Legendary comedian Rita Rudner returned to performing live this year and the audience at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) will be better off for it on September 4 when Rudner hits the stage.
“Whenever there’s a theater, it’s like a big party and everyone comes out feeling much better than when they went in — including me,” says Rudner, who spoke to us from her home in California after just dropping off her daughter for her second year of college in Miami, where Rudner grew up.
A mainstay in Las Vegas, where she held a multi-year residency since 2000 until the pandemic hit, Rudner is known for her clever and loveable one-liners. When she first got into comedy in the early 1980s, it was a conscious choice.
“I love comedy and I decided the reason I wanted to do it was there weren’t many women,” recalls Rudner. “I’d been on Broadway for 11 years doing dancing and singing and acting. I was in Annie on Broadway. I was 27 and I said, ‘Well this isn’t getting any easier. Let’s try a field that’s not so crowded.’ So I started trying to do it.”
She bet the odds (and on herself) and it paid off. Big time.
HBO specials, 10 television specials, Carnegie Hall, sold out shows and then she earned the jackpot — a longstanding residency in Las Vegas, where she received numerous accolades over the years, selling more than 2 million tickets and racking in a gross of over $100 million to become the longest running solo female comedy show in the history of Las Vegas.
Despite her fame and success, Rudner is remarkably down to earth. She loves her house and says she “really enjoys walking my dog” or “sitting on the bed with my dog.” She likes to play tennis. She’s taken up cooking. She swims every day. And like most parents, the empty nest syndrome is real for her.
“Every stage is good. I’m glad I stopped being one of the bedraggled parents holding the heavy things — all the parents are pushing and holding and all the kids are going, ‘Hurry up!’”
These days Rudner seems to be enjoying life, both at home and on the road, post-Vegas.
“I had two contracts. I had one contract that got canceled and they gave me another contract and that got cancelled during the second year of the pandemic, and during that time I just realized I didn’t want to work like that anymore. We didn’t sell our house in Vegas till this past January and we moved permanently to California (near Laguna Beach), and I’m just having lot of fun — I’m doing one-nighters,” says Rudner, who is celebrating 35 years of marriage to Martin Bergman, an Englishman with a sketch comedy and television background from Cambridge University, with whom she frequently collaborates, writing plays and films.
The author of five books, Rudner says she began writing her memoir during the pandemic after she “grew tired of doing crossword puzzles.” She started where she always starts with her material — from the truth, writing about her family and “lots of things that have happened to me that nobody knows about.” Like the fact that 13 years ago, during her Las Vegas residency, she was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer.
“That was a tough time and that’s all in the book,” recalls Rudner. “That was tricky because I didn’t want to say anything because it’s very hard to laugh at somebody who says, ‘A funny thing happened to me on the way to chemotherapy” — so I kept that quiet and I had some female advocates who were the talent booker and the head of the casino and everybody just kind of rallied with me, and when I wasn’t feeling well I didn’t have to do my show and I ended up doing three shows a week instead of six for a while, but nobody really noticed, and I wore a wig and I got through it.”
Comedy is hard and making people laugh when you are going through something so serious certainly has its challenges.
“There were nights when I just wanted to run off stage, I was so sick. I said to my doctor, ‘Should I just stop doing shows?’ and he said, ‘That’s what’s going to get you through it — you are going to have to do things.’”
Rudner is doing things. She loves to shop. She and her husband “like playing golf and complaining why we are so bad at golf.” And yes, she is doing a lot of gigs across the country at her own pace.
What’s it like being on the road again and touring?
“Oh it’s so much fun,” says Rudner. “What’s great about being a performer that’s kind of well known is people come to see you and they know what they’re coming to see, and they respond accordingly. The hardest shows for me to do are when I do either charity shows or corporations — because those are people who come for different reasons, so those are a bit tricky.”
She’s looking forward to the Labor Day show at WHBPAC, where she has performed in the past.
“I love it,” says Rudner, adding, “It’s a New York audience, what could be bad?”
Well, one thing about her visit to the Hamptons is a little disappointing, confesses Rudner.
“I’m a little upset because my favorite store was Calypso and it closed, Calypso went out of business. Anything I like goes out of business — I bought a really nice skirt there,” she says, wistfully.
(When Rudner sees how Westhampton Beach has been transformed with new shops and restaurants, we think she will be pleasantly surprised.)
Whether shopping or slaying an audience, Rudner has her game face on.
“Everybody is so ready to be entertained,” she says. “Everybody has been cooped up … we are in the sweet spot now right between COVID and monkeypox, so we’ve got to go out there — we’ve got to laugh.”
Rita Rudner will be performing at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on September 4 at 8 p.m. For more info and tickets, visit whbpac.org. Her autobiography My Life in Dog Years comes out this month. For more information, visit ritarudner.com.