Women on the Las Vegas stage: Comedian Rita Rudner

I called Rita Rudner at home on a Thursday morning. I had already seen her show, so I knew I wanted to ask her about making jokes about marriage — something she does well and that is a trademark of her comedy.

She tells me that a lot couples come to her show, and I remember the man who sat across the aisle from me in the showroom laughing heartily at every line and time and again gesturing at his wife, who sat next to him, in a way that said, ‘She’s right! We do that!’

“I get people who’ve just been married and want advice,” Rita said, “and people who’ve been married a long time and want to make sure they’re not the only ones experiencing this.”

Rita is distracted for a moment by a voice in the background. I hear mumbles for a moment, and then she tells me that was her husband, Martin.

“He said I used to be single and I might be single again,” she told me. Then she called away from the phone, “Thank you! Thank you for that!”

“Oh God,” she said to me. “You have to have a sense of humor when you’ve been married a long time.”

Rita is also a veteran of comedy and of the Las Vegas entertainment scene. She remembers a time when women making jokes about men and marriage would have drawn resistance, not laughter. She thinks that men have become “more mature than they used to be about looking at themselves” and therefore more inclined to find a joke funny that criticizes them.

“Now … men go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t find anything in the refrigerator. She’s right!'” she said. “I think that 20 years ago, when I started, they would have said, ‘Well, I can find things just fine in the refrigerator!'”

Rita’s set takes playful jabs at recognizable habits of both sexes.

“I like to think of myself as an equal-opportunity criticizer,” she said. “Women are just as crazy as men.”

Rita believes that the way women comics joke about themselves and other women have changed throughout recent history.

“Women were more self-deprecating than they are now,” she said, pointing to male domination in the field as a possible cause. She remembers the comedy of funnymen like Rodney Dangerfield, who famously mocked his wife for being “fat.”

Rita’s bits about shoes, makeup and shopping are markedly positive compared to jokes like Dangerfield’s, but they still rely on finding humor in imperfection.

“Comedy is about flaws,” she said. “Nothing is funny that somebody is doing well. So I try to figure out what’s wrong with you, what’s wrong with him [and] what’s wrong with the world and present it in a way that makes people not only laugh but identify with what’s going on.”

A cornerstone of the city’s comedy scene, Rita has performed almost exclusively in Las Vegas since 2001, and she is a standard-bearer for women comics in the city. But when I asked her whether she sees herself as driving the changes she observes in comedy, she said, “I’m not a driver, really.”

“I look and see what’s going on, and I say what I think is funny,” she said.

But unlike some comics — men and women — for whom ‘saying what they think’ means being shocking or crude, Rita is a master of the humor of everyday life.

“I’ve never been somebody who says, ‘I really want to push the envelope here.’ I don’t care about the envelope. I just make people laugh.”

She explained that her comedy “changes along with [her] life,” which has allowed her to make jokes that are relevant without making audiences uncomfortable.

Rita has allowed her private life to dictate the course of her career as well.

She became a comedian at 25, and while she was single, she toured the country. But she settled down a little when she got married, choosing to put her marriage first. Later, after she adopted her daughter Molly, her life as a mother became most important.

“I’ve done it all, but not at the same time,” Rita said. “I feel like I’ve had lots of different lives.”

But having a mother in show biz is the only life Molly knows. Rita’s daughter grew up in Las Vegas, and seeing Mom in ads and on billboards seemed completely normal.

“There was [a billboard] at the airport,” Rita remembered, “and one of her little friends said, ‘I know what your mommy does.’ And the little girl said, ‘Yes. She works at the airport.'”

Partly because Rita’s shows address marriage and family with clean humor, her roles as comedian and mother have intermixed easily.

“In fact,” she said, “I did a benefit for Molly’s school. And everybody came! And nobody got upset!”

Comedy is a lifelong pursuit for Rita. Unlike comics who work primarily on screen, she said, “live performers can generally perform into later years” because they don’t have to fight producers’ requirements of youth and beauty.

Still, she said that maybe because the TV comedy industry is driven by advertisers who want to sell products to men 18 – 39, men in the field can generally perform for 10 – 15 years longer than women.

“Sally Fields once said no one wants a woman in show business after [she’s] 40,” Rita said. “And it’s true! … If they had a woman over 40 on Comedy Central, the world would explode.”

But performing in Las Vegas has allowed Rita to continue making people laugh even after she started finding middle-age funny.

“When you go straight to the public and you have a fan base, it’s different. That’s why I love live performing.”

In addition to doing stand-up, Rita writes for film, radio and the stage, with her husband.

“I don’t foresee ever retiring from comedy as long as I can talk,” she said. “I don’t have to be able to do a backbend and kick my leg over my head. I just have to talk.”

Rita can be a mother, a wife and a lifelong comic partly because she’s her own boss. She called that “one of the things that makes her happiest about [her] life.”

“I used to have a joke about that,” she said. “When I call in sick, I know I’m lying.”

Though it can be challenging for her to write all her own material, she loves the freedom of being able to try out a new joke whenever she likes.

“If I want to leave out something, I do,” she said. “If I want to wear something different, I do.”

The night I met Rita at her show, she was wearing a dress she loved. Before the show she had stepped on it with her heel and torn the fabric. So when she took the stage — just her, her dress and a microphone — she told the audience what had happened.

She made a joke about having to buy a new dress (Oh, what a terrible burden!) and everyone laughed. It was a real, honest laugh — the kind that comes from a place of understanding, not a place of hatred.

That’s classic Rita Rudner: Observant. Truthful. Hilariously simple.

For a woman who stands high in the pantheon of long-beloved Vegas entertainers, she is remarkably down-to-earth.

She has to be.

That’s where all the shoes are.