Interview: Rita Rudner

She's the comedian who performs in front of sell-out audiences in her own theatre on the Strip. Beat that, Celine Dion


There are several measures of success for a stand-up comedian. Traditionally, you knew you had arrived when you got through a set without anyone in the audience throwing objects at you. There are other landmarks - the first sell-out tour, the TV series, the DVD.

However, Rita Rudner, one of America's most enduring (and endearing) comics, has set a new benchmark. She had an auditorium built solely for her to perform in, and she has been playing there to sell-out audiences for a decade.

Rudner used to be a regular visitor to the UK and even had her own BBC2 series back in the early 90s. But since she adopted her daughter, Molly, nine years ago, she and her husband, Finchley-born writer and producer Martin Bergman, have lived and worked in Las Vegas. Rudner recalls how her long-running residency began.

"I took over a room at the MGM Grand - one show had moved out and its replacement wasn't coming together as quickly as they had anticipated. So they asked me whether I would like to play there for six weeks. Well, I always like to say yes as it sounds much better than no. The show was a sell-out and the run lasted six months. Then they booked some naked women from France and they needed to build new dressing rooms or something. I said: "They're naked, they don't need dressing rooms', but no-one would listen to me.

"Anyway, the president of The Venetian hotel across the street said: 'This is silly, you're selling out every week'. So he built me a theatre."

Rudner has been performing several shows a week there ever since. Admittedly, there have been a few problems that needed to be ironed out - like the fact that the theatre was built directly underneath a rollercoaster ride, which meant there would be a sizeable tremor every couple of minutes. But for a comedian of Rudner's standard, this is merely material.

Snapshot

Born: Miami, September 17, 1953
Early life: Daughter of lawyer Abe Rudner and mother Frances who died when Rudner was 13. Left school at 15 to work as a dancer on Broadway.
Career: First performed comedy at the age of 25. Has appeared on TV in the US and the UK, including her own BBC2 series and appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show. Since 2001 has performed almost exclusively at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, selling over one million tickets. In May 2009 performed in front of President Obama.
Personal life: Lives in Las Vegas with husband, writer and producer Martin Bergman and adopted daughter, Molly.

And the regular spot has enabled her to enjoy a normal home life with her husband and daughter, although she is aware of the irony in the fact that the only place she can lead a normal family life is in one of the world's more abnormal cities.

"We decided Molly should have two parents who stay at home," she says. "So that's what we do. I go down the street and work in a very nice casino and then come home to my family. That sounds strange doesn't it. But we have a very good life here. Celine Dion has copied me now. She owes me a lot, that Celine, but she hasn't thanked me - not once."

Rudner, originally from Miami, went to live in New York as a teenager determined to make it there… as a dancer. But it began to dawn on her that as a dancer her career was likely to be short-lived. So she started to study the great comedians of the day - notably Jewish stand-ups like Woody Allen and Jack Benny - and was soon putting an act together.

"I decided that I wouldn't be able to dance for the rest of my life but I would probably still be able to talk. Let's face it, I wouldn't be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest dancer at this point [she is now 56].

"There weren't so many female comedians then so I thought it wouldn't be so crowded - that I would have a bit more elbow room, and I was right. It was a good idea. I tell my daughter, do something that not everybody wants to do or that not everyone can do. If you're in an orchestra, be the bassoonist - there won't be so much competition."

Although her influences in comedy were Jewish, Rudner tends to steer clear of overtly Jewish material in her act, which she brings to London this summer for a short run in the West End.

"I don't do Jewish stuff because I don't want people to be left out. If I mention the Torah in Alabama, it's not going to go down that well. I used to do some Jewish jokes because when I started, I used to play lots of Jewish country clubs. A very nice lady who booked them used to drive me out in her very small car and would make me pay for the tolls and half of the gas."

Rudner attempts to remember some of the Jewish gags she did in her Borscht Belt days. Finally she remembers one. "I used to go to a very fancy temple - they read the Torah in French."

Now her material is more observational, primarily about relationships, and she takes pride in the fact that she is about the only "clean" comedian in Vegas. So how does her act evolve? "That's easy. I think of something, I do it on stage. If somebody laughs, I'll leave it in. If nobody laughs, I take it out."

While Rudner comes across as relaxed and comfortable with life and work, she certainly does not sleepwalk through her performances.

"Every once in a while I say something in the wrong rhythm and they don't laugh, I think: 'Oh my gosh, I'd better pay more attention'. It's like tightrope walking - you have to keep your balance, you have to keep concentrated and you can't phone it in because the audience will sense it. I have to visualise my jokes, live my jokes, feel the audience because every audience is different. It's like having a different dancing partner every night."

But she is nowhere near as obsessive as the doyenne of Jewish female stand-ups, Joan Rivers, who has a room with filing cabinets filled with every punch-line she has ever delivered.

"I'm so jealous of Joan," says Rudner. "I don't do that. I have no organisational skills. All my energy goes into worry - worrying takes a lot of energy. I like having some empty spaces in my diary. That means I get to go to the gym and go out to lunch and have a bottle of wine. I'm a very relaxed person.

She ponders for a moment, before calling out to her husband who is listening to the interview. "I'm not lazy, am I Martin?"

No one could accuse Rudner of slothfulness. On top of the stand-up (she recently performed for President Obama), she has written five books and Bergman has adapted her first novel for the theatre.

"On my tombstone it will say: 'I tried everything – nothing was easy'. That's what I tell Molly. Don't expect anything to be easy and you won't be disappointed."

Rita Rudner will be playing five dates at Leicester Square Theatre from June 30 to July 8. Box office: 0844 873 3433 or visit www.leicestersquaretheatre.com

    Last updated: 10:30am, May 12 2011