Saturday, November 17, 2001

You won’t hear comic Rita Rudner telling jokes about the Taliban anytime soon. The comedian with a cotton-candy voice, who is a mainstay on the stand-up and late-night talk-show circuits, leaves political humor at home when she hits the stage.

“I talk about human relationships. It’s jarring for me to say, all of a sudden, ‘Osama bin Laden,’” Miss Rudner says from her home in Las Vegas. “George Carlin should [talk about it, though].”

That leaves the former Broadway hoofer with plenty of material to fuel her stand-up act, screenplays and literary efforts. She just released a comic novel, her first, appropriately dubbed “Tickled Pink.”

Miss Rudner, who will appear Monday in a sold-out show at the D.C. Improv on Connecticut Avenue NW, says stand-up comedy “is not for the faint of determination.”

“You have to go in there and do it every night and never stop,” she says.

The much-traveled comic doesn’t get around much these days. She recently signed an exclusive agreement to headline at New York New York Hotel and Casino’s 425-seat Cabaret Theatre in Las Vegas. For her modest book-promotion and stand-up tour, she is making an exception.

“I love living there,” she says of her steady gig, her speaking voice slightly less precious than the onstage version. “I get to try new jokes and develop things.

“You’re never done,” she says of a comedian’s creative process. “The constant thing to me is to make it more organic.”

Miss Rudner used to entertain with her feet, performing in a string of Broadway shows until it dawned on her what a short life span such dancers enjoy.

She bade the dance world goodbye and turned her attention to comedy.

“All of sudden, I got involved in comedy, and I got this passion for it, which was dormant,” she says. “It was like I was addicted. When I get a joke that works, it’s like a drug.”

The beginning steps in her new career were far from glamorous.

When she could not find an audience to entertain, “I sat in clubs until 2 a.m. telling jokes to the waitresses cleaning up,” she says.

“Never give up. Find your own voice. Your excuses are your own,” she says.

Miss Rudner’s comedy work soon expanded into film and literary realms. Her film work includes the screenplay for 1992’s “Peter’s Friends,” starring Emma Thompson, and “A Weekend in the Country,” with Jack Lemmon.

Her previous books, “Naked Beneath My Clothes” and “Rita Rudner’s Guide to Men,” followed the tradition of stand-up comic material translated into prose.

“Tickled Pink” finds her plumbing the depths of her comedy career in the fictional realm.

“I wanted to write about something I knew about for my first novel,” she says of the book, a comic valentine to a pair of mismatched friends. “The world of stand-up comedy seems to be interesting to people.”

For that reason, a portion of her show will be a question-and-answer session.

For “Pink,” she weaves her experiences on the road with a healthy dollop of imagination.

“It’s not fiction or nonfiction, it’s faction.” she says. “It was quite a challenge. I’m always eager to see what isn’t there. It’s always the harder road.”

She credits ghostwriter and longtime spouse Martin Bergman for helping shape the text. Mr. Bergman is an established British comedy writer and former president of Beyond the Fringe, a comedy troupe that launched the careers of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, among others.

The duo, married in 1989, collaborate on every project, save Miss Rudner’s comedy routines.

“I never tell him a joke. He says, ‘I’m your husband; don’t tell me jokes,’” she says.

The comic says she never considered adding any four-letter words to her act.

“That’s natural,” Miss Rudner says of her powder-fresh comic tone. “Should I try swearing? It’s not right. It’s not me. You gotta go with what feels right.”

She already is planning for her second novel, a less autobiographical yarn to be set in Las Vegas.

One reason Miss Rudner has survived the unforgiving world of stand-up comedy is that underneath her pristine exterior lies a thick skin.

The comedian says she has “my critics as well as my fans,” who decry how she avoids topical material in her routines. “‘Rita doesn’t tackle the hard issues in life,’ they say. I tackle what I think is important,” she says.

“I didn’t make fun of Clinton, Bush or chads. Everyone does that,” says Miss Rudner, who will sign copies of her book after the performance.

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