Femininity is a bit unusual in comedy. It’s a male-oriented art,” says be-gowned comedy queen Rita Rudner. “The person holding the microphone is in a position of power, so it’s unusual for a woman to be in control of emotions. When you’re standing there with the microphone, you really are controlling people’s emotions.”
Rudner understands the scepter’s sway. Her career has lasted long enough to include regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and she’s won the Las Vegas Review Journal’s “Best Comedian in Las Vegas” award eight years running. Yet, unlike some female comedians who try to be one of the boys, she doesn’t shy away from her girlie side. In fact, she wields her sweetly sprite lilt like Glinda the Good Witch, coming across as relatable and witty without being acerbic. “I love hearing people laugh,” she says. “It lightens everyone’s load.”
Words like “subtle” and “demure” have long been used to describe Rudner’s work. So how does she feel in the modern comedic climate, where that sort of thing isn’t, um— “In vogue?” she completes my sentence.
“Humor has become more basic, especially in comedic movies,” continues Rudner. “It’s very strange that no one is going to laugh unless you get attacked by a tiger. But, everything goes in waves. The good thing about humor is that there are all different types out there. It’s a free country and everybody can choose to see the things they like.”
Parting with her original path as a professional Broadway dancer, Rudner chose to embrace the comedic calling at age 25. At a time when wahine comedians were especially few and far between, playing to her ladylike strengths proved a recipe for success.
“With comedy, you have to do what comes to you naturally,” she says. “A lot of comedians are more comfortable pushing the envelope and speaking about subjects that are kind of taboo. I just do the kind of humor I’m comfortable with and tend to talk about relationships—men, women, families—things that people can relate to everyday.”
In one of her popular early bits, Rudner related how she liked to shop for new outfits after a bad breakup, and how if she saw an outfit she really liked, she might break up with a man on purpose. Now, ironically, her husband of 20 years, Martin Bergman—who she describes as “a straight guy with a queer eye”—picks out the dresses that have become her trademark.
“It kind of goes with my vocal quality,” Rudner says of the long gowns (which, she admits, she likes to wear because they hide her legs). “Once, I told myself, ‘I’m going to steer away from the gown.’ So I wore pants onstage, but they were sparkly and had crystals. I always allow for questions from the audience after my show, and one of the first questions was, ‘Where’s the gown?’ So I never did that again. Everyone likes the gown.”
Rudner has been working Vegas for the last 10 years, beginning with a gig at the MGM Grand. “They had a theater they didn’t know what to do with [while] in negotiations with another show that was taking longer than expected,” she says. “When they have a space they don’t know what to do with, they usually call me. The entertainment director called me, I said ‘sure,’ and the show sold out for six months.”
When the other show, “the naked girls from France, which they have to have in Vegas,” finally came in, Rudner moved to a theater at New York, New York, where she stayed for six years before moving to her current digs at Harrah’s. Las Vegas newspapers report she’ll be making a move to The Venetian in 2011, but Rudner tells MauiTime she’s open to other long-term plans.
“I love working [in Las Vegas], but I feel like I might have another 10 years where I could do something a bit different. Standup is my first love, but I also love writing comedy,” Rudner says, referencing a sitcom she’s currently shopping. “It could be a comedy that I could be in, or I could just write it—either one. We’ll see. Things don’t happen very quickly in Hollywood, so [the sitcom] might never see the light of day and it might see a lot of daylight—I don’t know.”
Rudner’s passion for writing has added “author” to her list of accomplishments. She’s penned four books including her latest, a collection of essays titled I Still Have It… I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It and the novel Tickled Pink.
“The books of essays are really fun to write and flow naturally for me,” Rudner says. “The novels are a lot harder.” She writes her essays alone, but collaborates with her husband on novels and screenplays.
So what’s next for the woman who’s done it all? “See if you like this idea, because I’m just starting it,” she says. “My husband and I decided that since this is kind of a time to buy property, we bought an old house and decided to knock it down and [try] to build our dream house. I’m going to write about all the things that have gone wrong, and so far, the title of my book is Diarrhea of a Dream House.”
And yes, when Rita Rudner says “diarrhea,” it’s still very ladylike.