Rita Rudner On Getting ‘Cut’ By Bob Fosse, Finding Her Comedy Voice, Sexism, and NBC’s ‘Disgraceful’ New Show
Rita Rudner tells Tim Teeman about stand-up success, Hollywood sexism, NBC’s ‘disgraceful’ new show, her Broadway dance years, and why her humor is so different to Amy Schumer’s.
The comedian Rita Rudner is writing her autobiography, including recalling three significant relationships she had before she met her husband Martin Bergman 35 years ago.
“I just wish you’d slept with Warren Beatty or something,” Bergman said to her, assessing the non-famous men who came before him—the zinging price of being married to a writer.
Indeed, Bergman and Rudner—married since 1989—have co-written screenplays and now Two’s a Crowd, an off-Broadway play with music (by Jason Feddy) about a male-female odd couple, who discover unexpected depths in each other’s lives and characters after judging each other, variously, as snobbish and stupid. The production is a family affair, with Bergman also directing and producing, and the couple’s 17-year-old daughter Molly working as a costuming intern.
The piece sounds very Rudner; her humor, pointed and precise, is whimsically sourced in the absurdities of life and relationships. A pioneer among female stand-ups, she decided to be a comedian when she realized how few women—Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers prime among them at that time—were working within the craft. (Rudner did not know Rivers well, but they shared a Las Vegas theater for a time, and Rivers would always leave a scarf from her QVC line for Rudner in the dressing room.)
Rudner was a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and made HBO specials like Rita Rudner’s One Night Stand, Born To Be Mild, and Married Without Children. She has sold out Carnegie Hall, toured extensively, written five books, and created the award-winning show Ask Rita.
In 2008, Rita Rudner: Live From Las Vegas became PBS’ first-ever stand-up comedy special. She holds the record for having the longest-running solo comedy show in Las Vegas history.
Rudner said she was “very angry” about the upcoming comedy talent show, Bring The Funny, on NBC. “There are three judges: Kenan Thompson, who I love, Jeff Foxworthy is a friend of mine, and Chrissy Teigen. I’m sure she’s a nice woman, and I respect her politics. But she is not a comedian, and it’s disgraceful that there is not a female comedian as a judge.”
It reminds Rudner of the time when male comics would be partnered with pretty, non-comedian, decorative female foils in major movies. “Now, women are allowed to look like real women in movies which is good.” She is heartened by the success of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Catherine O’Hara, who “star on their own terms in their own movies.”
When Rudner was pitching sitcoms and TV shows in the 1990s and 2000s, she found that station chiefs rarely greenlit women-led shows (with high-profile exceptions like Roseanne).
Rudner saw Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Ray Romano, and Louis C.K. succeed, “and they were all not oil paintings.”
About herself, Rudner has heard TV chiefs say, “She’s not pretty enough” and “She’s too old.” Rudner smiled and shrugged. “But that’s showbusiness. And that’s why most older actresses move to the East Coast—because Los Angeles is so youth-oriented. The minute you turn 40 as a woman things are different. In New York City you don’t have to be young and pretty. You can just have the skill.”
Rudner’s experience of the stand-up circuit itself is “nothing but happy memories of tour buses and shared condos, although you can’t have two women following each other on a bill. They had to be interrupted by a man. You could have one man following another, no problem.”
“I think everyone has to blaze their own trail,” Rudner said. “I was a totally different kind of comedian to Joan and Phyllis Diller. Every woman who becomes a comedian has to find her own voice. I follow my own voice. Roseanne follows her own voice. Joan followed her own voice. Women get more scrutinized because there aren’t so many of us, so it’s important to remain yourself and if that means you’re a trailblazer, fine. And if you’re not a trailblazer then that’s fine too.”
Rudner’s gentle, observational humor is markedly different to the more explicit and sometimes profane humor of today’s comedians, male and female.
“I feel everyone should be who they are,” said Rudner, “but I’m not comfortable doing that kind of humor. I’m so happy Amy Schumer is the comedian of this moment, that she’s starring in her own movies. She’s a real female comedian and looks like a real person, it’s really exciting. I could never do that style of stand up. I’m from a different era, and it embarrasses me. I need to be a good example for my daughter.”
Molly was very protective of Rudner when she was a young girl.
In fourth grade, a boy said to her, “I heard your mother is a dirty comedian.”
“My mother’s not a dirty comedian,” Molly replied stoutly.
