An Evening with Rita Rudner

Comedian Rita Rudner has one of the longest-running marriages in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that the foibles of her family are off-limits. “I love being married,” she has said. “It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.”

Rudner, named Las Vegas’ “Comedian of the Year” some dozen years in a row, nearly didn’t become a comedian at all. She came to New York at 15 to become a dancer. She appeared in several Broadway shows, including Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and she danced for nearly 10 years. Then she stopped and she’s still not sure why. “I noticed there weren’t too many female comedians and loads of dancers,” she said. “You gotta pioneer it. It’s a position of power. You’re controlling people’s emotions, making people laugh.”

For the former dancer, becoming a comedian wasn’t a lot of laughs, at least at the beginning. It took a lot of preparation, including research on comedy at the Museum of Broadcasting, where she came to admire Jack Benny. “He would just stand there and deliver it as if it weren’t funny,” she said. “He would just look at the audience and didn’t have to say anything. That’s professional.”

She also admired the writing of Woody Allen and watched many of his specials, although she found his persona too intense for her own personality. Benny was a more laid-back presence. “Jack Benny was so understated and Woody Allen was the best joke writer,” she said. “I listened to both a lot and did a combo: Woodybenny or BennyAllen.”

Making people laugh has been Rudner’s stock in trade for years. She has had several HBO specials, including Rita Rudner’s One Night Stand, and a BBC show that later appeared in the United States on A&E. Her two one-hour specials for HBO, Born to be Mild, and Married Without Children were hits and she has filled Carnegie Hall in New York three times and the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles twice. In 2008, Rita Rudner: Live from Las Vegas, was PBS’s first ever stand-up comedy special.

Not content to keep ‘em laughing on stage and screen, Rudner has written five books, including Naked Beneath My Clothes: Rita Rudner’s Guide to Men and I Still Have it…I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It. The audio version of Naked Beneath my Clothes was nominated for a Grammy.

Rudner was friends with both Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, two of the very few female comedians around at the time. “They were such wonderfully smart women with very aggressive personalities,” she said. “I didn’t have an aggressive personality. I tried to do it the way I am, instead of imitating.”

Like Diller, Rudner has found humor in her own life, including her marriage to producer Martin Bergman and her life off-stage. “It’s about being married, being a mother and not knowing anything about technology. I bought a new car and it might as well say, ‘Stupid, you pushed the wrong button.’ I don’t like to talk about things unrelated to what I’ve experienced.”

Rudner has said that she writes on torn pieces of paper with coffee stains, but she is actually very organized when she performs. “I have to know exactly what I’m going to do,” she said. “You don’t go into a heart operation unprepared. If something happens, I have to respond. In a show, I was attacked by a moth. I had to do something. I always leave space at the end for questions and answers for spontaneity.”

Rudner has said that in Hollywood, marriage is a success if it outlasts milk. Fortunately for her audiences, Rudner’s career has a much longer shelf-life.