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Comedy

The simple life of Rita Rudner

Fame, fortune, two thousand shows, five books, a play, a husband, a daughter …

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Jerry Metellus Photography

It’s already been a hectic year for longtime Strip headliner Rita Rudner. Her first stand-up special in a decade was a fundraising coup for Las Vegas PBS in March, and her fifth book, a collection of humorous essays entitled I Still Have It … I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It, hit shelves May 13. This month Rita Rudner: Live From Las Vegas airs nationally and will be released as a DVD—Rudner’s first—on June 24. If that wasn’t enough, the comedian/screenwriter/novelist/actress adds “playwright” to her resume when Room 776, co-written and directed by her husband, Martin Bergman, premieres June 13 at the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

You’ve been a fixture in Vegas since 2001. What sort of changes have you noticed over the years?

I think generally Vegas gets better all the time. It used to be just the $1.99 buffet—and I speak about this in my act—now we’ve got the best restaurants and the best stores. I remember when I used to go to New York, and I’d go, “Oh, I get to go to this store and that store,” and now the last time I went to New York I said, “We have that. We have this store. We have this store. It’s bigger in Las Vegas.” So I think Las Vegas just keeps getting better. Don’t you? I mean, the shows are getting better, the hotels; everything seems to be elevated every couple of years. I don’t even know what it’s going to be like in five years with CityCenter and the Echelon and the Fontainebleau. It’s going to be a whole new Las Vegas again in the next five years.

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It must have been quite the vote of confidence for New York-New York to build you your own theater.

First I was at the MGM; I was at the Catch a Rising Star Theater that turned into the Wheel of Fortune Theater, then they had a gap between me and the naked French ladies. I was supposed to be in there three weeks, and it turned out that I was in there for seven months. Then the naked French ladies came, and I had done so well at the MGM that they decided to look around at their other properties to see where they could build me a theater. It took away from the thrill when they told me the theater they were building was underneath the loudest part of the roller coaster. They went on to spend over a million dollars sound-proofing the room. They said, “You can make a joke out of it.” I said, “How often does it come around?” “Every three minutes.” I said, “I can’t make a joke about it every three minutes! I could make a joke about it maybe twice …” So for a while before they figured it out they had to stop the roller coaster for an hour and a half every night. They tried everything. Finally they figured out that they had to fill the pillars that held the roller coaster up full of sand to absorb the vibrations and the sound. They had people coming from Japan, trying ball bearings on the coaster, they were putting wax on it …

What led to the 2006 move to Harrah’s?

The president of the hotel who brought me in to New York-New York left and went on to the Luxor. My contract was up, and I got a really good offer from Harrah’s. What was really appealing about it was that I wasn’t going to be working the whole year anymore. I’d been working consistently for five years, being the only person in the room who didn’t take a lot of vacations or anything, and I was ready to do a lighter schedule. I was switching on and off here with Wayne Newton when I first came. And the theater was bigger, and closer to the mall, closer to the house, and I got into less traffic. Now Wayne’s gone, so I work more again, but anyway …

What’s the significance of airing your 2,000th show from Harrah’s on PBS?

It’s very exciting for me; first of all, I’ve never done a DVD. People ask me all the time. And I haven’t done my own television special for, I think, 10 years. I have lots of new material and lots of material I’ve gathered about Las Vegas, and it’s just fun to get a record of it. I change my material so often I want people to know what I’m doing now, and I’m so excited that I can actually offer people a DVD.

What are the “Rita’s Reports” included in the DVD extras?

They are reports that I did for my television show Ask Rita. I went all around with a film crew to whatever wacky [thing] was happening in Vegas. I interviewed people at a ventriloquists’ wedding, which was one of the wackiest things I’ve ever done. There were two ventriloquists getting married by a ventriloquist, and the audience were all these people who had their puppets. It was very surreal. I went to a Star Trek convention, which was less surreal than the ventriloquists’ wedding. I practiced putting a worm on a hook at a fishing convention. I went to a tattoo parlor where I witnessed people getting tattoos as well as getting them removed. I took my 75-year-old babysitter for her birthday to the Chippendales. So it’s just things like that, little various reports around Vegas.

What’s your nightly routine at the theater?

At 7-ish, 7:15 I arrive. I’m dressed at 7:30, do the VIP line, which lasts from like 7:40 to 8:20, then at 8:30 I go on stage and I tell the jokes. I go out and do autographs after, then I go home. I’m dressed really quickly. People don’t believe how fast I get out of that gown.

How do you mentally prepare for the show?

I drink a small glass tumbler containing coffee and milk through a straw so I don’t have to reapply my lipstick, and I relax. And I’ve been signing books. Really, it’s one of the most relaxing parts of the day, when I come to the dressing room, because my daughter’s five and a half, and she’s very cute, but she has a lot of energy. It’s like living with Richard Simmons. And I have a nine-month-old puppy who is on her way to being trained. And the phone and the e-mails … I have no computer in the dressing room. I watch the news, eat some fruit and then get dressed.

Is it difficult switching your mindset from home to professional?

I have two very, very distinct lives. And that’s my show-business life and my personal life. And your personal life is always much more important than your show-business life. You have to work at it. You have to put a priority there and say, “This is more important than this.”

