What’s wrong with this picture?
That last posting below reminded me of another shrill, white-haired old lady who used to shout at me all the time. I am referring, of course, to Marie Rudisill, better known as The Fruitcake Lady from the Tonight Show segments of the same name.
For about four years we shot and aired nearly thirty segments of The Fruitcake Lady. Though we started off with so-so ratings, after a few airings it picked up and she became one of the most popular “correspondents” on Leno. I still get a lot of questions about Marie, so I’ll repeat the most common ones and give you the (sometime surprising) answers.
Q: How did you find her?
A: Marie is Truman Capote’s aunt, and helped raise him when he was a little boy and his mother was institutionalized. He lived with her in Manhattan, when she was married to her first husband, a Japanese architect whom Truman disliked (possibly the inspiration for Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi stereotype in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Marie claimed she inspired “Aunt Teeny” from Truman’s famous Christmas Story, and she was given the publishing rights to that work after his death. That character, you recall, made a fruitcake.
Marie wrote a book containing Fruitcake recipes, reminiscences of Truman, and that very story. Jay’s wife Mavis is a big Capote fan, and after she read the book she recommended Marie for a cooking segment on the show.
The cooking segment was a hit. In it, she ordered Jay and Mel Gibson around (he did not call her “sugar tits”) and we approached her to do advice segments. After shooting with Kevin Smith in Orlando and Tampa, we dropped him at the airport and drove to her house, somewhere in a drained swamp on the Gulf Coast, showed her some questions I shot with audience members, and basically grilled her under hot lights for 3 hours. She was 89.
Q: What was she like?
A: There is something about old women from the deep south that seems elegant. The black suit, pearls and measured way of speaking belied a redneck to the core.
Outside her double-wide, a confederate flag flew 24/7. Whenever it rained, her yard would flood and snakes would come into her house. Sometimes the rain was heavy enough to sink many of the broken cars deep into the backyard. There was something living in the old washing machine back there, too.
On our second visit, her pit bull crashed through a closed window and attacked our sound guy. After that, we moved the whole shooting match to the Airport Hyatt in Tampa, and requested the same room each time thereafter to make the lamp and the crock pot in the background match.
But of course, she was very funny. Impatient, mean, and (I hate to speak ill of the dead, but) not the classiest lady to ever swear on TV, but funny.
Q: Were those questions real?
A: Yes and no. We would give the audience members (waiting outside for the show to start) cards and pencils and told them to ask for advice. Then, we would type them up and send them to Marie, and she would have a chance to look them over. A producer would run down the questions over the phone, and since she was too frail to fly, we would go to see her before we flew down to see her
After she shook us down for a new VCR or air conditioner or something, she would get into a limo and meet us in Tampa for the taping. Her limo driver, also 4 feet tall but nearly 300 pounds of crew-cut ambiguity, would carry her to the car like a baby.
We would start with those questions, then go off-topic to try to get a rise out of her. That’s where most of the good stuff came from. As she looked off-camera on TV, she was looking straight at me, so when she called a participant and idiot or an asshole, it was me she was really going after.
I would edit the clips and pick the best ones, then reverse engineer the questions. The day before show time, I would shoot the questions with new audience members in front of the studio on Alameda.
Q: What was it like working with a 93-year-old lady?
A: Not easy. She used to refer to me as the “Cut Man,” because I would cut out all of her favorite answers. However, I’m pretty sure I was doing her a favor, since nobody really wants to hear stories about her pit bull killing baby gators, and if they did, it would destroy the illusion of elegance I was going for.
You see, it doesn’t really matter what it’s like working with her. The whole trick here is THAT she was so old. A 35-year-old man yelling at you, calling you an asshole and an idiot, well that’s just angry. But a 94-year-old woman? She’s spunky! Outspoken!
Children and old people can get away with murder on TV. It’s just a basic rule of entertainment. Kids say the darndest things, and Marie said the goddamnededest things, and it was just funny. I mean, who else could tell a girl to “wash miss puss inside and out” to have a good wedding night? What middle-aged adult could tell a young man to shove a bunch of cookies “straight up your ass?”
I hope that, in shooting and airing these pieces, we have not taken our society down another notch. After all, one thinks of one’s golden years as having a little more class than that. On the other hand, it’s pretty damned funny watching a little old lady bark obscenities, so I guess the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
And as for that picture above? Marie was nearly blind, so we had to wear bright clothing so she could make us out behind the camera. After her banana and an sip of Ensure, she she would often answer the questions with her eyes closed. So I would take the video into After Effects and paste open eyes on her face.
The results were hilarious.
Click here to see a sample Fruitcake Lady segment.