Monday, August 18, 2008

Funny Things In Vegas- Rita and Roseanne

Two women have billboards touting their command for comedy on the Las Vegas Strip. Both have decades of experience. Both have television, film, and writing credits that anyone would envy. Yet, both are filling rooms for entirely different reasons, and entirely different shows. It isn't likely that anyone will confuse Roseanne Barr's take on menopause, celibacy, and divorce the same way the petite counterpart, Rita Rudner explores marriage, motherhood, and shopping. Fans for one don't often appear in audiences for the other. And both are paving the way for women comedians throughout the world because of this.

Rudner started her career dancing on Broadway, not entering a comedy club until she was 25 years old. Her sing-song delivery hearkens to the comedy acts of the early 50's and 60's, with an undercurrent of clean material, surprised innocence, and a profound grasp for timing. When she arrived in Las Vegas, signing a deal with New York, New York, the room echoed the sounds of the roller coaster soaring through the building just over the stage. It wasn't the best location, but it was a constant flow of a demographic of people in their fifties and older, who remember her appearances on the Tonight Show, Comic Relief, and specials.

She enrolled her daughter in school, spent time working on designs for her sky-rise condo, and continued working on projects and scripts with peers that included Steve Martin, a bevy of Brits. The diminutive woman, who doesn't really seem to be a Vegas performer in any sense of the word, proved herself as a wise business woman. She became the star in a city where the men of the business have overwhelmed stages and women seemed relegated to huge hats and bikinis, poles, or lounges. Her show did well, despite the small room and noise, and continued to do well there until Harrah's offered her the opportunity to take over the room vacated by singer Clint Holmes.

It was in this central part of the Strip that George Wallace became a staple just a year before her move. The Comedy Festival moved into Ceasers, just across the street. Local staple, Vinnie Favorito hosted his own show, and that location seemed ready for a feminine touch. In a theater reminiscent of the Brat Pack days, she fills houses with busloads of tourists, who are ready to laugh with her on her verbal journey. Rita Rudner became a gentle Duchess of Humor, holding court nightly.

A little less than a year ago, Roseanne found herself in some local rooms, testing the casino crowds for her brand of Domestic Godess, brash, and bold humor. Taking apart the health care system, The White House, or talking about her utter disillusionment with sexuality, she is able to carry a crowd ably. Unlike the elegant appearance of her contemporary just a few blocks away, Barr settled in The Sahara, a showcase of Nascar, just a bus stop from Trump Tower. Being on a bus line has been great for business.

Her blue collar patter endears her to the tourists who have followed her marriages via gossip magazines, and her television show, which lasted longer than most of those unions. She is the grandma at the end of the bar, whereas Rita is the lady at the end of the dining table. When Roseanne enters a room, people don't wonder if she's a a size zero or a two. They wonder if she is going to be manic depressive, or bitchy, or even nosy. Barr always seems to give a better show each night. You can hear her writing, and hear her crafting the act that brought her to the public in the first place. She may bring a notepad up on stage, and ramble inchorently as she determines which scribble will play best to the people visiting from Walla-Walla.

Although Moms Mabely and Phyllis Diller each held court in Sin City, neither had a long-running show. Rudner and Barr may be here for years to come. Casinos once shied away from putting women on their marquees, except for songstresses, and the change has also changed the manner in which women are now hired by venues. Comedy clubs which once said, "we already had a woman in here this month", are now putting us in the line-ups every show. With Last Comic Standing doing their taping here, far more of us are getting recognized for the ability to make people laugh, gender-be-damned. We are now getting put on the bill with OTHER women- almost unheard of still in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.

Without doubt, Roseanne and Rita have opened doors for comedy writers, and stand-up performers in Vegas, and throughout the world. We aren't always considered as male bashers, and menstrually obsessed. Whether we follow the choreographed steps of Rudner, or the clog shuffling stomp of Barr, we are definitely on the path they helped pave- in casino gold.

Cathe Jones is the author of "I'm Just As Screwed Up as You Are- the Anti-Dr. Phil book", and "Godless Grief". She was a regular at Los Angeles Second City, the Comedy Store, and currently is a Short Bus Comic, while her husband, jazz pianist Mike Jones, opens and is musical director for the Penn & Teller show.

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