CLASSIC COMEDY: An interview with Rita Rudner, who’s bringing her Las Vegas show to Skokie

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Most comedians getting writer’s bloc would logically rush to snare the low-hanging fruit available from 2017’s byzantine politics.

There’s a president with a hairstyle straight out of a 1950’s sci-fi “B” movie. He’s got Machiavellian advisers playing off, or squaring off against, a Jewish prince and princess, powers behind the throne, in the same suite of West Wing offices. Prune-faced legislative leaders spout holier-than-thou homilies. If a jokester could not craft at least part of his/her show off the flow of current events, they’ve buried their heads in the sand.

But maybe, just maybe, a comedian has developed a style and schedule not dependent on satire of real-life characters – except herself. And maybe her routine isn’t bolstered by insulting her own audience. Maybe it’s old-school escapism tinged with 21st century personal sensibilities.

That describes multi-media practitioner, Las Vegas headliner, nice-Jewish-girl Rita Rudner, coming to the theater near you – in this case the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on April 21.  

The 63-year-old Rudner explained the craft of comedy in the flow of a phone interview from her Las Vegas home. If she was on the air nightly, “I could write a (political) joke right now. The problem is it changes every day, every minute. By the time I get to Skokie, it’ll be irrelevant. The only way you can do political humor is have a nightly forum. You do your five minutes of monologue, throw it away and do a new one the next night. (Political discourse) changes every minute.”

Not that Rudner is apolitical and unmotivated. Not at all. “I do have my strong beliefs,” she said. In 2009, Rudner teamed with Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow to craft a fund-raiser for then-President Barack Obama and then-Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, representing Nevada.

“You can tell by looking at me what my beliefs are,” Rudner said. “I don’t think because people come to my show they have to think the same things I do, even though I know I’m right.

“The news is assaulting every day, it’s worrisome and I’d like people to leave (her show) refreshed.”

Her style is more observational and anecdotal, descended from the Jerry Seinfeld mold. Rudner traces her comic inspirations all the way back to Jack Benny and Woody Allen.

“I never thought I’d be a comedian,” Rudner said of paying attention to comics in her Baby Boom-era youth. “I wanted to be a dancer. I would pay much more attention to Gwen Verdon.

“When I started doing comedy, because I was kind of a shy, introverted person, I asked who was another shy, introverted Jewish person? It was Woody Allen. He was somebody I listened to a lot because I thought he was the best crafter of jokes. I could figure out the reason things were funny because his structure was so clear.”

Rudner also was at George Burns’ side for one of his late-life birthday celebrations.

These and other comic influences have comprised Rudner’s popular act, the vintage, big-haired 1980s version available on YouTube, other tapes floating about from her guest gigs on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the David Letterman Show, and her mature-woman, savvy standup storyteller and “epigrammatic one-liners” all over the internet from recent live performances.

Rita Rudner with Steve Martin

So for one night it will be Vegas in Skokie, Rudner tapping from the momentum of having sold almost two million tickets for 15 years starting at the MGM Grand in June 2000, becoming the longest running solo comedy show in the history of Las Vegas. She was named Las Vegas’ “comedian of the year” nine years in a row. Later, she ranged far and wide across the country with her routine, filling Carnegie Hall in New York three times.

Throughout her three-decade run, Rudner has learned to slit open her creative vein daily, bleed it dry if necessary and start all over again the next day to craft her performances.

“I have a very simple answer, I keep trying. I never stop trying,” she said of jokewriting.

“There’s no one way to do it. Sometimes I sit down and I look at something I wrote 10 years ago and I say, ‘Oh, I understand how I can make that funny.’” Sometimes I see a word and I say that word will be good in a joke and I write it down. Sometimes I see an image. You just keep trying to figure it out.

“I always sit down with my notebook about 45 minutes before the show, and go over everything that I think that might be something and figure out where I might put it. Then I have to get a feel for the audience and see if they’re a giving audience or a judgmental audience, to see how they would react to this or that. And I usually put a new joke between two jokes that work.”

Far from Vegas, Rudner will change her style with more audience participation.

“I take out my notebook at the end,” she said. “I say, ‘Now I’ve been funny for an hour, 20 minutes, would you like to help me try to write some new jokes?’ They say yes. Then I say things if they laugh, I put a star next to it. I’ll use it again. If not, I’ll throw it away.”

Rudner will not do dry runs or dress rehearsals. There’s no audience off which to bounce her jokes in a comic’s batting practice.

“It just comes out,” she said. “I have a persona of who I am, anyway. I talk the way I talk and do it the way I do it. It has to be natural.”

Ad-libbing is part of the act. On her guest shots, Rudner was set up nicely by Carson, possibly the greatest comic ad-libber in history and a protégé of Benny. In a 1965 “Tonight” skit, Carson watched as Jewish actor Ed Ames, playing the Native American “Mingo” on the “Daniel Boone” program, demonstrated his tomahawk-throwing ability. Ames heaved the tomahawk at an outline of a cowboy. The blade landed squarely on the cowboy’s groin. Amid uncontrolled laughter from the cast and audience, the very Nebraska gentile Carson ad-libbed, “Frontier bris.”

A comic can refine his ad-libs over the years. But like a raw athletic skill, you either have it or you don’t.

Rita Rudner

“I think he had a very, very natural (ad-lib) ability,” Rudner said of Carson. “That was his gift. That has to be something you have in you. You never know what was going to come out.  He was a funny guy. The more you test yourself, the better you get at anything.”

