George Burns once said "never let the truth get in the way of a good story." To me the story of American comedy is kosher. Were you to make a list of the funniest people ever, chances are that 90 percent of them would be Jewish.
In fact, observational comedy, meaning "I was at the store and this lady . . ." is a Jewish-American invention. George Jessel's invention to be exact, who began doing observational comedy in vaudeville before WWI. His contemporaries were Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor and Lou Holtz. Milton Berle, notorious for joke stealing, once said about Holtz, "I laughed so hard I dropped my pen."
Ten years later it was Jack Benny, Burns, then guys like Berle, Sid Caesar, and eventually Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers. Of course I'm leaving out about a hundred comedy legends, but they were all pals and every one of them was given pointers and a big break or two by a comic that was a generation or two older.
Like all those comedy legends, Rita Rudner's rise to comedy stardom is not much different. Rudner is one of the most widely respected comics working today, and not unlike "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice, she started as a dancer at the age of 15. She eventually found herself cast in such legendary Broadway productions as Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" and "Mack and Mabel" by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman.
I spoke with Rudner recently and asked her how she made the transition from dancer to comic.
"I've had two separate careers. I really was just a dancer; I would sing and maybe have a line or two, but when I see what Broadway dancers have to do now, they look tired! I'm thankful I get to stand in one place and not sweat all night," she joked.
"My humor is quiet, so I looked at other comics that have that quality. My inspirations were Jack Benny and Woody Allen. I listened to all their recordings over and over and began to develop a style."
Like every comic before her, Rudner came up through the ranks. Before getting gigs at comedy clubs, she would perform at piano bars and restaurants that had occasional comedy nights. I asked if there were any comics that helped her along the way.
"Rodney Dangerfield. He came up to me one night and said, 'It takes a long time in this business and you may never make it.' Great, what a nice thing to hear. Then he offered me a spot on his young comedians TV special and I thought, what a nice ending to that comment. George Burns was also a help. He had me on his 90th birthday special."
I asked her about Johnny Carson and the power of how one appearance on that show could change a comic's life over night.
"There are 500 channels now, so it's not the same. There were only three networks at the time and everyone watched Carson."
Did she get the famous wave over after her set?
"Oh yeah, I used to talk to him all the time when I appeared on the show."
Many of Rudner's contemporaries cashed in with big sitcoms in the late '80s and '90s. I asked her why she chooses to remain a true comic.
"Everything has to go right for a sitcom to work. I did some sitcoms, but you need the right executives and the right time slot. I took a different route, my husband and I moved to Las Vegas and now I have my own theater. I just love doing stand up."
Over the past decade, Rudner has sold more than 1 million tickets, and she recently received a Gracie Allen Award for her exemplary contributions in media. This weekend will be Rudner's third Maui appearance.
"I love Maui, even though it turns my hair to Brillo. I think that is a good sign that you really love a place, when you stop caring about how your hair looks."
I asked if she hoped to make Maui an annual tradition. "Absolutely, anytime my family and I can get here we will," she said.
Rudner has even created her own Hawaiian word, "mahuka."
I asked her what it means, "I have no idea, whatever you want it to. I just say it to everyone, it's my own aloha."
I couldn't help but recall an old bit from Jack Benny's show. Life-long friends, Benny, Mary Livingston, George Burns, and Gracie Allen were frequent Hawaii visitors. While vacationing Benny was presented with a "Jewish lei" made from chicken livers, followed by one of his classic facial expressions. I think that Benny face is what I want mahuka to mean.
* Rita Rudner returns to the MACC's McCoy Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $35 and $65, plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, by calling 242-7469 or visiting www.mauiarts.org.
Gabriel Iglesias returns to the Castle Theater tonight with Aloha Fluffy 2012. Iglesias has been described as unbelievably witty, electrifying and a talented performer who consistently delivers a hilarious comedy experience. General admission is $41, plus applicable fees. To purchase tickets visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or order online at mauiarts.org.
Get ready for A Kit Kat Club Christmas Cabaret at Fleetwood's on Front St. with Jolly Old St. Mick. Join Mick Fleetwood and the fun and flirty entertainers of the Kit Kat Club for "naughty or nice" holiday shenanigans with two shows per night. Sit back, relax and let your personal butler bring you exquisite cocktails and scrumptious food, all while watching sugar plum princesses, candy cane sweethearts, North Pole cuties, and sultry Miss Santas.
Enjoy a cocktail reception with passed dinner pupus to begin the evening, then theater seating for the cabaret show. Reserved seating is available for parties of six or more. Doors, food and cocktails begin at 6 p.m., show at 7 p.m.
The late-night show happens on Fleetwood's open-air rooftop with food and cocktails at 8:30 p.m., show 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $99 per person and include fresh ahi sliders, shrimp lollipops, filet mignon skewers, poke on house made won tons and chocolate truffles, plus one complementary glass of wine, beer or specialty holiday cocktail. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Maui Food Bank. Performances are Saturday and Dec. 20. To purchase tickets for either show or for more information, call the Fleetwood's on Front. St. box office at 669-MICK (6425).
KMA Productions and Bud Light present A Comedy Story on Dec. 21 at the Maui Beach Hotel. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Ring in the holidays with Hawaii's top comics, including Andy Bumatai, Paul Ogata, and Jose Dynamite, hosted by Maui's Chino La Forge. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door and may be purchased through the Maui Beach Hotel. For reservations, call 877-0051.