The chair I’m sitting in reminds me of Sunday school—it’s the stackable kind with a straight back and a Naugahyde seat. The room is dark, and a disembodied male voice is instructing me and the other 200 people sitting on Sunday school chairs to make sure our cell phones are turned off. Then the lights come up on the bare stage in front of us, and a woman walks out from a wing. She starts talking. She keeps talking for an hour and twenty minutes.
That’s it. That’s Rita Rudner’s show. It’s minimalism at its finest. The slender lady in a fuchsia taffeta gown doesn’t need any props, glitz, or gimmicks to hold her audience. One spotlight is enough.
I think I’m most impressed, as I watch her, that she seems so sweet. Sweetness is not a word ordinarily associated with stand-up comedians. Nor is feminine, a word that also describes Rita accurately. And how does she manage to make all the men in the audience smile by talking about shopping and makeup and shoes? But she does, and they’re laughing, too. We’re all laughing, but not with guffaws or hoots. We’re chuckling—tee-heeing, even. It’s not loud, but it sounds very genuine. At other comedy shows, I’ve often felt compelled to laugh, not because I was actually tickled, but because the comedian was working so hard it seemed impolite not to show some audible appreciation. I felt no such obligation while listening to Rita Rudner. She never once begged for laughs. They all popped out to meet her of their own free will.
As for working hard, anyone who stands under stage lights telling jokes for over an hour is expending serious energy. I watched Don Rickles do it, and he went through a leaning tower of towels mopping up sweat in between bits. Somehow, Rita Rudner does the same thing without ever even becoming moist. I mean it, not one little bead on her brow, and her gown looked just as fresh at the end of the show as at the beginning. If she hadn’t learned the names of all the people in the front row, I’d swear she was a Stepford wife.
And here’s another amazing fact. With most comedians, you start recognizing their “connecting phrases” pretty early on. You know, those segues they use to buy themselves a little time while they decide what to do next. Rita Rudner doesn’t need those any more than she needs towels. She just keeps talking, moving smoothly from one sequence to the next, all the while remembering the names of the people in the front row as though she’s known them all her life.
Best of all, I’ve decided, now that it’s been a few days since I was in Rita Rudner’s audience, is that her material has staying power. When I walked out of her show, I couldn’t repeat a single one of her lines, but as I go about my mundane business, her observations and turns of phrase pop back into my head. I find myself smiling again.
While I was waiting in line to enter Rita’s theater at New York-New York, a man walked by.
“You’re going to love it,” he said, a big grin on his face. “She’s really great.”
He was right. I loved it. Rita Rudner was really great. I’m glad to hear, however, that the Sunday school chairs in the Cabaret Theatre are about to be replaced.