By Shelley Koppel
MARTIN COUNTY — When comedian Rita Rudner came to New York at the age of 15, she wanted to be a dancer. She appeared in several Broadway shows, including Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” and she kept dancing for nearly a decade. Then she stopped. She’s still not sure why.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I noticed there weren’t too many female comedians and loads of dancer. You gotta pioneer it. It’s a position of power. You’re controlling people’s emotions, making people laugh.”
Rudner brings her comedy to the Lyric Theatre Aug. 19 for two shows. Becoming a comedian took a lot of preparation, including research on comedy at the Museum of Broadcasting, where she came to admire Jack Benny.
“He would just stand there and deliver it as if it wouldn’t be funny,” she said. “He would just look at the audience and didn’t have to say anything, That’s professional.”
Rudner also admired Woody Allen’s writing and watched many of his specials. She found his persona too intense for her personality. Benny was a more laid-back presence.
“Jack Benny was so understated and Woody Allen was the best joke writer,” she said. “I listened to (both) a lot and did a combo: Woodybenny or BennyAllen.
Rudner knew both Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, two of the very few female comedians around at the time.
“I was friends with Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers,” she said, “They were such wonderfully smart women with very aggressive personalities. I didn’t (have an aggressive personality.) I tried to do it the way I am, instead of imitating. “
Like Diller, Rudner is known for finding humor in herself and her family, especially her husband, producer Martin Bergman and their life together.
“Joan Rivers found a way to stay current by going after people in the news,” she said. “Her career was first and foremost. I love my career but I also like to walk my dog. (My comedy) is just about my life. It’s about being married 28 years, being a mother and not knowing anything about technology. I just bought a new car and it might as well say, ‘Stupid, you pushed the wrong button.’ I don’t like to talk about things unrelated to what I’ve experienced.”
Rudner and I share the experience of having English husbands and we talked about the difference in humor in both countries.
“I started to speak with an accent.” Rudner said. “No matter what he says, even if he’s being disparaging, he sounds good. His voice is soft and sometimes they think he’s a woman on the phone and ask for the husband. He says he is the husband. I was just in England doing a lecture at Cambridge. They’re a bit more reserved but also snarkier than our humor. They’re less restrained in their rhetoric and more restrained in their response. It’s a dilemma. There are differences in so many things. I have to tread carefully.”
Rudner has had a lengthy residence in Las Vegas and her daughter, Molly, a musician, opened for her doing a show. Rudner, whose own mother died when she was 13, came to motherhood with a lot of anxiety.
“I was very apprehensive,” she said. “We decided very late and we decided to adopt a baby. I was 49. I had already done a lot of traveling and was ready to change my life. We adopted the best little girl in the world. I want my child to follow her passion. She tried ballet and basketball. Tennis stuck and she had piano lessons and was immediately good and wanted a guitar. She has a natural ability. I think we should encourage the passion and fan the flame or flicker.”
Rudner performed several years ago for President Obama with Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow.
“It was horrifyingly tense,” she said, “I don’t normally do anything politically related. I knew who I was speaking to and knew their points of view but it was still frightening. You have to do things that scare you. Scary things are the most rewarding. I just did a two-person play with pages of dialogue. It was one of the most rewarding things. You have to go off and scare yourself.”
Rudner has said that she writes on torn pieces of paper with coffee stains, but the reality is that she is very organized when she performs.
“I have to know exactly what I’m going to do,” she said. You don’t go into a heart operation unprepared. If something happens, I have to respond. In a show, I was attacked by a moth. I had to do something. I always leave space at the end for questions and answers for spontaneity.”
Rudner said she is looking forward to appearing at the intimate Lyric and enjoys a mature audience.
“I like the intimacy of looking at people’s faces,” she said. “I want to appeal to people over 45. We can all relate.”
She said that everyone should come to the show.
“Everyone will have a good time and I’ll be wearing a pretty dress.”
Rita Rudner appears at the Lyric Theatre, 59 S.W. Flagler Avenue, Stuart, Aug. 19 at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $45.
Call the box office at (772) 286-7827 or visit the website www.lyrictheatre.com.