LA Film Festival Sat 6.15.2013

LA FILM FEST 2013: The Education of Maya Rudolph

Maya Rudolph: The Serious Business of Being Funny

By Pamela Ezell / LA Film Fest Guest Blogger

From Madeline Kahn to Jan Hooks, Gene Wilder to Bill Murray, Airplane! to Beverly Hills Cop, Mel Brooks to John Hughes, Maya Rudolph named the women, men and movies that inspired her comedy and her career. “Anything you appreciate, you’ve downloaded,” she said during her 90-minute conversation with critic and curator of Film Independent at LACMA, Elvis Mitchell. “It’s all in there somewhere.”

Growing up in Westwood, where there were 16 first-run movie theaters — as Mitchell pointed out — Rudolph said she saw any movie that came to town. “There was no such thing as a market for kids’ movies,” she added. “Comedies weren’t meant for eight year olds, and I saw these things.”

She first saw these movies in what she called “the juicy” theaters of Westwood, but remembers Blazing Saddles “might have been the first VCR tape we owned.” That movie “was the big one for me – the whole experience of Mel Brooks and falling in love with Mel Brooks’ movies.”

Rudolph’s Early Influences

Rudolph and Mitchell were as comfortable as two old friends talking about their favorite films. Their first clip of the night was from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, written, directed and starring Gene Wilder, a man Rudolph called “a fantastic actor,” and “a passionate man,” whom she liked so much she said, “I thought that man would be my husband. His hair. His eye make up. I love when he gets cross.”

In the “Kangaroo Hop” scene Rudolph selected, Kahn and Wilder give performances that veer from the verge of tears to broad physical comedy. “You see these amazing performances,” said Rudolph. “Hopefully, this is part of the thing you steal – it’s in your DNA.”

Another early influence was Steve Martin – the Steve Martin of The Jerk and The Muppet Movie. “My Steve Martin is the 1970s Steve Martin,” she said. “I was a kid, I really didn’t know Saturday Night Live.”

After screening a clip from the comedy classic Airplane! — a movie she says she’s seen 200 times — Rudolph indulged the audience by actually performing Barbara Billingsley’s scene. “This is probably my most quoted scene,” she said. “It might go on my tombstone.”

Eight months pregnant, Rudolph shared some anecdotes about her own family, including the comedy bond she still shares with her father, who took her to see many of the films she loves. But she pointed out, “There was no such thing as political correctness in these movies. They’re racist, misogynistic, homophobic.”

“The people in the room are the ones you want to make laugh – the crew – not the television audience.”

Advice From Her Other Husband

Bill Murray is the man Rudolph called “my other husband. I could watch him for hours. He’s that guy.” The Bill Murray clip Rudolph selected was from Tootsie, when Murray walks in on Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy fighting off a suitor, and ends the scene with, “You slut.”

“Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Sydney Pollack — I loved everything about Tootsie,” she said.

Though Rudolph has never worked with Murray, she has met him: “He picked me up and slung me over his shoulder like a fresh kill. We had a great conversation. We drank some scotch he had in a little bag and we talked about working at that place.”

Mitchell asked about Murray’s advice to her. “He said when you’re on the floor and you’re rehearsing, the people in the room are the ones you want to make laugh – the crew – not the television audience.” “Was he right?” Mitchell asked. “Absolutely,” she answered.

The Rules of Improv & Other Advice

Rudolph talked about the rules of improv – saying yes, working together and adding information. She also talked about working as an actor who’s equally comfortable in comedy and drama. “I thought that’s what acting was. But if you do anything other than comedy, people think you’re really taking a big step. The niche thing wasn’t entirely there.”

“I was expecting more sketch-like comedy,” Mitchell said, “but everything you mentioned are these fully-formed performances.”

“Let’s not forget,” Rudolph said, “one of the major reasons I fell in love with Blazing Saddles is the farting.”

Paul Rubens and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure were also major influences on Rudolph, but it was Jan Hooks’ performance in the movie as a tour guide at the Alamo that caused Rudolph to think subconsciously, “I want to do that.” Rudolph compared it to “seeing people playing and thinking, I want to play, too.”

What’s the secret to Rudolph’s comic genius? “Enjoy what you’re doing. Keep it close. Like trying to make a good friend laugh.”