Comedian Rita Rudner is a low-key American institution. A ubiquitous presence on TV during the “standup boom” of the late 1980s and early 90s, with multiple HBO specials filmed during thaat time, she has spent much of the last sixteen years booked into her own theater in Las Vegas. At this point, she has the longest-running solo comedy act in the town’s history, playing to over a million people in the course of over 3,000 shows. During that time, she’s also created an award-winning improv show called Ask Rita, collaborated with husband Martin Bergman writing several plays, and authored books, including the recent I Still Have It, I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It.
Videos of her Vegas act show that she still brings a sense of bewildered wonderment to the analysis of everyday tasks most of us take for granted, with the perfectly-honed timing of a true veteran performer. You could call it an old-fashioned approach to standup, in the way that shrimp cocktail is old-fashioned; it was on the menu a long time ago, and it will still be on the menu many years from now. It’s a classic, it works, and it’s a pleasure. Mastery of the classics never goes out of style.
In advance of her upcoming So Cal appearances at the Smothers Theater at Pepperdine on December 7, and the Laguna Playhouse on New Year’s Eve, Rudner spoke to us about her earliest impressions of LA, the inspiration for “Ask Rita”, and why she avoids political material onstage.
What do you remember about your first visit to LA? What was your impression of the city?
I was twenty one years old and was in a show called Mack and Mabel at the Dorthy Chandler Pavilion. I remember trying to figure out how to take busses everywhere because I didn’t know how to drive. My impression of LA featured inter-connected freeways with a side of smog.
How do you like it now?
There is less smog.
I’ve heard it said by some comedians that they are finding it hard to try out new material in front of young college-age audiences, because everyone is so politically correct. Is that a good reason for an established comedian to stay in Las Vegas most of the year?
I love trying out material in clubs around the country. It is more difficult in theaters because if the joke doesn’t work there are thousands of people not laughing instead of hundreds. I talk mainly about my experiences as a mother of a teenager and the fact that I’ve been married for thirty years, so the people who come to see me have been out of college for quite some time.
Even within Vegas, have you ever had reason to re-consider your own material against the evolving standards of what is and is not acceptable in comedy?
The most important rule of comedy is to stay true to who you are. I avoid political material because everybody who comes to see my act does not have to have my political opinions….even though I know I’m right.
I like to imagine all of you Las Vegas performers with long-time residencies ending up in the same after-hours speakeasy, like you and Britney and Elton and Celine singing songs around the piano and cracking each other up at 4 in the morning. How often does that kind of thing happen?
It seems like an observational comic would quite naturally make a lot of observations about what other people are doing wrong, on a regular basis. Was that the inspiration for “Ask Rita”?
The inspiration for “Ask Rita,” was that there were lots of funny people who weren’t on television. This was an opportunity to showcase their skill while making fun of people they would never have to meet.
Should we expect your Pepperdine show to significantly differ from your show in Vegas? Do you keep a “tour set” of material as distinct from a “Vegas set”?
Because I work all around the country now, Vegas references in my act have experienced a sharp decline. I just filmed a new television special that hasn’t been seen yet so the audience can expect lots of new material that actually works.