It's almost impossible for Rita Rudner to answer a question without turning it into a punch line. Ask her if she's excited about doing her stand-up act at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Thursday, and it feels like a warm-up for her show.
"It's a beautiful playhouse. And it's a beautiful street for shopping right outside the playhouse, and I had a very expensive lobster sandwich for dinner. I said 'How much?' Those lobsters have very high opinions of themselves."
Jokes come so naturally to Rudner, 59, that it's hard to believe she originally started her career as a dancer. But in the 25 years since she got her big break with a "Tonight Show" appearance, Rudner has been a stand-up favorite, as well as a successful novelist ("Tickled Pink") and screenwriter (she penned the 1992 screenplay "Peter's Friends" with her husband, Martin Bergman).
Rudner spoke by phone from her home in California with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo about her career, her athletic skills and her unusual recipe for spaghetti.
It happens so organically that I keep adding new things, and I don't really keep track of them, which drives my husband crazy. I just write words here and there, and then write the joke around it. I have lots of things that I've noticed that I talk about. And I have a new dress.
I know the dresses are very important in your act.
Yes, and because it's for travel, it has to be wrinkle-free and sparkly. It is a shiny, black-and-white sparkly thing that has ruching. That's my new fashion word.
You're not a nasty comic. I love that your humor is about you, and it's gentle.
And it's about life and observations. I don't want to push the envelope, I don't want to make people unhappy. I'm a people-pleaser.
And you've never worked blue. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
It's uncomfortable for me, it's uncomfortable for the audience. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I want to set a good example. She's been to a lot of my shows, and I did a benefit for her school. I'd hate for all of the parents to see me do an act that would make them take away money.
I felt there weren't a lot of female comedians, and there were too many female dancers. I only knew of three female comedians -- Phyllis Diller, Elayne Boosler and Joan Rivers. So I said, I can only name three, so that was what spurred me to do it. And then after I started doing it, I thought, ooh this is very interesting, I love it. And I still love it. I love writing a new joke, I love finding a new way to make people laugh.
Were you heckled a lot when you started?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I wasn't ever aggressive, so people aren't very comfortable heckling a comedian who isn't aggressive. The audience would stand up for me and say "Shut up, she's talking." And I never learned any comeback heckle lines. My first response to a heckler was "I'm very inexperienced. Can you come back and heckle me when I've been doing this a bit longer."
How are you and your husband as collaborators?
I love collaborating with him. I do my stand-up and my essay books by myself, but everything else, I collaborate with him -- screenplays, novels; we just wrote a radio show in England . . . and our daughter, we collaborate on her.
You spend a lot of time taking care of your family. Do you cook a lot?
I love to cook. I have a whole bit in my act about how I'm a bad cook because it's never funny if you do something well. I used to make things up from stuff I had in the cupboard, and one of them was spaghetti with Gummi Bears. I didn't put any Parmesan cheese on it. Now, I'm good; I watch the Food Channel. My husband asked me if there's an antidote channel.
How are you as a golfer and a tennis player?
In tennis, I'm not good enough to wear a headband, and in golf I'm getting better. The other day, I got a birdie -- and a ducky and a fishy.
WHO Rita Rudner
WHEN | WHERE 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main St.
INFO $80-$100; 631-288-1500, whbpac.org