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Profile : Rita Rudner's Guide to Men and Women : COMEDIAN'S NEW ROUTINE BECOMES AN HBO SPECIAL


Rita Rudner is trying to get her dog Bonkers to play rollover. She isn't having much success.

"Come on, roll over, roll over," she coos to Bonkers, an adorable mass of white fur laying on his back in the living room of Rudner's stylish Beverly Hills home. Instead of doing the trick, Bonkers starts to lick Rudner with great excitement. She finally gives him a big nudge and manually rolls him over.

The mixed-breed canine--a former star of a Las Vegas dog act whose show biz career ended after he was hit by a car--follows Rudner over to the sofa and promptly gives a hand bath to her guest. Content with all the attention, he sprawls for a snooze on the hardwood floor.

Life is more than a little bonkers for Rudner these days. The popular comedian with the soft-spoken delivery has been busying writing new material for her latest HBO comedy special "Rita Rudner: Married Without Children," premiering Saturday. Her 1990 HBO special, the award-winning "Born to Be Mild," has been shown in syndication and is available on video.

Rudner also has just completed filming the independent feature "A Weekend in the Country," which she co-wrote with her British-born husband, Martin Bergman. The two also wrote the 1992 modest hit "Peter's Friends," which Kenneth Branagh directed and in which Rudner plays a self-absorbed Hollywood star.

Their latest collaboration, which Bergman is directing, assembles a stellar cast including Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore, Richard Lewis, Christine Lahti and Betty White.

"I really like doing different things," says Rudner, who seems cool, calm and collected despite her hectic schedule. "I love doing stand-up. I wouldn't give it up."

But she doesn't go out on the road as much these days. "I'm married and I'm not going to leave my husband and he's not going to come on the road with me," explains the Miami native, who began her career as a dancer in the chorus of such Broadway musicals as "Follies" and "Promises, Promises" before turning to comedy in 1980.

"We kind of decided to forge a career together when he came to America--and that's screenwriting. Then I said I will write books because that will keep me in the same place too." (Rudner's written the bestsellers "Naked Beneath My Clothes" and "Rita Rudner's Guide to Men.")

Recently, she returned to the road to write and try out new material for her HBO special. "The only way to write material is to go out on the road," she says. "What it does is, it keeps me isolated so I have nothing to do. I have no one calling me every two minutes. I don't have a car. I don't know where I am. I sit in a hotel with my little notebooks and write material. The only way I know if it's going to be funny is if I test it in front of an audience. If they laugh I leave it in. I have to try it out on an audience who lives anywhere out of the Los Angeles area. Any place that isn't the show-business capital of the world."

These days, Rudner plays theaters as well as Vegas--she's taping "Married Without Children" at the McCallum Theater of the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Springs--but she's also been trying out her routines in intimate clubs.

"You are really so vulnerable when you say something on stage," she says. "I'd rather do it in front of a group of three or five hundred people than 2,000. Also, your confidence builds every night you are out there."

She's titled her special "Married Without Children" because "it's what I am." With her new material, "I kind of ended up focusing on men and women. It's just about men and relationships and the differences in the psyches and why we do what we do."

Rudner wants audiences to relate to her material so she eschews political and topical humor. 'I like [the material] to make sense five years from now. I'm not someone who comments on the world. I'm someone who comments on relationships. If the audience laughs, it's funny. If the audience doesn't laugh, it's not. ... They are like my jury."

She's discovered her brand of unoffensive humor appeals to practically everyone. "The age group I was always missing was, like, from males 18 to 20," she says, laughing. "I don't do beer jokes or party jokes."

Despite her success in various mediums, Rudner's yet to follow in the footsteps of fellow stand-ups and break into the world of TV sitcoms. "I always wanted to do a sitcom," Rudner acknowledges. She got close last year when she did a pilot for CBS, but it didn't get picked up. "My husband and I wrote it. It was really good. I played an advice columnist. It was called 'Ask Rita.' "

But the pilot's failure didn't dampen her spirits. "That's why I love stand-up," Rudner says. "There's only one agenda when you go in. When you start playing with the network, there are so many hidden things you don't know about--who has commitments, who has a hold on a time slot. I'd have loved to have done a sitcom, but I'm not upset because, even more, I wanted to do a little independent movie that my husband would direct. So I couldn't be happier."

Neither could Bonkers, who bounces into action to say goodby.

"HBO Comedy Hour: Rita Rudner: Married Without Children" airs Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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