Rita Rudner on the craft of comedy

My husband came home with a staple gun the other day. He staple-gunned everything. There is nothing loose in our home anymore. There are a few major changes. For instance, now we have to bring the food to the cat.

 

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“I always try to do the stapler and the milk in the refrigerator,” says Rita Rudner when asked if audiences come to her shows expecting to hear new material or the standup equivalent of a greatest hits set.

And truth be told—while Rudner says she’s always jotting down thoughts in a notebook and incorporating new material—after nearly four decades as a working comedian (She started in 1978), she’s got thousands of time-tested jokes to rely on.

“I’m a precision comedian, not an attitude comedian,” says Rudner, who first gained national attention in the 1980s through a series of appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. “I love jokes that work 100% of the time, which is why I’ve never talked much about politics. I’ve always tried to write jokes about relationships and everyday occurrences because once I get them right, I can depend on them. They earn a parking space and I can use them again.”

Given her taut, tart writing style, its not surprising that, when she was first getting into comedy, Rudner spent many hours playing recordings of one-line masterminds like Jack Benny and Woody Allen, carefully analyzing the construction and delivery of their jokes. In the early 2000s, she ended up co-writing two Academy Award broadcasts with host Steve Martin, also know for the elegant calibration of his material.

At the height of her fame, Rudner was one of just a few women in popular culture known primarily for their comic chops. “Back then, you would have people like Darryl Hannah, Kim Basinger, and Michelle Pfeiffer being introduced as comedic actresses on the talk shows. They weren’t really. Today you have Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler.”

The discipline required to craft a meticulously timed, padding-free, rapid paced standup routine was familiar to Rudner from her training as a dancer, which she began as a child in Miami and which ultimately brought her to Broadway, where Rudner performed in the ensembles of shows including the original Follies and Mack & Mabel. “I used to study video of choreography in incredible detail,” she explains.

After years performing standup on the road while collaborating on screenplays with her husband, British writer/producer Peter Bergman, on screenplays. Rudner settled in Las Vegas, where she performed virtually every night for 12 years, setting a record for the city’s longest running solo comedy show.

While living in Vegas, Rudner also wrote a series of books, including the widely quoted Rita Rudner’s Guide to Men, briefly hosted a syndicated television talk show, and—most importantly to her—raised her daughter, Molly, now 14, in a stable environment with two parents present. An aspiring singer-songwriter, Molly now opens for her mother on occasion, “I wouldn’t put the audience through it if she wasn’t good,” Rudner notes. “And she’s inexpensive.”

Rudner’s devotion to her daughter includes reading many of the books Molly is assigned for class, so they can discuss them together: “Wuthering Heights, Into the Wild, Portrait of a Lady…oh, that was so good, To Kill a Mockingbird.”  In 2017, Rudner is also writing another book of her own : “Every year I assign myself something challenging to do. This year, its my autobiography.”

Two years ago, Rudner’s assignment was to put a real-life end to a mainstay of her stage material: “I really couldn’t cook at all,” she says. “And I just decided I wanted to make good food for my family. I worked my way through Giada, The Barefoot Contessa, and some other cookbooks.” Bringing the same discipline to this endeavor that she brings to all her major undertakings, Rudner has become an accomplished home chef. “I did a fundraising dinner party for Molly’s school recently,” she says proudly. “Salmon en croute, lemon-basil sorbet…”

Still, Rudner would never sacrifice a precisely crafted joke to her accomplishments:


I read recipes the same way I read science fiction. I get to the end and say to myself “well, that’s not going to happen.”