Back in the day (2002-2004) I was quite a devotee of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn believe it or not. I liked the informal rough and tumble format of the show and frank hashing out of the day’s events. It had a very locker-room energy, which is not usually my thing, but it was smart and funny, and there were token women on it from time to time. I actually became a Judy Gold fan as a result of her appearances on the show (she gamely held her own on panels of aggressive dudes), and betimes you might see the likes of Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofolo, or Illeana Douglas, rolling their eyes at the ongoing dick-measuring contest. (I’m due to do a post on this show, there’s much more to be said). They said a lot of outrageous things on the show, but for some reason, I have always remembered a particular occasion when I felt they went too far — when the panel gratuitously and dismissively belittled Rita Rudner (in absentia).
There is no one less Tough Crowd than Rita Rudner. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since the stand-up explosion of the ’80s, where she carved out a niche for herself that was retro then, even more so now. In a field where men outnumber women ten to one (and I’m being conservative, the gap was huger at the time) Rudner was as traditionally (if not stereotypically) “female” as it is possible to be. She dressed glamorously, as though it were the 1950s, and she had a gentle manner that set her apart from the more aggressive, microphone chewing comics. I also felt there were echoes of previous comediennes in her work (Vera Vague, Gracie Allen, Jean Carroll, early Joan Rivers, even Phyllis Diller) but in a new combination, unique to her own personality. She expressed a woman’s point of view without being “political”, with a character who seemed cheerfully materialistic, and a little spacey, yet not stupid. Her routines and one-liners were carefully crafted and sometimes slightly surreal, like Woody Allen’s. Best of all, she comes off as refined — in an era when NO ONE is refined.
So, if you’re a misogynist you probably hate her, and if you’re a feminist you probably hate her. Me, I’ve always appreciated her a great deal. Both Carson and Letterman loved her — each booked her over a dozen times in the ’80s and early ’90s. In 1988 she married British writer/director/producer Martin Bergman with whom she has collaborated since. The first of their projects together was the 1990 BBC series Rita Rudner. That same year she had her first HBO comedy special Born to be Mild. In 1992, Rudner and Bergman wrote the movie Peter’s Friends, directed, produced and starring Kenneth Branagh, featuring herself as Branagh’s wife, with Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie also in the cast. The movie got some good reviews and it did respectably at the box office but didn’t set the world on fire. She then did another HBO special, Married Without Children in 1995.
Rudner’s done gobs more specials, and tv and film appearances over the decades. Since 2008 her main base of operation has been Las Vegas, performing what has been called “the longest running solo comedy show in the history of Las Vegas”. It seems an odd match, but perhaps not. The niche she occupies kind of fits the tastes of provincial American audiences. Her material isn’t cutting edge, or strident, or urban, or challenging, or aimed at young people. It is crowd pleasing, but not in a low-brow way, more in an edifyingly “well made” sort of way. I have always thought of her act as the sort that would have done very well in vaudeville. And, given yesterday’s post on David Copperfield, I am beginning to suspect that Las Vegas is where vaudeville now truly lives (though back in vaudeville days Vegas was little more than a rest stop in the middle of the desert).
Also vaudeville: Rudner actually started out as a dancer on Broadway. She usually went into shows as a replacement but nonetheless she was in the original productions of Promises Promises (1968-72), Follies (1971-72), Doug Henning’s The Magic Show (1974-78), Mack & Mabel (1974), So Long 174th Street (1976), and Annie (1977-83). After this, she says, “My feet got tired so I started talking”.
To learn more about vaudeville and variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,