Rudner is far from a “dirty comedian,” but in the little boy’s mind all comedians were dirty, Rudner said. “Then you see someone with this colored-hair.” She laughed. “And a lot of people think I’m dead. They confuse me with Gilda Radnor. But I’m alive, and not her! I get it. I once confused Andrea Marcovicci with Liliane Montevecchi.”
Rudner is just as witty, sharp, and gently waspish off stage as she is on. She has decided to call her autobiography My Life in Dog Years, she said, because her life has been divided into the ownership of four dearly cherished canines.
First, there was Tiny, the German Shepherd she had as a little girl growing up in Miami, the only child of her mother Frances and father Abe.
“My father was always very suspicious, and always thought people were out to get him, so a German Shepherd. I had no siblings, so she was like my companion.”
Then there was Agatha, who lived with Rudner when she first came to New York City at 15 with the ambition of becoming a dancer on Broadway. “I was so young, and didn’t have a lot of friends, and Agatha was my best friend.”
When she married Bergman, along came Bonkers. “He was like our child, as we didn’t have children at that point.”
And then, when the couple adopted their daughter Molly, who does not have any siblings, Twinkle completed the family set-up. “I don’t love a specific breed, but I love hairy dogs,” said Rudner. “They’ve all had a lot of hair.”
Rudner is missing Twinkle—at home in California under the care of a housesitter—so much she puts her head into the doggy daycare next to her New York hotel to get her puppy fix every day.
“They give me such a lift,” Rudner said, sitting in an office at the 59E59 Theaters, where Two’s a Crowd is playing through Aug. 25.
“I’m a comedian, and want to be funny,” she said of the show. “I don’t want to pretend to be someone who’s dying of Alzheimer’s. I know that kind of drama is important and can be enriching to see other people’s traumas.
“On Broadway right now there are a lot of pre-packaged musicals or stories with songs added. Everyone goes on and on about youth right now. Well, you know who likes to go to the theater? Older people. I wanted this to appeal to people who’ve gone through things in life.”
One line in it comes from family experience. “My dad had a girlfriend once, he took us all to brunch. My mother died. My stepmother died. He had a series of girlfriends. He took me to lunch at his club. This woman turned to my father, and announced, ‘I don’t buffet.’ That’s in the play.”
Rudner’s mother died when the comedian was 13. “It was terrible: a long, slow, terrible death. Six or seven years. Brain cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer. It was awful.”
Growing up with her mother so sick, the young Rudner “tried to be the best kid I could. I never did anything wrong because the family was under enough stress. I tried to be good at everything.”
She was very close to her mother. “She was wonderful, the best woman, it was very unfair. The grief never leaves. It still affects me.” Rudner sighed and smiled. “It only happened 50 years ago. I still can’t watch any movie about cancer. It’s always part of you. I’m just happy I am able to be here for my daughter.”
When her mother was sick, Rudner took care of her, as well as getting herself to school and cooking her own meals. She had the support of close friends at school who are still close friends. “My daughter loves Mean Girls, but there were no mean girls around while I was growing up.”
Her mother had wanted to be a dancer, “but my father wouldn’t let her,” and started Rudner at ballet class aged 4. She had to take the bus, as her father wouldn’t let her mother drive “because he didn’t think women’s brains were big enough.”
“I was really limber, and good at it,” she said of ballet, with a laugh, stretching her leg in to a perfect vertical now while sitting down. “Still am.”
Her mother died very young, in her mid-forties. “My father got married within a year of my mother’s death while I was out of town with my best friends. I was having dance lessons in New York City. I got a cable saying, ‘Just got married.’”
Rudner had never met her new stepmother. “I came home. There was a woman living in my house, which explains why I left at 15. He just wanted a new wife. He said to me at the time, ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’ It wasn’t a happy marriage.”
Later in life, having lost all his money, Rudner’s father moved to Las Vegas where she and Bergman lived, so they could take care of him. He lived in a neighboring building.
“He never wanted to tell anyone that he didn’t have any money. He had accidentally spent every cent he had. He always said, ‘The one thing I don’t want to be is a success,’ and he was able to achieve his goal. He never was a success, but he would do stupid things, like rent limos all the time, go to the fanciest restaurants, and take women on vacations. I had to support him. But there was no resentment. He was my dad.”
Her father died 14 years ago. Just as in her life, the play, Rudner said, was about how one can get “punched by the universe, and then how you respond and adapt is the secret sauce.”
Bergman’s parents moved to Las Vegas too when they got older. “My dad was partially deaf and his parents spoke very softly,” said Rudner, with a smile, “so they never really communicated.”
