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Funny Things Happen on the Way to the Improv

Comedy: Once a dancer, Rita Rudner now mainly writes for film. But she still plies her elegant and witty observations about women and relationships.


Rita Rudner can offer no real reason she gave up a stage career and did an about-face into stand-up comedy in the early '80s.

"I was in therapy, and I forgot to ask, so I'll never know," she said, laughing during a recent phone conversation from her home in Beverly Hills.

"I was dancing for 10 years on Broadway, and one day I said I wanted to try comedy. I was single-minded about that. I know it's weird. I had a passion for it. You don't become a dancer because you're verbal. I loved being a dancer, and I love being a comedian, but it's totally different. It's two different parts of your brain. Maybe I have a third part and will learn to cook."

To make the switch, the once seriously shy Florida native--who is at the Improv in Irvine tonight through Sunday--worked hard, studying humor, reading book after book, analyzing videos of Bob Newhart, Woody Allen and Milton Berle and critiquing fellow performers.

"I just kind of did who I am and magnified it a little," said Rudner, whose act revolves around a quiet, literate but biting elegance. "It was never a conscious thing. You have to be true to who you are, otherwise the audience will know.

"What I've kind of become known for is jokes about relationships and idiosyncrasies men and women have. That's pretty much what they'll get in Irvine. My favorite type of joke is when men nudge women or when women nudge men and say, 'You do that,' . . . when I hit some kind of human truth. I talked once about my feet being cold in bed, and women started writing to me: 'My feet are like that too. Why are they so cold?' That's true."

Rudner only does about six weeks of stand-up a year these days, but--because she creates, nourishes and fine-tunes her material in live settings--those dates, and her fans, are important to her.

"I really like to do clubs and talk to the audiences. That's fun. I need the interaction, so when I get on stage, I always have something new. I like trying out new material in small clubs because it's more intimate. At theaters, all they do is stare at you."

Rudner, who won the 1990 American Comedy Award for best female stand-up, is spending more time these days working on movies. She has been coming up with ideas and writing scripts for about seven years now with her husband, producer-director Martin Bergman. Their latest effort, "A Weekend in the Country," was voted the audience favorite at the Newport Beach International Film Festival in March; it premiered on the USA Network last month.

Their breakthrough work was "Peter's Friends," a sort of British "Big Chill" that became the top grossing independent movie in England in 1992, edging out "The Crying Game" and "Howards End."

"We learned a lot," Rudner said of "Peter's Friends," in which she starred with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. "It was hard work, but it was fulfilling. We were in a cold house all day, and everyone had a company cold."

For "A Weekend in the Country," the couple corralled Jack Lemmon, Christine Lahti, Dudley Moore and Richard Lewis. Rudner and Bergman just sold a script to Universal Pictures and have another in the works. Also in the works: a possible television series.

"I'd love to do something on TV, but you have very little control," Rudner said. Still, "We've gotten a lot of interest. Hopefully we'll do something in a year."

Rudner and Bergman, who maintained separate careers after their marriage in 1988, started getting into films because they had grown weary of their long-distance relationship. "We wanted to find a profession we could do together. . . . We had enough frequent-flier mileage. This works out well."

Much of their time now is spent working on their forte: small romantic ensemble comedies. "We were talking the other day and thought of doing something different, but I just started thinking jokes," Rudner said. "I don't think I'd write a good movie about Vietnam. I just don't know enough about that."

* Rita Rudner opens tonight at 8:30 at the Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Continues Friday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 and 10:30 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m. $15-$20. (714) 854-5455.



Rita Rudner on:

* Automatic lawn sprinklers: "As close as I can figure, they're triggered by rain."

* The effects of vegetarianism: "I kept leaning toward the sunlight."

* Romance: "I don't like the word 'relation-ship.' I'd like a sturdier word, like 'relation-tractor.' "

* Pregnancy: "Life is tough enough without having someone kick you from the inside."

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