Rudner’s own confidence as a comic soared via approval from Carson as he watched her routine.

“What was really great about Johnny was he was a very good audience for comedians. That’s another reason why comedians wanted to be on his show. He loved to laugh.”

Carson, Letterman and all their brethren also lived on double entendres, pushing the envelope of taste and R-rated humor according to the mores of the times. Now, their late-night successors use words and terminology that would have been forbidden on a young Rita Rudner guest shot. Again, a comic is comfortable in her own skin and does not feel pressure to flirt with raunchiness no matter what the era.

“It doesn’t really matter what the year is,” Rudner said. “I just do what I like to do. I don’t say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m free now. I can talk about this and that.’ I don’t think about pushing the envelope. I leave the envelope right where it is. I just do the jokes I want to do. Others have different types of humor. I don’t think everyone should have one kind of humor.

Rudner also will tailor the ethnicity of her act based on the audience. Logically, she could well-stock the show with Jewish humor based on her life and others she knows. But she also realizes that Jewish audiences will far better “get” Jewish humor.

“If it’s a predominately Jewish audience, I have a different way of beginning my act than if it’s a more mixed audience,” she said. “You always have to look who you’re playing to.

“I don’t make fun of people. I make fun of myself. I don’t do anything consciously (Jewish angle), like I really want to write a joke about this or that.  It’s whatever really happening in my life that I want to write about.”

Family can be a great source of humor. She is a frequent collaborator with Martin Bergman, her husband of 28 years. They have written film scripts, plays and books together.

Rudner wanted to do her own project after her husband wrote a script for a video mini-series based on a  book the couple  wrote, “Turning the Tables,” about a revenge relationship in Las Vegas. After five previous books, she is now working on her autobiography.

“This year my challenge is writing my autobiography,” she said. “I love doing it. Every day I sit down, write and it’s fun.

“I just keep thinking every year I have to do something to challenge myself. Last year I did my first two-person play, which I’ve never done before.”

In Jan. 2016, Rudner appeared at the Laguna Playhouse in the new play by David Ambrose and Claudia Nellens entitled “Act 3,” alongside English actor Charles Shaughnessy. Bergstrom directed.

“It was really daunting because you have to memorize a lot of dialogue,” she said. “When there are only two people talking, when the other person stops, you got to start. It was a lot of fun.”

Another person with whom Rudner alternates the start-and-stop of the lively art of conversation is 14-year-old daughter Molly Bergman. She is the next-generation talent. The aspiring singer-songwriter opens some of her mother’s shows.

“She’s been on stage a long time,” Rudner said. “She grew up in Vegas. She’s seen me go on stage my whole life. It’s a natural for her to walk on stage. Molly started wanting to play the guitar after watching the ‘Hannah Montana’ show on the Disney Channel. She loves the guitar, and started on the piano. She’s just a natural on the piano.

President Barack Obama in Las Vegas greeting entertainers at Caesars Palace on May 26, 2009.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

“Molly started writing songs. She hosts open-mic nights at a restaurant. She sings in a mall. Martin and I are her roadies. We carry the sound equipment, and sit there making sure nobody bothers her. She’s also a very, very good tennis player and is very good in science. But we can’t help her in those areas.”

Ah, but Molly Bergstrom has a senior advisor if she wants to combine humor and music.

“I’m definitely part-Tiger Mom,” Rudner said.

More so than being on stage together is a close mother-daughter relationship. Rudner avoids long road trips so she can be involved in her daughter’s life. On this day, the pair planned to have their nails done together. More adventurous outings are scheduled when they travel around the world when Rudner is not performing.

“I’ve been ziplining with her in New Zealand. I’ve been snorkeling with her in Bora Bora. I’ve been climbing mountains with her,” Rudner told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016.

Once grown, Molly Bergman will have to get quite busy to match her mother’s multi-media resume.

In 2001 and 2003, Rudner helped write the Oscar shows with Steve Martin. In between, in ’02, she teamed with Whoopie Goldberg for Academy Awards scripting.

Also in 2003, Rudner launched from Las Vegas her first syndicated daily TV show, “Ask Rita,” which ran two seasons featuring a panel of celebrities lightheartedly attempting to solve personal problems submitted by members of the public. “Ask Rita” earned Rudner a Gracie Allen Award for best program host from the American Women in Radio and Television.

Rudner’s first solo HBO special, “Rita Rudner’s One Night Stand,” was nominated for several awards. Later HBO one-hour specials were ratings standouts: “Born to Be Mild” and “Married Without Children.”  In 2008, “Rita Rudner Live from Vegas” was PBS’ first-ever standup comedy special. She also aired a BBC-TV show in England that later appeared in the U.S. on the A&E cable network.

Now she alights in Skokie, a venue she has played before. No fool, she scheduled her North Shore Center for the Performing Arts booking after the snow season ended.

“I love it there. My favorite place, right between Ulta and Designer Shoe Warehouse,” she said.

But there likely won’t be jokes about Chicago’s chancy weather or its often-unfunny Jewish mayor. In the true spirt of the great Jewish jokewriters in history, Rudner’s own story will provide more than enough grist for a night of chuckles.

“America is a big country,” she said. “You have to be the squeaky wheel.  The loudest people get heard. I don’t want to do it. I do what I want to do.”

Tickets for Rita Rudner’s show at 8 p.m. April 21 are $42, $50 and $58. They can be purchased at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts’ box office, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., via phone at 847/673-6300 or on-line at www.northshorecenter.org/events-tickets/box-office/.

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