ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Surviving Concert Chaos and Dishing with Debra Jo Rupp

By Seth Rudetsky
18 Nov 2013

Seth with Debra Jo Rupp
Photo by Maryann Lopinto
We then all piled out (she felt much better!) did a sound check, George got there before the show and the whole thing was great! One of the highlights was Emily Skinner doing her amazing Mae West song "Come Up and See Me Sometime," which you can watch here when she did it on my SiriusXM show). Afterwards, I hauled out the Mae West joke Kevin Chamberlin told me a few years right after he did Dirty Blonde. This shows how quick Mae West was: One day Mae was walking thru a casino in Las Vegas and a guy yelled out, "Hey, Mae! I'll lay ya ten to one!" She turned around, fluffed her hair and said, Mae West-style, "It's an odd time... but I'll be there."

On Thursday, I had Debra Jo Rupp at "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," and she was such a great guest. I had never met her before but I thought she was hilarious the first time I saw her on "Seinfeld" as his assistant who wants to make sure he "doesn't freak out." Her story was very inspirational to me. She moved to New York in the 70's and got a job as a bookkeeper to satisfy her mother who made her promise to never wait tables. However, she always took acting classes and went to auditions. I asked her how she was able to go to an audition in the middle of the day while holding down a full-time job and she said she made a lot of trips to (she added very heavy air quotes) "the bank." But, I asked, I'm sure she went to open calls which take a really long time... how did she pull that off? "Boy," she said with frustration, "the lines at the bank today were so long!"

She kept auditioning for theatre and not getting anything... for years. And I mean years. From college graduation to well past her 30th birthday! I asked how she persevered and she told me that it was because of the classes she took. Every time a teacher or student would make a positive comment about her acting, it would give her hope for a few months. Finally, there was a play called A Girl's Guide to Chaos written by Cynthia Heimel for Teri Garr that was about to have a workshop, but Teri wasn't available. Debra Jo's acting teacher was the director so he told the playwright that he had a great woman to do the workshop. Debra performed the role, and when Teri saw it she told the playwright she couldn't do what Debra Jo did... so Debra Jo got the New York production! That was her first big break... at age 36! She then did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway... keeping her bookkeeping job, just in case.

Finally, she did what most 40-year-old actresses do. She went to Los Angeles. Seriously. At the age when most women are drummed out of TV and film, Debra Jo decided that she should try to break in. Turns out, her instincts were right. She got a string of roles (most notably Phoebe's [Lisa Kudrow] younger brother's wife on "Friends." Then she was offered an audition for a TV sitcom called Teenaged Wasteland. She turned it down. Three times. When they asked again, she finally went for it. Her agent told her that the studio specifically asked that she "be funny." She was like, "It's a sitcom! What has everyone else been doing?" She auditioned as the Mom and did her version of how she thought today's moms were. Then she found out the show took place in the '70's! They loved her because, apparently, her idea of a modern mother was 30 years in the past!