Friday night during the Los Angeles Film Festival, the talented (and 8 months pregnant) Maya Rudolph sat down with LACMA curator and host of KCRW’s The Treatment, Elvis Mitchel, to discuss “the serious business of being funny.” From her days at SNL to her early days watching movies with her dad (composer Richard Rudolph) in Westwood, Rudolph shared some of her favorite comedic moments from various films and how various comedians influenced and advised her throughout her career.
Read on for ten tips and antidotes from Rudolph on the art of being funny, her memories growing up in comedy, what kind of comedians she is attracted to, and who gave her the best advice of her career.
1. Rudolph thought Steve Martin was a regular SNL cast member. Before Rudolph joined the cast, she thought Martin was a regular on the show because he hosted so many times. She expected Martin’s character from The Jerk when she finally met him on set and was terrified to be in sketch with him because he was very serious about it.
Rudolph found herself reliving Martin’s brilliant comedic performance in The Muppet Movie while watching it with her daughter and said while she loved the physical comedy he does in that scene, and is certainly a physical comedian in her own right, that was never something she actively or consciously thought she could do or wanted to emulate.
2. The only comedian Rudolph aspired to be like was Madeline Kahn. Rudolph explained that while she wold appreciate other comedians performances, like Martin, she never thought of herself in that realm. She found herself looking up to Kahn as the kind of comedian she would want to be like – one who could also act, sing, and dance, all while seeming incredibly glamourous. Rudolph advised that it is good to absorb various influences because you hope it eventually becomes a part of your own comedic DNA.
3. Rudolph thought she was going to marry Gene Wilder. Rudolph had a major crush on Wilder while growing up and loved how he would get “beautifully angry” in his performances. Wilder is certainly a genius at the craft, but Rudolph found herself attracted to his confidence and ability to command a performance while never alienating his fellow actors. Wilder has the amazing ability to turn on a dime from funny to serious and Rudolph commented that acting is acting and finds it funny when she does a serious role and people focus on that. In her mind, she is just “doing her job,” whether that mean acting in a comedy or a drama.
4. Good comedy gives you moments you want to relive over and over. Rudolph said one of the greatest things about watching comedies with her dad while growing up was how certain lines have now become a part of the way the speak to one another. A simple question will prompt them to answer with a line from one of their favorite movies, creating that magical, inside joke feeling.
In the days when only a few people had VCRs, Rudolph and her friends found themselves watching movies like Airplane! over and over. One of Rudolph’s “parlor tricks” was to performing the jive talking scene for her friends, something she did for the audience and assuredly made everyone jealous they did not grow up hanging out with someone as naturally hilarious Rudolph.
5. Sometimes a good comedic performance is all about casting. Rudolph noted John Hughes‘ casting of Michael Anthony Hall in Sixteen Candles because he looked like he had just stepped out of a Polo ad, but his performance as “The Geek” was “perfect.” Rudolph and Mitchel noted the way Hughes would use music to play people in, like “New York, New York” in the martini scene with Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), made his films almost seem more like various sketches laced together than a standard narrative.
6. Rudolph performed in a stage rendition of Sixteen Candles. Back in New York, Rudolph and some friends decided to try performing Sixteen Candles on stage. And by “some friends” I mean Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and Tina Fey playing the grandparents, Paul Rudd as Long Duk Dong, and Rachel Dratch as the other grandmother with the ashy cigarette. The group knew how important the music was in a Hughes film and had a live band on stage with them to do the songs, including Rudd singing “I Think I’m Turning Japanese.” Rudolph noted there was no such thing as “politically correct comedy” during that time and Mitchel noted Hughes even started his own record label to try and help him avoid dealing with the licensing process of putting music in his films.
7. Rudolph also thought she was going to marry Bill Murray. Murray is one of her favorite comedians to this day because he is “just smooth” and just has fun when he is acting, always making his performance about the other people on stage with him, never keeping the focus on himself. While Murray never hosted SNL while she was a cast member, when she did finally run into him, he swung her over his shoulder like she was “fresh kill.” This moment led to the two of them sitting down and having a great conversation together over some scotch which Murray naturally had on him. (Because he’s Bill Murray.)
8. Murray gave Rudolph the best advice of her career. Rudolph said during this conversation, Murray gave her the best advice of her career telling her that when she was blocking a scene on the set of SNL to try and make the crew laugh because that was her room. Once she shifted her focus from trying to play to the live audience, or even the audience at home, and just had fun in that moment on stage making her “homies” laugh, it became more like bantering with ones friends than performing to a large audience.
9. The scene that made Rudolph think, “I wanna play!” The scene at the Alamo from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure with Jan Hooks as the tour guide was a performance Rudolph said she “absorbed subconsciously.” While she thought it was funny when she watched the movie, it was one of those moments stuck with her much later and made her realize she not only thought the performance was hilarious, she wanted in on the fun.
10. Own what you do. Rudolph is clearly attracted to confident performers like Wilder, Murray, and Dom DeLuise because they owned their brand of comedy. This did not mean they had to be the focal point of every scene they were in, it meant they were confident in what they were doing which allowed them to play off and with the other actors on stage with them. Rudolph noted that in the 1980s comedies started becoming more about a singular actor driving the show, like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, but even in that movie there were brilliant moments like Murphy riffing with Bronson Pinchot where the pure joy and fun the two actors were having jumped off the scene and made those scenes so funny and engaging.
A comedian can say a funny line or make a hilarious face, but Rudolph found the real comedy in those that could bring everyone into the moment to create something hilarious. Born from an improv background and growing up on a set like SNL, it is no surprise Rudolph admires confident performers and appreciates comedians who understand the concept of always adding to another’s performance, responding with, “Yes, and…” to keep the comedy (and the fun) going.