|Rita Rudner on stage|
How does this phone work?
Meet comedian, writer, actress, all-around-funnywoman Rita Rudner
Heidi Mae Bratt
I’m a minute into a phone conversation with Rita Rudner, explaining that I’m adjusting to a new recording app set up by my tech-savvy teen daughter when the comedian got it.
“Oh, I have a 12 1/2, nearly 13-year-old daughter myself,” she offered.
“Who helps you with technology? I asked.
“Oh, she does everything for us,” she said.
“‘Mom, you’re holding the phone upside down again…oh, God.’
“‘Mom, you’re typing with your old lady finger, instead of your thumb…okay.'”
It was vintage Rita Rudner. The comedian’s trademark epigrammatic one-liners, delivered in her soft-spoken, sharply timed way, has made her beloved to audiences for decades. Her solo Las Vegas comedy show is that city’s longest running.
Ms. Rudner will be heading east to share her witty observations on everyday life, taking the stage at bergenPAC in Englewood on May 2, in a show that will also feature comedian Louie Anderson.
“The bulk of my comedy is about life,” Ms. Rudner said.
“It’s about love and men and women and the things that everyone can relate to. Daily life is what inspires me. Daily life, and the panic that I’m never going to think of anything again. It’s always exciting to think of a new concept or new joke that works because you’re creating something that has not been in the atmosphere before.”
Just this morning, Ms. Rudner said, she was inspired by something when she dropped off her daughter, Molly, to school.
“I’ll try it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
But being funny, which now seems natural to her, wasn’t something that she was born with. It was something that she learned.
Ms. Rudner was born in Miami and trained to be a dancer. Her father, Abe, was a lawyer. Her mother, Frances, was a homemaker. When Rita was 13 years old, her mother died. Soon after graduating high school, she headed for New York City to start a career as a dancer.
It wasn’t until she was 25 years old that Ms. Rudner decided that a comedian’s life was longer than a dancer’s.
“There were a lot of dancers, and not a lot of female comedians, so I thought maybe I should try,” she said. “At the time there was Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, whom I later met. They were very nice and encouraging, but their comedy was much more aggressive than my comedy. I related more to the quiet comedians, like Woody Allen and Jack Benny.
“I think I had a kind of likability,” she said. “In comedy, you have to like the person standing on stage. People didn’t hate me before I knew what I was doing, so at least I was encouraged. I said I’m going to do what I do.
“People said you have to be more like this or more like that, but the audience laughed. They’re my boss. It’s who I work for.”
The years and the discipline she learned as a dancer served her very well in her comedy.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence, so I had to be well prepared before I would do anything. With dancing, you take it step by step. I approached comedy in the same way. First I had one joke. Then I had two jokes, then I had three minutes, then I had five minutes. So I’m still trying to figure out ways to keep people laughing.”
Her big breakthrough was her first solo HBO special, “Rita Rudner’s One Night Stand,” which was nominated for several awards. Appearances on David Letterman and later on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson followed.
“It took me years to get on Johnny Carson. Finally, I was on Johnny Carson -and he became a fan and I was on loads of times,” she said.
In addition to stand-up – which she says is her favorite form – Ms. Rudner is the author of books, including her bestselling nonfiction titles, “Naked Beneath My Clothes” and “Rita Rudner’s Guide to Men” and the novels “Tickled Pink” and “Turning the Tables.” She also has collaborated on several projects with her husband, the writer and producer Martin Bergman – who despite his name is not Jewish – including a film, “Peter’s Friends.” Mr. Bergman wrote the screenplay; Ms. Rudner acted in it.
But unlike some comics – men and women – for whom saying what they think means being shocking or crude, Ms. Rudner has always stayed clean, never pushing the envelope, keeping her work non-offensive.
Ms. Rudner grew up in a Jewish home, but while she does not affiliate these days, she does have a routine in her show that she reserves for her exclusively Jewish audiences.
“I don’t talk about it any more, but when I started, you talk about who you were as a kid, about being an overprotected child,” she said.
“I have a lot of jokes that I only do for Jewish audiences, when I play the Jewish benefits.
Ms. Rudner happily has allowed her private life to dictate the course of her career as well. She explained that her comedy has changed along the way as she married Mr. Bergman 20 years ago and then when they adopted Molly in 2002.
And when it comes to her comedy, the joke takes the back seat.
It’s her marriage and her daughter that are her priorities.
“If my husband doesn’t like a joke, it goes,” Ms. Rudner said. “If Molly doesn’t like a joke, it goes. I don’t want to offend people. I like to make people happy.
“Especially now that I’m a mother, I want to set an example for Molly,” she said. “I want her to be proud of me. I do benefits for her school where all the teachers come, so I wouldn’t do anything that would upset her life.”
No. Not at all.
Maybe just hold the phone upside down.