Indulgent grandparents and well-fed friends aren’t the most demanding audience, but when Melissa Rauch picked up the microphone at her bat mitzvah party, she was ready nonetheless — she’d been working on her comedy routine for a while.
“I did a tight 10 [minutes] for everyone in between dinner and dessert because this was a captive audience,” Rauch says over Zoom.
An executive producer of the newly revamped “Night Court” — which she refers to as a “new boot” rather than a reboot — Rauch also plays Judge Abby Stone, the daughter of the US show’s original Judge Harold J. Stone.
As a child, Rauch was a huge fan of the original NBC sitcom, which ran from 1984 to 1992. She spoke about her love of the show at a panel for the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles this past winter.
“I remember being a kid, growing up in New Jersey and finding out that ‘Night Court’ was not filmed in New York, going on a trip with my parents and saying, ‘Where is ‘Night Court’? I want to see ‘Night Court,’ and finding out that these guys are all the way in LA,” she said.
In an interview for The Times of Israel, Rauch reflects on how from her last series — the beloved “The Big Bang Theory,” which ended four years ago — to her new show, all of her comedy stems from her Judaism.
“I think so much about family dinners, often around Jewish holidays,” Rauch says. “Celebrating Passover with my family is one of my favorites. Those dinners were just filled with laughter. And that’s where I really fell in love with the idea of making people laugh because it was doing imitations of my mother. That became such a driving force of, oh, you can create happiness for other people. And there’s something addictive about that.”
And that imitation of her mom? It became her signature characteristic on “The Big Bang Theory.” As Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, Rauch sounded like she was ingesting helium while amped up on speed. She did that impersonation at her bat mitzvah party and it killed.
That was in her home state of New Jersey, which Rauch still seriously pines for, even while living it up in sunny LA. In fact, Rauch jokes, she’s so Jersey that she’s just “one bottle of hair dye from turning into Snooki.”
From New Jersey, Rauch went to Marymount Manhattan College, which has a demanding theater program. There, she started doing stand-up, although her love of the form began earlier.
“It started when I was six because I became obsessed with ‘Star Search’ and watching people do celebrity impressions,” Rauch recalls. “I loved watching ‘Comic Relief.’ Any time I watched stand-up, I was just so intrigued by it. I remember one night, I was watching ‘Three’s Company’ with my parents, and I imitated Don Knotts. My dad started laughing and I got to delay my bedtime.”
So early on, she realized she could use comedy to her advantage and would trot out her impersonations. Rauch would look for open mics to try them, and no venue was too small.
“To the chagrin of the teachers in my conservatory program, I went and did stand up every night, wherever I could, and a lot in the back of laundromats or really truly wherever I could get stage time,” she says. “And it was just such a wonderful training ground. I did it all through college and all during my time in New York, really. And then I ended up touring, doing stand-up at colleges.”
Until she landed on “The Big Bang Theory,” Rauch did stand-up, including a whole act around Jenna Bush.
“I wanted to write a one-woman show when I graduated from college, really as a vehicle for myself because I wasn’t getting hired other than performing some little plays,” Rauch says. “So, my husband [Winston Rauch], who’s my writing partner, we started writing a one-woman show for me about looking for your first job and trying to find your place in the world, and then we saw Jenna speaking at the Republican convention.
“I realized I was really at the same point in my life as she was,” Rauch continues. “And then we realized, if we combined it with a story about Jenna and her finding her place in the world, and we set it before the night of her first date, her first day as a teacher, and she’s trying to get her life together. And then through that, we, of course, explored the Bush presidency through her eyes. And we did that at the New York Fringe Festival.”
That act was Rauch’s ticket to LA. She and Winston sold a pilot based on the idea to CBS, but, like most pilots, it was not made.
Rauch continues to write and act; her husband is an executive producer on “Night Court.” The series finds the actress playing an aggressively sunny character. Abby Stone’s optimism is intentionally at odds with her surroundings, Manhattan’s night court system, where the felonious and the weird mix just as they did in the original.
“It’s New York City, and the New York City of the ’80s is not the New York City of today,” executive producer Dan Rubin said at the Television Critics Association panel. “I live in New York. I love New York. It’s a weird place sometimes. There are weird things that people get up to, and at night, they only get stranger… Anything can happen in that courtroom, and we certainly have fun with that.”
“People forget that night court is a real place in lower Manhattan that Reinhold Weege based the series on,” Winston Rauch added. “It’s now in Lonely Planet tour guides as a place that people can actually be entertained, as a venue to see some kind of live entertainment, because people know that it’s an ever-changing cast of characters and, like Melissa said, an organic story generator. And that’s why we felt like we really had to do the series because there’s just a million more stories left to tell.”
Rauch’s Abby has some demons — namely a drinking problem in her past and regrets about those years. That background makes her more sympathetic to those who stand before her bench.
“She’s an eternal optimist,” Rauch says of her character. “But I don’t think it’s rooted in naivete or a Pollyanna view of the world. I think she’s been through her fair share of struggles and grief, and so her optimism is really rooted in the fact that she’s seen the darkness, and she’s actively choosing the light because the darkness just isn’t an alternative for her anymore.”
With the first season now done, NBC has ordered 13 episodes for the second season, which Rauch explains “will resume filming after the [writers’] strike.”
Usually, network shows have a hiatus in the spring until mid-summer, when scripted shows resume production, but Rauch was not planning on working much this summer with the Writers Guild of America on strike and a potential strike looming for actors. The directors guild reached a tentative agreement with studios on June 4.
“I’m really looking forward to doing work for my pediatric cancer charity, Oscar’s Kids,” Rauch says. “And to spending time with our two kids. In as much shade as humanly possible, as I basically burst into flames in the sun.”
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