How a Feminist Comedian Invented The Daily Show | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky How a Feminist Comedian Invented The Daily Show
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares crazy origin stories of Forever Plaid, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, and Broadway’s Funny Girl.
Concert_for_America_2017_Lizz Winstead in Concert for America, photo by Jenny Anderson_HR.jpg
Lizz Winstead Jenny Anderson

I am on a plane to L.A. as I type this because this Saturday I’ll be at the Segerstrom Center in Orange County, California hosting “Hamiltunes” which is like a giant Hamilton singalong. (Tickets and info here.)

But before I left, I recorded Seth Speaks for SiriusXM. My first guest was Stuart Ross who wrote and directed Forever Plaid and is bringing it back April 5–7 for a BC/EFA benefit at the Westbank Café’s Laurie Beechman Room (tickets here). That was one of the first gigs I got after college and, man, is it a great show! James Raitt, who sadly passed away from AIDS in his early 40s, was the original music director and arranger (and pianist). He took a chance on me and I wound up playing that show for years Off-Broadway, as well setting the companies in Vancouver, Las Vegas, Cleveland, and Toronto. There’s so much comedy in the script and the musical arrangements are really brilliant.

(l-r) Kevin Vortmann, Adam Halpin, Chris Crouch and J.D. Daw in <i>Forever Plaid</i>.
(l-r) Kevin Vortmann, Adam Halpin, Chris Crouch and J.D. Daw in Forever Plaid. Photo by Paul Lyden

As for the origin of the show, Stuart said that he lived in Manhattan Plaza in the late ’80s and was experimenting with doing a show that featured old-school harmony like The Four Lads. Lewis Black was in charge of bookings for what is now “The Laurie Beechman Room” at the West Bank Cafe and he needed a last-minute replacement for a show one night. He had heard the singing coming from Stuart’s apartment and asked him if the guys would perform that night. The vocal arrangements were pretty rudimentary and after hearing them from the audience, James Raitt approached Stuart and said “I think you need me” to help with the arrangements. They teamed up and the show went through many incarnations but finally opened in the early ’90s and became one of the longest running Off-Broadway musicals and went on to productions all over the world.

Of course, I love mishaps so I will share some of my favorites: In the song “Matilda,” the Plaids run into the audience for some light audience participation. A fun straw hat is put on someone for the duration of the song and taken it off when it’s over. Well, in the Toronto company, after the song was done, one of the actors not only took off the hat from the female audience member, he also took off her wig. It literally led to a lawsuit!

Here’s another: Near the end of the show, the Plaids get a package delivered. They go backstage, have some dialogue where they’re flipping out over what was just delivered and when they reappear, they’ve suddenly wearing stunning plaid jackets instead of their white dinner jackets. They enter, one by one, proudly modeling it. During the next song, there’s choreography where they open the side of the jacket, see their name embroidered and give each other the thumbs up.

Well, the jackets aren’t really in the package delivered, they’re hanging backstage and are put on quickly right before the number. One night, the plaids went backstage…and there were no jackets! The dresser forgot to put them in the dressing room. What could they do? Nothing. They had to reenter wearing the same white dinner jackets they’d been wearing for the whole show. But the staging all remained the same! So, the audience saw them take a package excitedly backstage, heard them going crazy over the amazing delivery…then saw them re-enter looking exactly the same. And the staging for their re-entry is the kind that begs applause. But no one in the audience knew why they were being prompted to applaud. Because there were people on the stage? It was that basic? Then, the song began and the Plaids kept their choreography. Meaning at one point, they all opened the sides of the jackets, looked down at the area where there should be an embroidered name but what was, in fact, simply inside-of-a-jacket fabric…then indicated the area and gave each other a thumbs up. For what!? The audience left the show aurally satisfied and completely miffed.

Now here is my friend Paul Castree and me recreating some of his hilarious mishaps!

I also had Lizz Winstead on Seth Speaks who is about to do a show in New York for the first time in years! She’ll be at The Cutting Room on April 17. I asked her about her beginning in comedy and she told us that the people who ran the clubs where she did stand-up asked her to not talk about female things. They thought her material should be broad. So, she wound up doing relatively hack-like jokes like “Did you ever notice that when bald guys play Monopoly, they always choose the hat?” or “Did you ever notice that Great Danes walking down the street should wear underwear?” They worked for her but she suddenly noticed that they stopped working. She couldn’t understand why. She taped her show and realized that she had changed “Did you ever notice…” to “I think…”. She felt that the audience did not like a woman having an opinion. She then decided that if she was going to get no laughs for having an opinion, she’d rather it be for something she really believed instead of the light jokes she was doing. So, her act became much more real and political. She then wound up co-creating The Daily Show, but was always frustrated that they would call out something bad that was happening without a recourse to correct it. People would laugh, be outraged…and that would be it. Now, she has her own non-profit organization so when she makes jokes about reproductive freedom and people laugh/are outraged, she can then direct them to where they can help:!

I also had Kevin Winkler on Seth Speaks, who just wrote Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical.


He had so many Fosse stories I didn’t know. Turns out, at one point, Fosse was brought in to develop and direct Funny Girl. He wound up leaving but he told the powers-that-be that they could keep the stuff he developed. One of his ideas was to turn a trio in the middle of Act 1 into a solo. What was the trio, you ask? “People”! The song featured a love triangle that was eventually cut. It was between Fanny Brice, her new love Nicky Arnstein and Eddie Ryan, her sidekick who was in love with her. Who knew?

Speaking of trios, I was doing a show with Christine Ebersole at the Parker Playhouse last Saturday and we were talking about one of her first Broadway gigs: being an understudy in I Love My Wife. I asked the audience if they knew who took over for the male leads, never expecting an answer. Suddenly someone called out the correct answer: “The Smothers Brothers!” I was so impressed. Then, because I knew even more trivia, I asked if anyone knew who understudied both Smothers Brothers. The same voice called out “The Andrews Sisters.” Brava!!! (P.S. The answer I was actually looking for was Walter Bobbie!).

Back to “People”: I have to mention the Funny Girl concert I did for the Actors Fund in 2002. Audra was supposed to sing “People” and wound up having another gig on the same night. I first thought of Carolee Carmello but then realized she’d sound perfect on the 11 o’clock number. (Watch!)

Then I remembered Andrew Lippa’s phone call where he told me I should use Julia Murney for the concert. I casually asked her to come over to my apartment to sing a few songs but my casualness was actually me trying to figure out if she had the high and the low notes (“A feeling deep in your soul…”) to sing “People.” Boy, did she! I told her she was going to do the concert and she brought the house down! Watch!

P.S. Julia noted on Twitter that both she and Carolee were in the same dress…just different colors!

March for Our Lives
March for Our Lives

And finally, because I was in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, I was able to go to the March For Our Lives in Parkland, Florida, which began at the high school where the horrific shooting actually happened. It was extremely moving and uplifting to be with so many people trying to make a positive change. In the car to the airport, James and I were talking about the Broadway For Orlando recording we did after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Then, because we were so tired, we decided to put on the dance remix to pep ourselves up! Here is the dance video that was made with Debra Messing, Chita Rivera, Sean Hayes, Charles Busch, B.D. Wong, and so many more people. If you buy the original or the dance remixes, the money still goes to the Orlando victims as well as to the Trevor Project. Download it here.

Peace out!

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