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Not ‘Tonight’ Tonight, Rita, Johnny Said Without Warning,

Two weeks ago today, comedian Rita Rudner was supposed to make her first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” But she never stepped before the camera, as her evening unfolded into something not only disappointing but slightly surreal.

Fellow comic Richard Lewis (who shares the screen with Rudner in a film opening this month called “The Wrong Guys,”) might have called it “a ‘Tonight Show’ debut from hell.”

Rudner, who opens a five-night stand tonight at the Irvine Improv, is an experienced club headliner who has been on “Late Night With David Letterman” 11 times in the last four years. Given all those spots, not to mention the quality of her act--tightly written observational material delivered in a poised, understated manner--one might have expected her to have joined Johnny a year or three ago.

Rudner herself was puzzled at the delay but elated when she landed the Jan. 20 booking. “When I saw in the TV Guide ‘The Tonight Show with comedian Rita Rudner,’ it was like ‘Ahh--I can’t believe it after all this time,’ ” she recalled during a recent interview at her publicist’s office in Hollywood. “It was such a major thing for me.”

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She showed up at the appointed time and was standing in the green room waiting to go on, listening to Carson’s monologue--when suddenly she heard him announce that she wouldn’t be on the show after all.

“I was standing there all dressed, all made-up and heard him say ‘My apologies.’ And I said ‘ What ?’.

Because talk shows often run overtime with certain segments, it’s commonplace for comics to get bumped from a lineup. “But,” Rudner pointed out, “they never get bumped at the beginning.”

The spokesman for “The Tonight Show” was not available for comment about the incident.

But Rudner has a typically gracious theory, that the reason she was bumped had to do with Johnny’s other guests that night: She was to have appeared between Barry Manilow (who rarely does TV and who had brought his whole stage set-up, including orchestra and singers) and Howard Cosell (on a day that happened to fall right after the Jimmy the Greek incident). So maybe, she speculated, Carson had just known there wouldn’t be time for her.

OK. But things quickly slid from disappointing to disturbing as Johnny mispronounced Rudner’s name on-camera (ROODner, instead of the correct RUDner) while apologizing to her.

“Yeah, that was interesting,” she acknowledged with a crooked smile. “For that second, it was like"--she pinched herself--" 'Wait a second. Am I awake?’ It was like a dream that wasn’t going well.”

She remained upbeat as she discussed all this, even asking at one point: “I sound like Pollyanna, don’t I?” But then, everything else she’s been involved with, and is about to be involved with, points to a career that’s starting to click.

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She was recently co-host for “Friday Night Videos” with Jerry Seinfeld (who held back and played straight man). She starred--along with Judy Tenuta, Paula Poundstone and Ellen DeGeneres--in last summer’s HBO special “Women of the Night.” She popped up for a week on CBS’s “Morning Program.”

She even appeared on that bastion of pap culture “Hollywood Squares” where, acknowledging that her profile is still low, she recalled: “I think people were a little reluctant to call on me. . . . (The contestants) would say ‘I’ll go with the one who isn’t Rita Rudner.’ ”

She will be seen in three movies this year. In addition to her small role as Richard Lewis’ dental assistant in “The Wrong Guys,” which opens Feb. 26, she will show up in “That’s Adequate” and in “Gleaming the Cube,” a thriller that was partly shot in Orange County.

And her Carson debut has been rescheduled for next Feb. 10.

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Not bad. Her decision to leave a successful career as a Broadway dancer to go into stand-up is starting to look like a pretty smart move. Rudner, 32, openly admits that the switch wasn’t motivated by artistic concerns. “It was,” she said, “strictly a business decision.

“I was singing, dancing and acting, and the competition was phenomenal--especially on Broadway. There are literally a thousand girls for every one part. The odds are just awful.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t doing well. I mean, I got parts on Broadway and was working steadily. (She appeared in such productions as ‘Promises, Promises’ and ‘Annie.’) But I didn’t want to keep competing like that. I said, ‘There aren’t too many female comedians, so if I can do that, I could learn to write and be more independent--and the competition wouldn’t be so horrendous.’

“When I got into it, I didn’t know I would love it, and I didn’t know I had a talent for it. If either one of two those things hadn’t happened, I’d probably still be on Broadway. But I loved it, and people seemed to be laughing.”

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Right away?

“Well, (at first) they weren’t laughing at anything I was writing. They were laughing in between (the jokes). They were laughing at this girl in a nightclub, trying to be funny.” Getting the crowd to laugh for the right reason “became an incredible challenge. That’s all I really wanted to do.”

After half a dozen years or so, she’s getting it down. She takes the stage, invariably dressed to kill (so to speak), plants herself in front of the mike and, as if sharing a secret, proceeds to softly string together observations and confessions:

--One thing I can never do is ask for money back after I’ve loaned it to a friend. The most I can do, when I’m over at their homes, is break something of approximate value.

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--It seems every fitness book you read these days says consult your doctor first. But I kind of think my doctor has people coming in with more serious problems. I don’t think I should call him and say ‘This is Rita. I’m thinking of bending at the waist.’

While delivering such lines, she doesn’t move or punctuate them physically--curious, she concedes, for someone who used to be a dancer. “I tried,” she said, “but it’s just not me at all. My jokes are so structured, most of them, that there’s no walking space. I don’t want to walk on the set-up, and I don’t want to walk on the punch line.”

More recently, though, she’s been trying to open up her jokes, to continue following the path of Woody Allen--a chief influence--who steered his stand-up toward longer anecdotal material and vignettes. “Yeah, I’m always trying to get a story going, because I write very tight,” she said. “And I want to get some more emotion in the whole thing.”

But don’t expect Rita Rudner to become a counterpart to Bob Goldthwait or Sam Kinison. “I really love to be funny. It’s my favorite thing. But quiet funny.”

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Rita Rudner will appear at the Improvisation Comedy Club & Restaurant, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine, through Sunday. Show times: 8 p.m. today and Thursday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $6-8. Information: (714) 854-5455.


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