A very persistent shoosh-ing could be heard throughout an extended portion of Rita Rudner’s final performance at her recent 54 Below engagement. It was unclear who, exactly, this self-appointed guardian of silence was trying to police—but the shoosh-er was certainly far more audible than the shoosh-ee. For a while, Rudner ignored the strange commotion. But finally, with an unperturbed, deadpan sincerity, she quipped: “I’m doing this as quietly as I can.”
Her retort elicited one of the most satisfying rounds of laughter in her show. The response was quick, subtle, and smart. And it was completely endearing.
A familiar presence in stand-up comedy since the 1980s, Rudner got her start in New York City and became widely know through television appearances. But in the past decade-and-a-half, she has performed largely in Las Vegas, where she now resides. If you remember Rudner primarily from TV talk shows, you won’t be surprised by what she does in a club setting. She dresses stylishly. Her posture is elegant. She speaks with impeccable diction—perhaps a little over-precisely, like the gamblers in Guys and Dolls. There’s a tone of innocent surprise in her voice. It’s almost the vacant earnestness of a “dumb blonde” character. Except Rudner has brunette hair—and is anything but dim.
She’s not the sort of comedian that goes for extended comedic raconteur-ship. Her act is a long string of swiftly told jokes with crackling punch lines. It’s about as old-school a style of stand-up as one can get. Not all of her jokes are uproarious, but there are so many good ones that you can overlook the also-rans. Her comedic bits may not be cycled in and out of her act all that regularly. Some of the jokes told in this engagement can also be heard on YouTube excerpts from a half-dozen or more years ago.
“Cutting edge” is not something I imagine Rudner has been labeled very often in her career. In this 54 Below show she talked (a lot) about the differences between men and women. She also discussed TV advertising, elderly parents, plastic surgery and spas. There was little if anything overtly political or ethnically charged in her routine. Nor did she spend time dissing celebrities, in the way, say, Kathy Griffin does. And Rudner’s no prude; she told Viagra and Cialis jokes, and I counted one use of the word “shit” (used as a synonym for “stuff”). But if what she does constitutes “working blue,” it’s the most delicate shade of powder blue there is.
Her rapport with her audience was impressive. She moved around the stage freely, and often extended herself toward particular parties, bowing forward as if politely ejecting herself into their orbit. Early in the show I saw, she picked out one fellow at a front table (“Jerry”) and intermittently turned to him throughout the set, addressing him by name. A trick of the trade? Certainly. But a useful one for letting everyone in the room experience a vicarious intimacy with her.
Her act is so smooth and apparently effortless that it’s easy to imagine her on some sort of high-tech automatic-pilot system. But then something like the “shooshing ” incident crops up to suggest that she’s totally present and engaged at every moment.
As a sort of encore at show’s end, Rudner took audience questions, much as Carol Burnett used to do at the top of her TV variety hour. At the performance I saw, all of the questions she fielded were answered in a way that provoked considerable audience laughter. It occasionally took a little maneuvering, but she got there eventually, every time.
54 Below – August 20, 21, 22
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.