Rudner’s teenage dance ambition was inspired by Gwen Verdon, Ann-Margret, and Cyd Charisse. Watching the recent FX series, Fosse/Verdon, about the marriage and professional relationship between Bob Fosse and Verdon, reminded Rudner that Fosse had never hired her as a dancer.
“He would cut me immediately. I lived through all of that on Broadway. I didn’t have the sensuality Fosse required in a dancer. I tried to be sexy for him. I put padding in, wore leotards up to here, wore high heels. Nothing worked.”
Rudner worked with many other noted choreographers and directors, including Michael Bennett, Ron Field, Peter Gennaro, and Gower Champion. She recalled waiting for the bus, and bumping into Ann Reinking, who had just got a role in Pippin.
Rudner began her dancing career as a “swing” on Zorba, then got a role in Promises, Promises (1970), and later danced in the original productions of Follies (1971) and Mack and Mabel (1974).
“Dad didn’t like it when I was on Broadway,” Rudner recalled. “He didn’t like to go see a show. He liked basketball, football. So when I became a comedian he said, ‘So I don’t have to sit through any more of those Hal Prince shows?’
“When I did Follies, I had my back to the audience. He would say, ‘Which one are you? I have to sit through this whole thing?’ He didn’t like the arts. When I became a stand-up, he said, ‘Oh, I can stay home and watch you on television. That’s much better.’”
Fosse’s sexually manipulative behavior towards female dancers was made clear in Fosse/Verdon. I asked if Rudner had experienced any abuse or harassment herself.
“I don’t know if any woman hasn’t experienced any unwanted untoward behavior,” she said.
“Once in the theater I got accosted in an elevator by a stagehand who had been drinking between shows. I kicked him, and ran into my dressing room, then told the stage manager who told the head of the stagehands’ union. They kept him on the other side of the stage. I never saw him again.”
Another time, around 10 a.m. in the morning, Rudner—then in her mid-twenties—was jogging around the central reservoir of Central Park en route to play tennis, “and I was dragged into the bushes. He told me, ‘Don’t scream,’ and I screamed loudly, and got away and ran to a police station. I had to look at all these mugshots.” She paused and smiled. “Now I have a really good excuse why I don’t jog.”
On another occasion, she was abused during a gynecological examination by two male doctors. Again, she ran from the room and never told anyone. “I just kept running. It’s good to keep running.”
Besides the stagehand, Rudner experienced no harassment at work. She wonders if that’s because she had “really good friends who were men” in Hollywood, and she was often accompanied in meetings by Bergman.
The stories around Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged abuses have shocked her, “but I absolutely understand why the women didn’t say anything because I didn’t. I ran out. You say, ‘I’m not going to that doctor again,’ erase it from your mind. You’re embarrassed. You never want to think of it again. I totally understand that woman (E Jean Carroll), who President Trump allegedly assaulted at Bergdorf’s. You tell your best friends and carry on. Now it’s good the rules are different. People are speaking up. I know I would speak up now.”
At 27, while starring in Annie, Rudner realized that “being a dancer was very finite. I was not a great singer, not a great actress. I thought that maybe I could do comedy.” Her career in stand-up and as a writer began.
“Nothing was easy,” making the career transition from dance to comedy. Rudner said it took her two years to hone her first five minutes of material. “It’s hard to write original jokes in a row, and project who you are as a person.”
She wasn’t a joker as a child. “As a little girl, I didn’t say anything. People would ask, ‘What’s wrong with Rita?’ I’m still quiet unless people talk to me. My husband’s the talker. I talk in a show from 8 to 9:30 p.m., then it’s like, ‘Give me my dog.’”
Rudner said she had trained herself in comedy by going to the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center For Media), film festivals, and comedy clubs. She immersed herself in “a whole new world” of Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, (Mike) Nichols and (Elaine) May, and Preston Sturges.
She loved Jack Benny’s delivery and Woody Allen’s writing. Emerging from all these influences came her own quiet, wry stage persona. (In the 1980s, Rudner and her then-writing partner Marjorie Gross met with then-Saturday Night Live executive producer Dick Ebersol, but the show decided not to hire them.)
Bergman turns up as a character in Rudner’s stand-up—the husband who can only hear the car rattling in a mysterious way, for example. An Englishman, he was president of the Cambridge Footlights and a contemporary of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and Kenneth Branagh.
