Just For Laughs bills Caroline Rhea as "Montreal’s most successful comedy export," so why doesn’t she enjoy more name recognition in this town? After all, she was born here, stuck around until her mid-20s, still speaks lovingly about Montreal and often returns home to visit her mother in Westmount.
"Well, you can’t be a prophet in your own city," said Rhea in a recent telephone interview. And it was this feeling, coupled with a dead-end receptionist job at the Centaur Theatre, that prompted the aspiring young comic to leave Montreal for the greener pastures of New York in the late ’80s.
"Even back in those days the feeling was, ‘The boom is over, what are you doing here now?’" Rhea says. But New York City still had plenty of big breaks to offer. At the time, Ray Romano was just a popular club act and lots of other soon-to-be household names were busy dying onstage. "The funny thing was that Adam Sandler and Chris Rock would be the guys that cleared the clubs at the end of the night," says Rhea, "The audiences just didn’t get it."
Flash forward a decade or so and Caroline Rhea’s New York City gamble had definitely paid off. Rhea enjoyed a long run on Hollywood Squares, regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Conan and Leno, her own short-lived daytime talk show and a couple of sitcom gigs, most notably a seven-year run playing Aunt Hilda on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Did Caroline ever get cheesed out by the WB teen drama? "I had this weird depression when I got Sabrina," she says, "But you had to embrace what the show was."
And what about working with a talking cat?
"You got used to that," she says, adding that the strangest thing would be other people’s reactions. "I had a lady come up to me and ask if the cat was real… Honestly, that thing looked like an alcoholic rabbit wearing a hairpiece."
Rhea says that the benefits of doing that show came after the fact. "I look back on those episodes now and all I can think is ‘bad lighting and the wrong thyroid medication,’" says Rhea. "But it’s great to be able to go into a children’s hospital and be Aunt Hilda for the kids."
Then came Rhea’s shot at her own daytime talk show, Caroline, which sought to fill the void left by Rosie O’Donnell’s departure. Lasting only for one season, Rhea says she wasn’t disappointed with the outcome. "If someone had told me it was only going to last for one year, I would have been happy with that. It was almost like wish fulfilment – Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline directly to me, things like that."
Rhea blames bad timeslots and her penchant for talking more than her guests for the show’s downfall. Plus, she adds, it was simply a ton of work. "Letterman was the only one who told me the truth," Rhea adds. "He said, ‘You’ll be tired for every single moment.’"
And now the prodigal daughter returns. Caroline Rhea is hosting a Just For Laughs gala and will star in a comedic one-woman show Hello, Can You Help Me? that deals with her transformation from receptionist to comedy success story. And although Montrealers are more apt to elevate our brash and boozy celebrities like Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright and William Shatner, maybe there is still a place in our hearts for the comedy star Hollywood Squares ironically dubbed "America’s Sweetheart."
Caroline Rhea hosts a Just For Laughs gala at Théâtre St-Denis, July 23