IT IS SUMMERTIME IN LAS VEGAS, AND the livin' is nervy. In the casino at Bally's all the rollers—high, medium and low—are rattling the dice and yanking the slot levers. But a more upscale crowd is pressing into the Celebrity Theater for the opening-night performance of comics Rita Rudner and Louie Anderson.
The house lights dim, the stage lights brighten, and out comes Rudner in a strapless polka-dot gown. She looks sensational but not in a showbizzy way. Rita Rudner looks more like that guidance counselor nobody notices until she arrives at the gym one night in a knockout dress to chaperon the junior prom. In her soft little-girl-lost voice she talks about a long-ago date in just such a dress, when the car broke down and she had to pump the petrol: "I looked like...the gas fairy."
At 36, Rita Rudner is the hottest comedian in the land. A longtime favorite on the nightclub circuit with 13 appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, a 1990 HBO special and a couple of off-brand movies (The Wrong Guys, Gleaming the Cube) to her credit, Rudner, wide-eyed and seemingly helpless, is emerging into the realm of bona fide stardom. She has recently published her first book, Naked Beneath My Clothes, a collection of funny sketches. And she has cowritten—with her producer-husband, Martin Bergman, 35—her first screenplay, Peter's Friends. The movie, which opens late this year, stars Rudner and actor-director Kenneth (Henry V) Branagh.
That's pretty heady company for a girl from Miami who started out as a ballerina and was so shy that "when we played doctor, the other kids would make me the anesthesiologist." Yet the esteemed Branagh was more than eager to work with Rita. Branagh and his wife, actress Emma Thompson, are pals of Rita and Martin's. (Thompson and Bergman went to Cambridge together.) But it wasn't fondness that sold Branagh on Friends, a sort of British Big Chill, with Rita as the odd-American out. "Rita and Martin both have real writing ability," he says. Besides, Branagh adds, "Rita's fun to be around."
Rudner is indeed a charmer, a shrewd and observant one. In her early days in the comedy clubs, when the other comics were bellying up to the bar after their gigs, she could be found sitting quietly at a table taking notes on her fellow performers. That captures in amber the iron determination behind her onstage ditzy persona. "I'm trying hard to break down the wall for female comics in movies," she says. "Most male movie stars these days come from stand-up—Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal—but women go to sitcoms."
Tragedy struck the Rudner household when Rita was 13. Her mother, Frances, died of cancer. "It was sad," Rita says quietly. (Later, for her comedy act, she created "an imaginary mother drawn from my own and my friends' mothers. But my mother was a very funny woman.")
Rudner surprised her father, attorney Abe Rudner, with her determination in her teen years. Not long after her mother's death Rita decided she wanted to dance in New York City. A brilliant student, she had graduated from high school at 15 and "gave my dad a choice," she says. "Let me go to New York, or I'll run away." Abe quickly capitulated, taking Rita to Manhattan in 1972. Three months later she got a job dancing in the road company of Zorba. For years thereafter she did Broadway shows and TV commercials. "I've announced to the country that I have bad breath and problem perspiration," she later recounted in her act. "People recognize me on the street now and try to hose me down."
After a decade Rudner found herself working regularly and going nowhere in particular. She started thinking about comedy, she says, "when I asked myself, 'Where aren't there too many women?' "
She was bucking an American tradition that held that most female comedians—Martha Raye, Imogene Coca, Phyllis Diller—had to present themselves as homely in order to be funny. Even Lucille Ball was painted up like a clown with an Emmelt Kelly mouth before she was anointed the Lucy we could love. But Rudner let her assets show and pressed ahead, immersing herself in tapes of George Burns and Jack Benny and starting the rounds of Manhattan comedy clubs. She soon decided that brevity was indeed wit's soul. "I like minimalism in comedy," she says. "The fewer words you say to get a laugh, the better."
An important side effect of the comedy scene for Rudner was that she finally began meeting men. "I was so shy around men, but as a comic I could relate to them," she says. She had, she recalls, "half a date with Jerry Seinfeld. He told me he wasn't a good risk in a relationship, so we just stayed friends." Then, in 1984, Bergman saw her at Catch a Rising Star in L.A. and was smitten. "I'd never heard anyone talk that softly at a nightclub," he remembers. "Woody Allen had always been my favorite comic, and I thought Rita was very similar in altitude. Even better, she didn't look like Woody."
They started out as business friends. Martin brought Rita to London, where she was a hit at the Palladium. In 1986 he persuaded her to tour Australia, where they fell in love; in 1988 they married. The couple live and work in a four-bedroom French-country house perched high on a cliff overlooking Beverly Hills. Martin has become Rita's unofficial manager. "I thought she should have been a lot further along in her career than she was," he says. "Rita's always had a naive belief that if you're good, you make it."
For now they don't plan to fill the house with anything more than guests, furniture and film scripts. Says Rita: "I don't think a family is for us. Maybe we're too selfish—we're both only children, you know. If I had a child, I'd want to spend a lot of time with it." Of course, the concerns of Rudner the woman are finally grist for Rudner the comedian. "On the other hand," she says, "pregnancy doesn't thrill me. Life is tough enough without someone kicking you from the inside."