guess the jails are just full of people who litter.” From Rita Rudner’s stand-up
With her daughter an independent teen, Rita is once again touring and will visit Chicagoland on April 21 with a show at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Rita kindly took time out to speak with me about comedy, whether to stay in or party (we were unanimous) and even told me what shoe size she wears, although after we hung up I screamed at myself, oh my god! You just asked a comedy icon for her shoe size! But it was a measure of how easy it is to feel at home with the great Rita Rudner.
Teme: When did you know you wanted to pursue comedy and what were the first things you did to make it happen?
Rita: It’s interesting you ask because I’m writing my autobiography and I’ve been trying to figure that out myself.
I noticed that there weren’t a lot of female comedians while in every other part of show business there were too many people. There were too many dancers, there were too many singers, there were too many actresses. There weren’t too many female comedians. So I said, “Why don’t I try that?” And then when I started, I realized, “Oh, you know why there aren’t many people doing it? Because this is really difficult!” But I loved it.
I loved the science of comedy. I watched comedians for years. I studied how to write jokes. I tried to figure out what’s funny. And then you have to write every single day.
I also made it my business for years to talk into a microphone every single night. It didn’t matter where it was. It could be somewhere with one person asleep at the bar. I would still talk into the microphone because that’s the only way you can do it; over and over and over. Repetition is the key to success. I learned that lesson from dancing.
Teme: How would you define the science of comedy?
Rita: First you have to figure out who you are. I had to figure out who I was. You don’t want to be a “comedian” talking because then you’re just generic. You have to go back to whoever you are and your experiences. Something that would be funny coming from Rosanne isn’t funny coming from me. Something funny coming from me isn’t funny from Amy Schumer. You have to figure out who you are. That’s step number one.
Teme: Who were your biggest influences?
Rita: I was a very quiet person. Later in my career I became friends with Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, who were terrific female role models for me because they were such entrepreneurs as well as comedians. They were talented in so many different areas.
But when I was starting, I was so shy and quiet. I gravitated towards Woody Allen, who was kind of an introverted comedian. I remembered my mother had liked a comedian named Jack Benny and I started to listen to his albums. There were really good joke writers at Catch a Rising Star and the Improv. I became friends with them and we talked about jokes and things. So it comes from all different areas.
Teme: Do you think having been shy and introverted, does one ever really change? I ask because that’s how I am. My instinct is to hide on a daily basis. It’s a constant battle.
Rita: It is a constant battle. One of my failings in show business was I can’t go to parties because I have to come home and go to sleep. I much prefer talking one-on-one and to my friends who I have known for zillions of years. I was never good at the social aspect and I couldn’t actually get that part of my life going.
Luckily, I could get my comedy life going because I love the science of comedy and I had lots of friends who were comedians. My husband is the same way. The first New Year’s Eve we spent together we were so excited that we found somebody else who wanted to go to sleep before midnight.
Teme: Oh, I know! My husband and I have a fight every New Year’s Eve because I want to stay home and he’s the opposite.
Rita: We were just the same and we said, “Oh my gosh, neither one of us wants to go out on New Year’s Eve. I love you!”
Teme: That’s the question one should ask before marriage!
Rita: Absolutely! That could end up in my act. It’s such a universal problem. One person wants to go and one doesn’t.
My husband and I, when we have the opportunity to watch a movie at home or to go to a party, we say “let’s stay home and watch a movie.” One time we went to the opening of a night club in Las Vegas and we actually walked in the entrance and we walked around and we looked at each other and we didn’t stop, and then we just walked out.
Teme: I understand that so well!
Rita: Why would I want to stay? It’s too noisy. I can’t hear anybody talk. I don’t know anybody. Let’s go! And we went home.
Teme: That sounds like a perfect evening!
Rita: There you go. You could join our marriage. You’d fit right in.
Teme: This morning when I walked our dog, the garbage truck was going by and I couldn’t go out until they were three houses down.
Rita: Oh, absolutely. I would always be the person at the party petting the dog in the corner of the room. It’s just so hard to talk at a party. I love four or five people coming over to my house. But the group thing, the group chat. I never really mastered it.
Teme: I completely understand. I never will either.
Rita: You’re soft-spoken like I am, so I can absolutely relate.
