Rita Rudner: One Funny Lady

Comedian Rita Rudner
Comedian Rita Rudner

Rita Rudner is a very funny lady, and a very successful one, too - which more than qualifies her for our series about the folks who make us laugh, brought to us by CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

In a city that boasts about its sinfulness, where the entertainment is often X-rated, one of the most successful performers on the Las Vegas strip avoids four-letter words and always appears fully-clothed.

For seven straight years Rita Rudner has been voted the city's comedian of the year, selling a million tickets doing a show that by Vegas standards is low-key and innocent.

"Gambling is legal, prostitution is legal. Guess the jails here are just full of people who litter."

"I have too many credit cards. You know what happened? Someone stole one and I didn't notice. I noticed when I got that bill. Whoa! It was so much less! I'm letting him keep it. I'm saving money!"

Unlike many comedians, Rita didn't start out as the class clown. Growing up in Miami, dancing was her dream.

She started taking ballet at age 4. "And I loved it," Rudner told Blackstone. "And that's all I ever wanted to do was be a dancer."

It was a dream that helped her cope with her mother's early death. She was 12 when she died.

"It was tough. And then I went on and I said, 'Luckily I had an interest that I wanted to be a dancer.' And I think that kept me focused."

But it also led her to take a risky leap: At just 15, all by herself, she moved to New York, determined to dance on Broadway.

"Everyone has a different story. And that was my story. That's what I did. I wouldn't let my daughter do it! There isn't any way!"

In New York she did what she set out to do, dancing in big Broadway shows for a decade. Including "Promises, Promises," "Follies" and "Annie."

But in her mid-twenties she began to ponder a career change, when she compared the amount of competition among dancers and among female comedians.

"I did six Broadway shows, and I noticed there weren't many female comedians. When I went to a dancing audition, there were 1,000 girls. And there were three jobs. So I said I'll just try comedy. And I loved it."

And so she approached comedy as methodically as she danced.

"When you're a dancer, you start with the basics. You don't all of a sudden do a grand jete and pirouette. You start with first position, second, third."

Rita's first position as a comedian was sitting in the audience, listening to others tell punch lines. "I would sit there and go, 'Why is this funny? Why isn't this funny?'"

She remembers the first joke she thought of:

"I do! My first joke I ever wrote was, 'I broke up with my boyfriend, because he wanted to get married. And I didn't want him to.' And I was so excited. I called up my friends: I thought of a joke! I thought of a joke! Yeah."

In comedy club after comedy club, she began telling her jokes, working her way up the comedy ladder:

"My parents play backgammon, for very high stakes. I used to have a brother…"

Finally she reached the high perch of every aspiring comedian of her time - Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

"I have brown hair and blue eyes and my grandmother has blue hair and brown eyes. My mother's mother is a very tough cookie. She buried three husbands. Two of them were just napping."
Then as now, Rita's material is notable for what it's not - raunchy or political.
"I had the worst birthday party ever when I was a child because my parents hired a pony to give rides. And these ponies are never in good health. But this one dropped dead. It just wasn't much fun after that. One kid would sit on him and the rest of us would drag him around."
"I like to take people away from the real world," she said, "because the real world is a very complicated, upsetting place. I don't want to make anyone upset. I don't want to push the envelope. Let the envelope stay in the middle of the table. I'll just make you laugh."

In 1984 she met British producer Martin Bergman, and business and pleasure soon mixed.

"We met because he produced comedy shows and I'm a comedian. What better match could you have from that? I said, 'He hired me. He paid me. I married him.'"

They're now been married 20 years.

"How have you managed that in this world today?" Blackstone asked.

"I think no one else found us particularly attractive! So we stayed together."

They made their home in Hollywood, and did what all the locals seem to do.

"We rented a typewriter -0151; 'cause this is in the olden days - and we started writing a script."

In 1992 that script became the movie "Peter's Friends," directed by Kenneth Branagh. It featured many of Martin's friends from Cambridge University. Rita played the sole American: an actress exuding all the excesses of Hollywood.

They wrote more screenplays, and Rita traveled on the standup comedy circuit.

"And all of a sudden, we decided that we weren't enjoying our lives as much as we used to. And we wanted to make a change. So we sold our furniture, our dishes. I think we left some underwear there. Everything. And started fresh in Las Vegas."

As a standup comedian Rudner spent years on the road taking her act across the country. In Las Vegas the audience comes to her from across the country. While Vegas is no ordinary city, it's finally given Rita Rudner an ordinary life.

"But I have to tell you about the most wonderful thing that's happened to us since we've been in Las Vegas. We have a daughter now. She's five. I'm still trying to lose the weight, which is weird because we adopted."
"We adopted a baby girl successfully," Rudner said. "And she was born. And she was healthy. And she's the best little girl in the whole world."

Rita now has the kind of life she used to joke about … and she has new material for her act.

"You learn a lot about yourself when you have a baby. You know what I've learned? I don't know all the words to any song. Oh, it's so humiliating when I sing to her. 'A, B, C, D, la, la laaaa,'"
Her jokes spring from everyday life. And a fact of her life now is that she is getting older.
"We will do anything to stop those wrinkles. Oh, my Aunt Sylvia just had herself laminated."
At 54 she's written a new book reflecting on getting older, "I Still Have It . . . I Just Can't Remember Where I Put It: Confessions of a Fiftysomething" (Harmony). And next month PBS broadcasts a show of her act in Las Vegas recorded live.
"Everyone is getting remarried. I asked my husband if he wanted to renew our vows. He got so excited. He thought they had expired."
It will be the first time in eight years that most people who haven't been to Vegas will get a chance to see what Rita Rudner has been up to. In this town, she's been on a winning streak.
"I buy too many clothes. Our closet is so stuffed I made up a new rule: Every time I buy something I have to get rid of something. I had to throw a lot of my husband's clothes away."