Rita Rudner Talks Softly but Carries a Big Shtik

updated 08/01/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/01/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 25, Rita Rudner had finally made it. After 11 years of ballet lessons and a decade of chorine hoofing, there she was, dancing in the Broadway production of Annie. Was she elated? No. "Getting a part had been such a rat race," she says. "I held a meeting with myself, and I decided I didn't want to do it anymore."

In her dressing room one night, Rudner pondered the problem. "I was used to going to auditions where they needed three girls and 500 girls would show up. I thought, 'You know, there's one area of show business where it's not too crowded, and that's comedy.' That's the only reason I went into comedy, because there weren't too many female comedians."

On the other hand, Rudner, a confirmed wallflower, had no idea whether she was funny. "I might have been really funny all those years, but since I never said anything, how was I supposed to know?" she says. Deciding that being funny "was a skill you could learn," she began listening to classic comedy albums, analyzing old Jack Benny tapes at the Museum of Broadcasting in Manhattan and working the late show at cheesy clubs in the suburbs. "I would follow obscene ventriloquists at 3 a.m. in the middle of winter in places with no heat," she says.

Under such conditions, Rudner was forced to learn quickly. Now, at 32, she is one of the most popular female comics on the nightclub circuit, a veteran of 11 visits to the David Letterman show, five cable specials and two movies, The Wrong Guys and the forthcoming Gleaming the Cube. This week she is making her prime-time debut as one of the hosts of George Schlatter's Funny People, a new series on NBC from the producer of Real People and Laugh-In. Rudner says she is ready. "I've done so much late-night stuff," she says, "I felt I was becoming comedian to the drowsy."

Demure and polite, Rudner is an anomaly in a business where survivors have always had loud mouths and thick skins. "The way her jokes fit together, it's like one of those minimalist Japanese woodblock things," says comic Jerry Seinfeld. "It's so delicate, it's really wonderful." Onstage, Rudner wonders why women wear floral-scented perfume. "Men don't like flowers," she says. "I've been wearing a great scent, though. It's called New Car Interior." And speaking of insomnia: "Once I went to sleep and dreamed I had insomnia. It was the strangest night. I woke up and thought, 'Now I can get some sleep.' "

The overprotected ("I had a tricycle with seven training wheels") only child of an attorney dad and a housewife mom in Miami, Rudner began studying dance at age 4. She jokes about her mother's terrible cooking ("In school, when we traded lunches, I had to throw in an article of clothing") and her father's absentmindedness ("He used to do things like throw me up in the air and answer the phone"), but many of her memories are painful. She was just 13 when her mother died of cancer and her father remarried. Bored with school and alienated from her stepmother, she decided to leave home and head for Broadway.

Before she turned to comedy in 1980, Rudner appeared in about 60 TV commercials. ("I had dandruff; I ate yogurt; I was a toe dancer for Lee Myles transmissions.") When she started in comedy, she admits, "I was bad. But even though I didn't know how to write a joke, the people kind of liked me. They'd want to come back the next week to see if I figured one out yet." To this day, Rudner has never had heckler trouble. Her secret: "I want them to think that if they yell at me, I'll cry."

Rudner's routine has always centered around her romantic life, which until recently, she insists, was disastrous. In her act, she mentions the guy she met at a ski club who cleaned his nails with a swizzle stick and asked, "Ya wanna dance?" ("Not in this lifetime," Rudner told him.) Once, and only once, she says, she consented to have a drink with a man in the audience. "He turned out to be the president of the Mr. Ed Fan Club," she reports. "He wanted to make me an honorary member." Then there were all those boyfriends who ran from commitment so fast "they left skid marks," she tells her audience. "One guy couldn't say, '30-love' when we were playing tennis. He said, '30-I-really-like-you-a-lot-but-I-still-need-to-see-other-people.' "

A year of psychotherapy helped Rudner sort out her nonprofessional problems. She finally realized, she says, "that I had to find somebody who wasn't in comedy who could make me laugh. It's a hard task. People tell me a joke, and I tell them how to fix it." In 1984, in Scotland, Rudner had met British producer Martin Bergman. Involved with other people at the time, they became friends. Then in 1986, she agreed to appear in a show he was producing in Australia and got a little closer than simply G'day, mate. When Rudner returned to Los Angeles, where she had been living, "We supported the phone company single-handedly." Bergman moved to L.A. to be with her last May, and they married on June 24. Though she spends 30 weeks a year on the road—earning a six-figure income—Rudner dislikes hotels and says, "I like to stay home." Not that she has started yearning for motherhood. "I'm scared," she says. "My friend was in labor for 36 hours. I don't even want to do anything that feels good for 36 hours."

Now that Rudner is hosting a TV series, she has decided she'd like to star in a sitcom. "I'm so interested in getting one that I can't even explain it," she says. "Interested is too light a word. Determined. Passionate. Obsessive." She knows the odds against her are discouraging—or ought to be. But, she explains, "I have this problem. I never think the odds apply to me."

—By Pat Freeman, with Michael Alexander in Los Angeles

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