Teme: Thank you. It makes me feel much better to be in wonderful company. Speaking of great company, I heard that early in your career you spent three weeks traveling in a van with Emo Philips.
Rita: I loved that! I’m just about to write about it. It was me and Larry Bud Melman and Emo Philips. Larry Bud brought his friend Frank and Frank was our driver. We did colleges for three weeks. We really had a good time.
Teme: Do you have a favorite story?
Rita: I remember Emo always taking the coleslaw home. They always provided a cold buffet. It was in the contract, the ham and cheese and coleslaw, and he just loves coleslaw. He used to say, “Can I take the coleslaw home?” And I’d say, “Go for it, Emo.”
And whenever we passed a Taco Bell, because Emo and I didn’t like Mexican food and Larry Bud loved it, we would hear from the back of the van, “Mexican’s niiice.” And finally we’d stop at a Taco Bell and we’d make Larry Bud happy.
And then Emo and I used to swim a lot. That was our exercise since we were sitting in the car all the time. I remember Emo looking at me after we’d been swimming and saying, “Rita, do you think I’m getting too muscular?” I’d say, “No, I don’t think so. I think you’re still okay.”
Teme: Those are great stories. On his web site, Emo has elaborate instructions about how to make coleslaw, but I didn’t know it was a real passion.
Rita: Oh yes, coleslaw is his passion.
Teme: Do you have a favorite green room story?
Rita: Most of the time, I just sit in my own dressing room. I have to really concentrate. I can’t talk before I go on stage because then my mind isn’t focused. See again, there I go. I go into my room until they say it’s time to come out and then I come out. Otherwise I just don’t feel that I’m going to be prepared.
Teme: Yes, everything for me is like a final exam where I’m studying right up to the last minute.
Rita: Yes, absolutely. My daughter sometimes comes with me and she knows she can’t talk to me during the forty minutes before a show. I’m always sitting in my dressing room by myself looking at what I’m going to do.
I do charity work and corporate gigs and a lot of times they’ll say, “We have a dinner and a special table for you. You can sit and have dinner with us before you go on.” I hope people don’t think I’m rude, but I just can’t do it. I have to be backstage and I have to look at what I’m doing. I can’t talk.
It’s like dancing. You don’t go on stage unless you’ve warmed up for forty minutes. Singing, you don’t go on stage unless you vocalize. You just don’t do it.
Teme: I also love that you made a decision never to hurt feelings or cause pain with comedy. When you’re writing, how do you know when a joke might cross that line?
Rita: I have a sense of it, but sometimes I make a mistake. My daughter came to see my act and there was one joke I’d written when she was younger where I said that she was sitting in the back seat of the car. She said, “Mom, can you change the joke to where I’m sitting in the front now?” So I changed the joke, but sometimes I miss little things like that.
It’s an instinct. I usually make myself the butt of the joke. If somebody’s upset [about a joke], I don’t want to do it. I used to have a joke about somebody being bald, but if I saw a bald man sitting in the audience, I just didn’t want to do it. I stopped doing it because you’ve got to feel comfortable doing a joke. Otherwise it’s not going to work.
Teme: You make audiences feel at home even in the biggest theaters. I feel at home watching and listening to your comedy and more at home with my thoughts and less alone. What is the secret to creating that atmosphere for your audience?
Rita: That’s a very nice compliment. Thank you. One of my friends is an ex-Rockette. She was doing the Rockettes reunion show with Liberace. I went, and you know how big Radio City Music Hall is … I was in the last row in the back because I was in the free seats.
Then Liberace came out and he made Radio City Music Hall an intimate venue with his personality. I’m not really a Liberace piano fan, but the way that he did it … I said, “I have to work towards that. No matter how big the venue is, I have to work towards making it a smaller place.”
The only way you do that is to start out working at small places. I started out working with three people looking at me, maybe ten. Gradually, you get there. But there are no shortcuts. It’s a matter of doing the work.
Teme: How do you write material to achieve that result?
Rita: If I hear a hum of recognition, then I know I’m on the right track. I wrote a new joke about having trouble remembering passwords when I’m on the computer. I said, “password” and I heard this collective groan from the audience and I said, “Oh, I’m onto something. I’m not the only one here who’s having this problem.” The audience always tells you if you’re on the right track.
