TheArtsRitaRudner
TheArtsRitaRudner

Comedian Rita Rudner bares her (Jewish) soul

Comedian, actress and author Rita Rudner is bringing her dry, sly wit and deadpan delivery to Feinstein’s at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco on July 17-18. The 61-year-old standup performer, who has homes in Las Vegas and Southern California, recently talked with J. about her Jewish upbringing, her career  — on the stage and off — and the state of humor today.

You grew up in Miami in the 1950s and ’60s. Tell us about your family.

My father was a lawyer, originally from the Catskills; my mother was from Brooklyn. I was an only child.

Were they funny?

Well, my father was ironic and my mother was ditzy. So, I became ditzy and ironic.

Rita Rudner

I heard that you had a Christmas tree growing up.

That was my stepmother, who wasn’t Jewish. My typical Jewish family fell apart after my mother became very, very sick and died. I left Miami at 15 to go to New York to become a dancer and said, “You can keep the Christmas tree.”

That was gutsy of you — to go off to New York on your own at 15. How did you pull that off?

I did 11th and 12th grade in one year, and graduated high school at 15. I was determined. And when you’re young, you’re brave and stupid. I knew New York because I had been there with a friend and her mother, and I read the trade papers, Variety and Backstage. I lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women on New York’s Upper East Side, and at 16 I was in the national company of “Zorba.” I also was on Broadway in “Mack & Mabel,” “Follies,” “The Magic Show” and “Promises, Promises,” among others. I also appeared in commercials and industrial ads.

But at 30, you changed course and decided you wanted to become a comedian. I’ve read you studied the work of Woody Allen and Jack Benny. Why those two instead of, say, Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller?

I loved Jack Benny and Woody Allen. They are quiet Jewish people, and I’m a quiet Jewish person. I love Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, but I wasn’t anything like them.

So many of this country’s 20th-century comedians were Jewish. Is there something quintessentially Jewish about American comedy?

Yes, there was, but not anymore.

Not anymore?

Humor comes from being oppressed — there’s nothing funny about everything going right; things have to go wrong to be funny, and Jews are no longer the only ones who have something to complain about.

You are the author of two novels, including “Tickled Pink,” which is based on your early years as an aspiring dancer and comedian in New York, and several works of nonfiction. With your husband, Martin Bergman, you also wrote the script of the highly acclaimed film “Peter’s Friends.” Do you consider yourself as much a writer as a comedian?

Writing and comedy go hand in hand. But writing novels is excruciating. I don’t want to do it any longer. But I will probably write another play and book of essays.

Who are some of today’s comedians you most admire?

I love all of the comedic actresses because they are less goddesses and more real people: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph.

Tell us about your family.

Martin is a comedy writer from England. He’s not Jewish; Bergman is Swedish like the filmmaker (Ingmar Bergman). And we have a daughter, Molly, who is 13.

Does Molly like to perform as well?

Yes, she plays piano and guitar and writes songs.

Are you excited to perform in San Francisco?

Yes! I haven’t played in San Francisco for a really long time. I’m among the few nonmusical acts to perform at Feinstein’s. I appeal to an urban, sophisticated audience, and San Francisco is very much that.

Rita Rudner, 8 p.m. Friday, July 17 and 7 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F. $35-$50, plus $20 dining minimum. (415) 394-1111 or www.hotelnikkosf.com/feinsteins.aspx.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer, editor, publications manager, communications manager and public relations director at a variety of nonprofit institutions in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, relocated to Chicago. He and his husband love staying in touch with their many good friends on the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco.