Rita Rudner takes her act to Showtime
The endearing stand-up comic and sometime actress stars in "Thanks," a wry ensemble comedy making its national debut Thursday, March 29, on Showtime, in tandem with her latest comedy special, "Rita Rudner and 3 Potential Ex-Husbands."
In the film, Rudner plays Bunny, a good-hearted woman who has recently married into a dysfunctional clan headed by a crusty widower (sitcom veteran Paul Dooley). The film plays out as the older couple, his three adult children and their mates gather for three successive Thanksgivings while the country slides into a messy economic meltdown.
Rudner is also an executive producer on the film, which was written and directed by her husband, Martin Bergman, who cast the rest of the film with largely unknown members of a Southern California improvisational comedy troupe he and Rudner had worked with previously.
Describing "Thanks" as small and intimate is a little like calling "The Artist" light on dialogue. It's a character-driven piece with no car chases, extraterrestrial invasions or 3-D fantasy sequences, filmed in just nine days at Rudner and Bergman's beach house in Dana Point, Calif. (that's the couple's 9-year-old daughter, Molly, playing in the surf at the beginning of the film). Rudner even cooked all the foods trotted out for the Thanksgiving feasts herself.
"I wanted the smallest part, because I take care of our daughter, and I have to be the one in the kitchen going, 'Be quiet; they're filming,' " Rudner tells Zap2it. "I also did a lot of the girls' hair, and a lot of the women are wearing my clothes and my jewelry.
"It was the most enjoyable experience, although in terms of how many people were in my house, it was very hectic. All the floors were covered with cardboard, and I was tripping over cords, and lights were everywhere. We used every inch of our house, except my bathroom, which I called 'The Sanctuary.' I had little aromatherapy candles in there, and if anyone needed to relax, they would come into my bathroom."
Given that the last time Rudner and Bergman collaborated on a feature (1992's "Peter's Friends"), she co-starred with the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, you might ask where all the big names are in "Thanks." That's certainly what a lot of other people did when the film won some awards at a handful of film festivals.
"Well, everybody liked it," Rudner says. "What people really wanted us to do was to remake it with famous movie stars. Their reaction was, 'We love this movie, but how are we supposed to market it with no big stars?' But Martin and I didn't want to do that, because the movie was written for these people, and they're really good! So when we got an offer from Showtime, we said, 'Well, that's pretty good for an independent movie we made in our house.' "
Her new comedy special, which features Rudner with male stand-ups David Gee, Allan Stephan and John Fox, is designed to reconcile Rudner's determination to "work clean" with the edgier venue of cable comedy.
"I don't swear at all in my act, and I try not to in my life, either," she says. "Cable is a medium that likes to test limits, though, so I said, 'How do we satisfy both the appetite of cable with the feeling of my stand-up?' So we thought maybe I could do my stand-up and then introduce people who used language a bit more colorfully. So that's what we did. But they are really, really good comedians, too. I'm proud of this special."
But then, Rudner always has forged her own distinctive path in comedy, ever since she broke into the field with a witty, un-gimmicky act that found the elegant, soft-spoken comic just telling jokes about her life and background, to the initial consternation of managers and club owners.
"I definitely got some pressure from some people," she recalls, laughing. "They'd say things like, 'Have you actually ever seen a comedian? What are you doing? What is this? You're not loud enough. Comedians have to take charge. It's war out there! You don't look funny! You should wear a big bow in your hair.' One manager said, 'Why don't you go out wearing a wedding dress?' and I just thought, 'Oh, God.' Because I always had the approval of the audience. I said, 'If the audience is laughing, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.' I wasn't working in a bubble."
Not in a bubble, perhaps, but always working, mostly these days in a series of top hotel showrooms in Las Vegas. She and Bergman also have adapted her 2001 comic novel, "Tickled Pink," into a new play that opens later this spring at the Laguna Playhouse, with Rudner in the cast.
"I'm playing an overbearing mother, an over-the-hill dancer and a woman who is not too bright - and I am overqualified for all three of those parts," Rudner says. "I'm doing a German accent, which is very exciting, because I've never done an accent before, and I get to wear wigs and everything, so it's going to be fun."
Fans who want to see Rudner acting may want to make the trek, because apart from an upcoming guest appearance on ABC Family's "Melissa & Joey," she doesn't have any other acting gigs in the offing, mainly because she's a self-confessed homebody with an almost pathological aversion to the standard audition-and-callback process.
"Somebody wanted me to audition for a film a couple of weeks ago, and they said, 'Oh, but it's for a very picky director, and you're going to have to come back at least nine times,' " she says. "I just told them, 'Forget that. I don't need that. I'll stay home. I'm making chili tonight.' "