What an odd pairing Universal Amphitheatre's management came up with when they linked Rita Rudner and Dennis Miller for dual solo performances Friday night! She fluffs onstage like a cool post-Reagan Loretta Young, an immaculate debutante hostess whose face twinkles with fairy dust. He frets and fulminates in operatic verbal jeremiads, his mike an accusatory cudgel.
Though the range of Rudner's act is considerably less ambitious, it wore a good deal more comfortably. Perhaps owing to her early training as a ballerina, she's always had a view of performance that precedes and differs from a lot of her colleagues, some of whom have confused mordancy with the foul air of sexual and filial complaint.
With Rudner, performance is something you owe an audience. You look your best, you come prepared, you treat them to something more than the aggressive banality of neurotic self-display. If, for the number of years we've been watching her, she's always come across as some kind of overbred, sorbet-cool American princess, her role in the movie "Peter's Friends" (which she co-wrote) showed us how well she understood the misery and terror exacted by a life of keeping up appearances.
In her Friday performance, we were reminded of what a skillful comedy writer she is as well. Her lines are as small and discrete as canapes, and they're true to a feminine character whose reflections on the world principally concern herself ("I'd like to water ski, except I can't separate myself from the image of being dragged by a boat"). Her narcissism combines nicely with the general sense of haplessness most of the rest of us feel much of the time--it's almost plausible, for example, at least in her world, that she has earned enough frequent flier miles to find herself one day upgraded to pilot.
A lot is said about her 70-year-old British in-laws when, at Disneyland, one of them says, "Oh look, there's Mickey. Maybe he knows where we can find a gin-and-tonic," and her notes on marriage are patient concessions to the idea that if men find women mystifying, men are just as peculiar to women, and considerably more ursine (on men in their toilets: "Let's just say they aren't very specific"). And rather than rake her audience with fusillades of one-liners, she weaves and builds. Toward the end of her set, the word "dish" pays off handsomely.
The bearer of true charm keenly anticipates the moment when it will wear thin. Just before your eye glances to the bar, she's made her discreet exit, leaving behind, like a trace of perfume, her smartly calculated impression.
Miller is another story. Where once in the late '80s he had an energizing club act, a simmering blend of moral indignation, pop and political references, and exuberant language, now he seems so bent on hectoring us that half an hour into his act you're squirming in your seat from his relentless body blows.
Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe he's chasing his own laborious verbal riffs instead of lashing them to a few central themes because he's still smarting over the loss of his TV talk show (to which he alluded Friday night) and hasn't gotten himself back into playing shape.
But where does it say that we have to hold the hand of a cashiered thirtysomething man because late in his overinflated career he made the remarkable discovery that the entertainment industry is cutthroat? Ask Red Skelton, whom CBS dumped after 17 years of heroic prime-time service, who remains an icon of the American heartland and the envy of his peers (and is still on the road).
As an observer of the jumble of pop media images that sift into our collective mind, Miller is just about incomparable. He has a gift for the comically telling image. Our post-modern attention span is that of "a ferret on double-espresso," for example. And you know the Clinton honeymoon is really over when the audience jumps to the reference of Hillary as "the good Yoko," and hears "Was that Bill Clinton in a wet suit in Hawaii or was that an ad for 'Free Willy'?"
Too, it's an interesting figure who can malign the people who agree with his politics. Miller is against abortion, but wonders aloud about the pro-lifers who bond with the National Rifle Assn. And it's encouraging to hear him comment on the malign health of our body politic as it becomes more and more inflamed with the festering boils of PC complaint.
So much is tonic about what Miller has to say, about our distractibility, for example, our preoccupation with trivia, even if a lot of his references are themselves trivial, but worked up and troweled on in an overrich, overheated linguistic sauce so that in sum they seem like more than their junky parts. He's still carrying some bad club habits--one of them being the failure to distinguish between the bawdy and the obscene, or between the hip and the snide--and his omnidirectional chase of bits left us whiplashed.
Maybe, after all, he isn't as smart as he lets on. Or maybe his re-entry at this point is still premature. One thing is certain: an audience votes either with its voice or its feet. This one didn't buzz afterward; it shuffled out, berated.