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.

Laughing Matters — The Kids in the Hall, “Into the Doors”

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.

“Greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls!”

I’m fairly certain I’ve visited the sister shop of this particular business establishment.

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

Laughing Matters — Jake Johannsen, in 1989

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.

As much as I’m always keen to share the comedic efforts that provide sharp commentary on the world, exposing the absurdities of the human condition as only punchlines can, I’m maybe most impressed by those stand-ups who effectively ply their craft with material unconnected to the news of the day and the outrage of the moment. There’s something classic about a routine crafted with sharp observations of the mundane and artfully precise language to describe those brainstorms. I appreciate a comedian who understands that properly using the word “fracas” is going to heighten the humor all by itself.

Much as I’m ready to celebrate edgy and transformative comics, I think there’s no one working in the field today who makes me laugh more heartily and more dependably than Jake Johannsen. And that’s been the case for a very, very long time now, since he started making his first late night national television appearances in the late nineteen-eighties. It’s no surprise to me that at least one of those, shot in 1989, still holds up now. Freed of topical references or anything else that locks it to a specific calendar year, he could take a stage today and deliver this same routine with only the slightest of changes. In the very best way, this is timeless comedy.

Laughing Matters — Funny or Die, “Non-Voters Anonymous”

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.

If the flaming disaster that is the current U.S. federal government serves as a catalyst to get previously apathetic citizens to vote, it still won’t have been worth it. But at least something good would have come out of the ascendance of one of the worst humans the country has to offer to the highest post in the land despite finishing second place when all the votes were tallied.

Laughing Matters — Late Night with Seth Meyers, “Amber Ruffin Remakes Art Created by Problematic Men”

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.

One of the things I most admire about Seth Meyers is the way he’s taken his slice of network programming that crossed in the a.m. hours and generously extended so much time to let his gifted writing staff have fabulous showcases for material that clearly reflects their own sensibilities. This isn’t entirely innovative. It was a related instinct that brought the nation Chris Elliott’s various lunatic bits when David Letterman held down Late Night. Meyers, though, has a stronger egalitarian streak, which in turns leads to the astute realization that he isn’t always the best person to address certain social ills. At times, he acknowledges this little fact head on.

Among the comedic murderer’s row Meyers has assembled, Amber Ruffin is the Babe Ruth. I’ve thought that for a while, but my theory hardened to certainty when I watched her recent segment offering pointed, perfect commentary on the question of what to do with the cultural offerings created by rotten men. And Ruffin gets extra credit for the extra kick delivered to House of Cards.

Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Common Knowledge”

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.

common knowledge

Saturday Night Live long ago crossed over into the status of institution, which cemented all of the longtime criticisms leveled against it and simultaneously made them beside the point. I’m not sure how often anyone still bothers to drag out the well-worn lament about the writers’ lazy tendency to default to game show and talk show parodies. It’s probably a little less now since one of the best, most pointed recurring sketches current running falls into that category.

And then there’s simply the pesky detail that sometimes the familiar format of a game show, in particular, provides the best entryway to truly inspired comedic commentary. I believe that’s the case with “Common Knowledge,” easily one of my favorite sketches in the program’s multi-decade history. Practically any other conceivable method of mining the same sad truth about U.S. culture for laughs would be sure to end up didactic and mean-spirited. Instead, “Common Knowledge” makes its points with sly deftness, helped by the patience that holds back its motivating premise until almost two full minutes in, giving it a touch of happy puzzlement.

Usually, I’d embed the sketch here, but NBC video doesn’t like to play that way, so I’ll opt for a hyperlink instead.

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

Laughing Matters — The Ben Stiller Show, “Tom Cruise: Dress Casual”

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.

This production looks like a better and better idea with each passing year.