They met when Bergman saw Rudner perform in a show. She had a boyfriend, he had a girlfriend. He lived in Australia. When they finally got together, they began writing scripts together. Rudner sighed at their first effort, a movie script that they did four drafts of before it finally and forever stayed consigned to the waste basket.
Finally, screen success came with the award-winning and nominated Peter’s Friends (1992), starring many of Bergman’s Cambridge contemporaries in a Big Chill-style drama, with AIDS as a central theme. The characters were composites of people the couple knew.
The life of the screenwriter is a harum-scarum rollercoaster. She and Bergman would get outlines of scripts approved, then their boss would be fired, then they would be fired. They worked on the first script of Widows, “which got made into a movie 30 years later!” She recalled one contract for a script with the previous writers’ names crossed out.
“I was 45, I’m 65 now. I knew I wouldn’t get to make my own sitcom. We had a gorgeous house in LA. We were doing well writing movies, and me in stand-up, and we said, ‘Let’s change our lives.’” In 2000 Rudner and Bergman moved to Vegas, where Rudner performed for many years, as well as touring.
Bergman suggested they have a child when Rudner was 45, she said, then smiled. “I said, ‘You should have mentioned this earlier. It’s too late now.’ During my twenties and thirties I never wanted to be a mother, I think because my mother had had such a terrible time and I had a terrible time as a child. I just didn’t want to experience anything like that again.”
Then, on a plane, Rudner met a man who had adopted a child, information Rudner conveyed to Bergman. Just after they moved to Vegas they adopted Molly.
Bergman and Rudner sold everything in LA; they didn’t want to travel any more. Vegas was perfect, both as workplace and place to raise Molly. Rudner laughed at the memory of one father approaching her on the last day of school asking whether it was true “Rita Rudner’s kid came here.” (As a parent, Rudner used ‘Bergman’ as a surname.)
When Molly was younger, Rudner didn’t mention her in her act, until Molly herself queried why she wasn’t. She has only asked Rudner to change one joke about her sitting on the back seat of the car. Could she please be allowed to sit in the front seat in the joke, she asked her mom.
Molly, now a teenager about to enter her senior year, likes music and forensics, Rudner said. “So she’s going to figure out why composers die,” Rudner laughed. “I’m not sure there’s money in it, but that’s what she’s going to do.”
Rudner doesn’t feel she missed out on making the TV shows she once wanted to make. She recalled visiting Hugh Laurie when he was starring in House. Laurie revealed that he was there at 6 a.m. every morning; then there were the late nights and the scripts to learn for the following Monday.
She and Bergman have it pretty good, Rudner said; they’ve made “quite a bit of money,” Bergman sorts out all the logistics of where she needs to be. She can write herself characters, but not perform other people’s. She starred in a sitcom, Melissa & Joey, as a “drunken mother” and Bergman told her she wasn’t very good. “I said, ‘I know, let’s not watch it again.’”
As we laughed, Bergman entered the room. The couple talked of Molly heading off to college. Bergman said he was trying to convince Rudner to stop performing. “Performers are hamsters on a wheel,” he said. “They’re convinced that if you stop, the world will end and you will not make any more money ever again. And I subscribe to a different theory.”
Joan Rivers dreaded not working, I recalled; and Rudner recalled Rivers saying how the white pages of an empty diary blinded her.
Bergman laughed. “I see you like Elaine Stritch. Still here. Black tights!”
Rudner whooped. “Judy Garland!”
Maybe they should do a sequel to Peter’s Friends, Bergman pondered, in the vein of other movie sequels.
If she gets one word wrong in her act, Rudner said, Bergman puts his head in his hands. When Molly was learning to play tennis Molly would say to Bergman, “Every time I miss, would you mind not throwing your hat on the floor?” He writes at their big desk, Rudner puts her feet up on the other side. In writing the play, she mainly focused on writing the female part, he the male.
Rudner said she does gigs where the family likes to travel to, whether that be Hawaii or London. “That’s what people in showbusiness do. Or we’d just stay home.”
Rudner and I surveyed the Two’s a Crowd stage, as technical staff set up lights, and hammered and drilled away. “All I need is the audience close to me,” said Rudner. “I need to see the first three rows, and feel that connection.”
Rudner feels she may be in retirement; Bergman calls it semi-retirement. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that Rudner works how, when, and where she wants to. She doesn’t want to work all the time, but just to know she has some gigs coming up in places she wants to be.
“I have no bucket list,” Rudner said. “I like to do what I am doing when I am doing it. And so after this,” she said with a merry laugh, “maybe I’ll get a summer handbag on sale.”