Interview: Rita Rudner on Stand-up, Early Broadway Gigs and Her Dog Twinkle


Rita Rudner is an indisputable comic legend, whether through her uniquely elegant and epigrammatic stand-up routine, her volumes of wry essays such as Naked Beneath My Clothes: Tales of a Revealing Nature, or her dry-witted scripts such as Peter’s Friends, the latter of which was co-written with her husband, British film director Martin Bergman. When we speak in anticipation of her shows in Manhattan (Feinstein's/54 Below) and Millville, New Jersey (Levoy Theatre), Rudner is busy playing with her dog, Twinkle, dealing with a leaky sprinkler and a dry wall patch, and, what she said is a, “husband who is of no use because he is watching the World Cup.”

A.D. Amorosi: Judging from all the stand-up I have watched you perform, you seem to have always been comfortable in your skin as a comedian. Is that true? Did you always know where you wanted to be, and how you wanted to be there?
Rita Rudner: I always thought, from the very beginning, that there was no point to doing stand-up if I didn’t remain true to myself. The one thing that you can spot is someone not telling the truth, or being who they truly are. Stand-up is the opposite of acting where you’re always pretending. In comedy, you are always yourself, but you exaggerate that. You’re right, though, in the sense that I knew that I should never copy from anyone, that I should just do me and see what happens.

A.D.: Is the level of animus in comedy – in the world – in any way shifting what you do? It’s a savage, socio-political landscape out there, but that’s not your shtick.
Rita: It seems as if the world is becoming more and more uncivil every day. The way I cope with it, is that I ignore it. I just do what I do. It is so tough and divided out there, so, honestly, I just look to material that unites people. I concentrate on human behavior and domestic situations. I genuinely love when husbands, wives and partners nudge themselves during my set in acknowledgment of who does what. I like that people can relate to what I’m doing.

A.D.: You’re speaking from a place of knowledge, of your own truth.
Rita: Yes, that I am married, and have been for 30 years to a man I often collaborate with. I am the mother of a teenager. My dry wall is crumbling, and my husband won’t budge because he’s watching soccer. My dog wants to be outside, and she is looking at me like I’m a criminal because I won’t let her. These are things that every and any audience can relate to – that we love our partners and our pets. Also, I have included technology into my set, as it is something to discover as I go along, because I have no idea where the cloud is, or how I could get on it.

A.D.: Technology leads me to science, which leads me to math. Is comedy, as you have been doing it for decades, a simple matter of making and sticking to a set of equations? If I do ‘x’ and add ‘y’, ‘z’ will result – rhythmically, linguistically – in a laugh? I ask because I know that you pored over the construction of what made a joke work at your start.
Rita: Yes, I did. I love it, and I get so excited when I wrote a new joke. I love creating something that hasn’t been in the universe before. I don’t know about the equation though. If you do the same pattern of jokes, there is no surprise. And all art forms – humor, drama, music – are based on surprise. Thinking of a different rhythm, then, is like thinking of a new tune. There’s no one way to write a joke. You just keep experimenting.

A.D.: I know that you started as a dancer and singer on Broadway with the likes of Annie, Follies, and Mac & Mabel. What was the most exciting aspect of being on stage?
Rita: One of the most thrilling aspects of doing theater work, then, is that I started very young. I was 16, didn’t really have a family, and went on the road as a swing dancer with Chita Rivera and John Raitt as my first big show, doing Zorba the Greek. That was my family. When I got to my first Broadway show, Promises, Promises, it was if I had been welcomed into an even bigger family. I valued the achievement, and was happy that, each time out, I got a little higher up the ladder. Plus, I used to love going down the alley next to theater before each show on Broadway. By the time I stopped, I had an original role in Annie.

A.D.: So, if you were having all of this upward trajectory, why stop and switch lanes into comedy?
Rita: Well, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to do comedy. It wasn’t exactly sudden. It was a slow progression that seemed to start happening as I was doing Annie. I looked, and realized that there weren’t too many female comedians. At that time, I had been on Broadway for 10 years, and there was still so much competition even though I was on my way up. I used to watch and listen to all these amazing stage actors and singers NOT getting the jobs. It was scary. It was getting harder and harder. At the same time that there were over 7,000 singers and dancers auditioning for the few roles on Broadway, there were only two female comedians. I figured that I’d try my hand at the job where there was only two other performers.

A.D.: Do you think that you use stuff from your dancing and singing days when you do stand-up?
Rita: No, but I’m going to find out, as my husband Martin Bergman and I have just written a new comedy play with music that we’re trying out in September, where I have to sing. It’s about two people who share a hotel room over one weekend in Las Vegas. So, I’ll find out if I can still sing. I do, however, still get the same jitters that I had before hitting the stage when I danced. But, I have a way of conquering that too. I remember that if other people can do it, I can do it to. Hey, it’s how I learned to drive when I was 30, and moved to California. I still can’t back up well, but, I’m a whiz at moving forward.

A.D.: You’re renowned for this stand-up style filled with short sharp jabs. Very David Mamet. Do you know how you gravitated toward that?
Rita: I always thought that if a joke had too many words, I didn’t want to say it. I have to like to say it. Jerry Seinfeld used to warn me that I was going to run out of jokes during my set, because I ended my jokes so quickly.

A.D.: Do you recall the first stand-up bit that ever got you a laugh?
Rita: Of course. The first joke that ever worked was ‘I broke up with my boyfriend because he wanted to get married. And I didn’t want him to.’

A.D.: As a pioneer of comedy who just happens to be a woman – what are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement.
Rita: I think it’s fantastic that women are vocalizing that which is going on with them. I am writing my autobiography, which is taking a long time because I stop and start, and there are certainly things that happened in my life that I was too scared to discuss then. Men must be taken to task, if they’ve done these horrible things. It’s wonderful that women are standing up for themselves and forcing men to stop it. At this point, I think I’d be comfortable if the world was run exclusively by women for a while.

Rita Rudner appears Thursday July 12, 8 PM, at Feinstein's/54 Below, 254 W 54th St, New York, NY and Saturday, July 14, 8 PM, at Levoy Theatre, 126-130 N High St, Millville, NJ. For more information, visit

Photo courtesy of Jeff Abraham / Jonas Public Relations

Posted on Thursday, July 12, 2018