Laughing Matters — Rita Rudner on The Tonight Show

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Earlier this week, I became reacquainted with a longtime favorite comedian when Rita Rudner appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. When Rudner started appearing on television, I was in the prime of my devotion to catching every comedian I could, and she was immediately one of the standouts. A crack joke writer with a smooth, sedate delivery, she was, it seemed to me, an undeniable talent. Her conversation with Maron reminded me that there were plenty of people, for the worst of reasons, who found ways to deny it.

Unlike other stand-up comics of her generation, Rudner didn’t a lucrative jump to sitcoms, but it turns out that wasn’t for lack of trying. She detailed a couple separate attempts, including one featuring three women leads that was stopped at the starting gate by CBS head Les Moonves. That tale of showbiz woe immediately called to mind the recent Hollywood Reporter essay by Linda Bloodworth Thomason in which she recounted the clear glee Moonves took in turning down her various projects, a curious professional choice considering the showrunner was responsible for major comedy hits for the network. The only feasible explanation is the one posited by Bloodworth Thomason: that he had an instinctual contempt for women he couldn’t own, which resulted in choices that turned arguably the most prestigious broadcast network in the country into a monolithic business that boxed out the contributions of female creators.

Yet more bizarrely, Rudner spent years ostracized by the the bookers of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, then the undisputed professional peak for stand-up comics. I assumed I’d seen her on that stage much earlier than I had. Rudner didn’t make her first appearance with Carson until 1988, a full three years after she appeared on a famed HBO Young Comedians Special (which also Louie Anderson, Sam Kinison, and Bob Saget, among others), another HBO special, and countless additional television appearances. According to Rudner, who discussed the long-ago setback with a remarkable lack of lingering bitterness, Carson’s main booker of comics simply didn’t like her. She doesn’t put a name to it, but it was surely more sexism at work.

Adding to the indignity, Rudner was bumped from her scheduled first appearance on The Tonight Show, and not at the end of the program because it was unexpectedly running long. Carson made the announcement during his opening monologue, while Rudner was backstage, with no forewarning of the cancellation. And Carson mispronounced her name.

In the end, it worked out. Rudner returned a few weeks later and Carson, wisely, liked her material. She returned many times over Carson’s remaining few years at the desk. And, the consummate pro, Rudner came up with a splendid opening gag based around the preemption. Rudner broke through, despite the poorly motivated indifference and other impediments put in her way by a broken, unjust system posing as a meritocracy. Others didn’t, for all the wrong reasons, and that’s a lousy shame.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.