And yet your material deals a lot with your family and friends and how you interact with them.

I always just said who I was. You exaggerate who you are. You say what’s wrong with me, where did I come from. Comedy, to me, always starts out being autobiographical. I kind of studied Woody Allen, because I liked his comedy, and I liked the way he made fun of himself. I liked the way you didn’t have to be a man or a woman because his jokes were so strong. They had these great punchlines. I said, “I have to be who I am. I can’t be anybody else.” Because every person is unique, so if you’re true to yourself, you’ll be unique.

You mentioned studying Woody Allen; do you watch a lot of comedy now?

I don’t watch a lot of comedy now. I like jokes; I still love a well-crafted joke. I’ll get jealous: “Oh, why didn’t I write that?” But I don’t have a lot of time these days. I’m up at 6:30 every morning with my dog and my daughter, so I can’t watch any late-night shows anymore.

What about on the Internet?

I don’t really do much; I don’t go out of my way to seek it. And my main task now is to write more new jokes. Because this is the first time I’m putting a lot of my act out on DVD, so I’ve got to keep replenishing. For the last couple months I’ve just been honing it for the PBS show. Even though my act is clean there are still certain things you can’t say on PBS. I have a swear word here or a reference there that wouldn’t be appropriate. So I wanted to kind of mold it toward the audience I was going to be doing it for. And then I had a longer version that I was doing for the DVD, so I’ve been concentrating on that. And now that that’s together I can start trying to figure out new material.

Are you a disciplined writer? Can you make yourself sit down at a certain time every day?

No, I can’t do that. If I have something due, then I do it. Because I do my act most nights I can only write, like, a few little thoughts and try them in front of an audience. I’m in awe of people who can just write, and I just have to have little nuggets of thought, or I have to have an article due and do it. But I’m not somebody who sits down and writes every day … When I was writing my first novel, Tickled Pink, I kind of had a schedule that I’d adhere to. I’d sit down and write from 10 to 1, I remember. But I can’t do it anymore. Because a novel is much harder than essays.

I Still Have It … contains some surprisingly sad stuff. How therapeutic is it to be able to work through that on paper when you don’t really address topics like that onstage?

It’s necessary. You want it to be an honest document, and those things happened. So as well as funny things happen, sad things happen. I think I tinge them with humor, even the sad things, but I also wanted it to be a bit deeper than, you know, just the funny things that have happened to me in my life. When you’re past 50, other things have happened.

Writing the essays and novels and screenplays, none of it is new territory for you, but has it gotten any easier? Or is it still a constant challenge?

It’s always really hard. But you always feel good after you’ve done it. I was so excited after I got the galleys of the book and I got the cover and I said, “Oh my gosh, there’s a book there!” When you work on it for years and then there’s something there you can look at, it’s rewarding. It’s like exercise; it’s great to have done it.

And how is it you manage to do all this in such a relatively short amount of time? How do you keep organized?

Martin organizes me. He puts a piece of paper in front of me, and I do whatever it tells me to do. Like today we were in LA doing some publicity, this afternoon we were at the beach, then we’re taking Molly to dinner. Tomorrow morning we’re in San Diego doing publicity, then we’re taking Molly to Sea World, and then at night I’m on a TV show in Huntington Beach. Then Saturday I’m hosting in Huntington Beach, Sunday I’m hosting in San Diego, Monday I’m going to New York, Monday night I’m hosting in Newark, Tuesday morning I’m on the Today Show, Tuesday night I’m hosting in Long Island … I’m just doing whatever my schedule says. And then I come back and I start my work at Harrah’s. And then the play! The play opens that Martin’s been directing that’s been going really, really well. We’re really happy with it. We have a great cast, and I think it’s going to be really funny.

What can you tell me about the play?

It’s a play about two people who get booked in the same room in Las Vegas over a busy weekend, and they have to spend the weekend together. The cast is really good; they’re all locals, and they’ve got an excellent sense of comedy. Martin says they’re better than a lot of pros that he’s worked with: They’re much more agreeable, and they’ve got all their lines learned. You know, what’s great about the Little Theatre is that everyone just does it because they want to do it. No one’s doing it because, “I’m gonna make a fortune or I’m gonna be famous”; they’re just doing it because they want to do it. They just get there and they’re gung-ho.

Is there any significance to the number 776 for you?

I did it because 777 is lucky and 776 is almost lucky, so it’s Room 776.

What can you tell me about the film you recently shot, HangingOutHookingUpFallingInLove [co-starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Janeane Garofalo, Jenna Elfman and Camryn Manheim]?

I got a call from the director, who said, “Will you do this part in the movie?” and that happens so infrequently. I don’t audition for movies anymore. I don’t want to be bothered; I just want to do my act, stay at home and be with my family. But when someone just called me up and asked me, and it was an actor that I really admire, his name is Richard E. Grant. It was only going to be one day away from my family, so I said okay.

Are you able to talk about who you’re playing?

Oh, I’m playing the socially incompetent surgeon. I come on to Richard in a deli. Again, it’s not anything that I do on a regular basis. I know, when I do my act, if I say something funny, people laugh, and I go on to the next thing that is funny. In film you just do lots and lots of takes, and it’s so up to the editing process. But everyone couldn’t have been nicer to work with. We’ll just see what happens.

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