“Before I met my husband I’d never fallen in love. I’d stepped in it a few times.” From Rita Rudner’s stand-up
Teme: How do you write your material? Do you write at specific times or does it come to you at all times?
Rita: I used to sit down at specific times. When I was doing my show every night in Vegas, I would write down things during the day and I’d put in new jokes here and there and try them right away. The only way to really know if something is funny is to say it in front of an audience.
Lately, I’ve been playing smaller venues to create new material, where I get to do more shows in a row to smaller audiences because it’s easier to try a new joke in between a routine that I know works.
I just played a club in Sarasota where I did four shows in a row. It was an intimate venue where at the end of my show I could bring out some notes and say, “What do you think of this joke? Do you want to help me write my act for my next special?” And they did and it was really fun.
Teme: That sounds so fun.
Rita: Yes, I love that. When a new one works, it’s very satisfying.
Teme: What is a typical day like for you?
Rita: I walk my dog. I write my autobiography. My daughter is on spring break. She is a singer-songwriter. Her name is Molly Bergman (YouTube: mollybergmanmusic). Yesterday, my husband Martin and I were in the studio with her and tonight she is hosting an open mic at one of our local restaurants.
Martin and I are her roadies. We bring her sound equipment, we put it together and we sit there and make sure everyone’s nice to her because she’s fourteen. It’s really, really fun. I love that.
Teme: What are your favorite things that happened when you were in Vegas?
Rita: My favorite thing in Vegas was that I got to stay home and I didn’t have to take a plane. For twelve years, the audience took a plane and I drove to my venue and was home by ten. I loved that I could totally change my life and I got to be a mother. My daughter is very independent at this point. When she leaves, we say, “When’s the next time we get to see you?”
Everything changes. You can’t just keep doing the same thing all the time. I did it for a long time and now I enjoy playing different venues. I also like that when I get on the plane I can read a book.
Teme: What are you reading?
Rita: I just read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I love Henry James and it was on sale for a dollar at my local library bookstore. I read everything my daughter reads in English class so we can discuss it. When I’m by myself, I’ll read a really fun mystery. I love Elizabeth George and long, intricate mysteries. I also like P.G. Wodehouse. I love the style of writing that’s descriptive and writing that uses words in a surprising fashion.
Teme: You mention P.G. Wodehouse and I actually next wanted to ask you about Peter’s Friends and working with Stephen Fry (who played P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves) and all the Cambridge Footlight folks.
Rita: Well, he’s a really, really, funny, funny guy. Very, very intelligent. It was a real group effort and it was amazing. I remember the company cold. It was so cold in the castle where we filmed. One person got a cold and by the next week, everybody was sneezing. I’ve never seen a cast so sick, but we forged on and we did the show. But it was a wonderful experience and a well-received movie that people still talk about, so that’s encouraging.
Teme: It’s a wonderful movie. It made me want to be there.
Rita: It was actually my husband’s idea because one of his friends inherited a castle and he always said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Belinda invited us all to her castle for the weekend?” And that was the beginning of the script that we wrote.
Teme: What question hasn’t anyone ever asked you?
Rita: What size shoe do I wear? No one ever asked me that.
Teme: Should I ask?
Rita: Eight medium.
Teme: I’m eight-and-a-half.
Rita: I could be eight-and-a-half, too, depending on the manufacturer.
Teme: Yes, exactly. It’s so hard to buy new shoes.
Rita: That was the one thing I would think you couldn’t buy online and it’s become the biggest seller. “Who’d want to buy shoes online? You’ve got to try them on.” See how wrong I was.
Teme: When I buy them online I have to send about 90% back.
Rita: That could end up in my act, too.
Teme: What else would you like your Chicago audience to know?
Rita: I’m going to have a good time because it’s a beautiful theater and it’s situated right between Designer Shoe Warehouse and Ross Dress For Less.
Teme: Right, and Old Orchard Mall is right across the street. It’s a great location.
Rita: It’s a really good venue and also my oldest and best friend in the world lives in Chicago and is coming to see me. We’re going to have a good time.
Teme: It’s been so much fun talking to you. Thank you!
Rita: Well, thank you. It was a wonderful interview and you stay home with us next New Year’s Eve.
Rita Rudner is at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie on Friday, April 21, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and more information here.
For more information about Rita, visit her website: http://www.ritarudner.com/
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