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Just For Laughs: Caroline Rhea: From centaurs to witches

From centaurs to witches

Rhea: Sweet Caroline

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

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  7 comments

  • by Ada Mullett - July 8, 2004, 10:13 pm

    I love the fact that so many of America’s most famous celebs are Canadians… It is like our own little inside joke. [ok they can keep Celine...]

    Well here’s to another one of ours being embraced by the US (even if it was on Hollywood Squares and Sabrina).

    Welcome home Caroline (if this is still home to you) & Congrats.

  • by Carmela Sicurella - July 9, 2004, 9:37 pm

    Besides Bill Shatner, Caroline Rhea is the biggest star in Montreal that made it famous in Hollywood and she has come back home to do a couple of gala’s at the Just For Laughs festival which is the biggest and best festival in the world. There is no doubt that Mrs. Rhea is a comic genius that always lights up the room and most importantly our TV sets. I find that The Caroline Rhea show should have lasted longer but she got the early departure and was unable to live up to Rosie’s hype and popularity. Nevertheless, Caroline is funny and she has the best gala at this years Just For Laughs festival.

  • by Pedro Eggers - July 12, 2004, 5:30 pm

    Caroline Rhea is undoubtably one of the cutest female comics who’s ever made it in big time Hollywood without selling her soul. Actually, she might be the ONLY one…at least from Montreal.

    Frankly, Caroline Rhea has had it rough and my heart goes to her. Ok, so maybe SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH wasn’t a true test of her comedic mettle, and yes, doing HOLLYWOOD SQUARES isn’t exactly torture but following in Rosey O’Donnell’s wake and expecting her to hold up the timeslot and audience based solely on how well liked she was–THAT was just stupid and cruel. She’s Caroline Rhea…not a miracle worker.

    Rhea has never failed to deliver the goods but it’s always seemed as if her ditzy good girl image has gotten in the way of greater success. Her stint on SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH pretty much sealed her fate in this regard. For some people, Rhea will always be “Aunt Hilda”.

    So now, she’s come back the triumphant hero to the Centaur and Just For Laughs. Well, one can only hope she receives the warm welcome she deserves.

    Next to the FAMILY GUY reading, THIS is the other stop that I intend to make. Hey, what can I say, I just like her. She’s got this bubbly cuteness going with a very subtle caustic edge that I just find endearing.

  • by Selena Lobo - July 20, 2004, 10:02 am

    Everytime I read a story about a Candian making it in Hollywood I feel great knowing that we have a chance. Especially a Montrealer who is able to break into the big time.

    Caroline Rhea known as Sabrina the teenage witch’s aunt did the best she could with that role. But even if she did last only one season as Rosie O’Donnell’s replacement, I still think she did a good job. So what if she has the gift of gab, isn’t that what a talkshow host should have?

    She now is now hosting the gala and a comedic one-woman show Hello, Can You Help Me? Her comedic talents are evident and these shows have proved it. Though they many call her America’s sweetheart, I will call her Montreal’s sweetheart. Welcome back.

  • by Carol Wilson - July 23, 2004, 11:24 pm

    As part of the “Just for Laughs Festival” I went to see the Gala hosted by Caroline Rhea. What a talented outstanding performer. I liked her humor a lot.
    The opening act was this acrobatic Italian who was dressed Like Luciano Pavorotti and he lipsang the song”La Donna Nobile” His stunts were amazing.
    Then came Caroline dressed in her Westmont High School uniform cracking jokes after jokes–including the Canadian Hey– Hey.
    I especially liked three of her skits.They were the jokes and skit on GAY with on -screening photos.The skit portraying The Olsen Twins and CNN Caroline reporter— SUPERB.
    My favorite joke was the joke on Martha Steward and George Bush.
    The seven comedians who performed were all quite good, with the exception of Tommy Tiernan,Irish comedian, who received a standing ovation for his jokes on RELIGION.
    There was the skit on Magic,I found, had nothing to do with Just for Laughs but was a pleasant change.
    It was a great evening and Caroline Rhea was OUTSTANDING and she is great in whatever she does.
    Congratulations to all!!

  • by Vicky Parisella - July 25, 2004, 9:24 am

    What a great stand-up comedienne! Caroline Rhea was just perfect as the Host for this Gala Just for Laughs. I enjoyed her personal anecdotes and skits immensely especially her reliving Carol Burnett Show. She even had own BM( Beautiful Men dancers) She also had question and answer period just Like Carol Burnett used to do. FUNNY! Funny!
    Her many skits were hilarious,especially Caroline The CNN reporter. BRAVO Caroline!!
    Many talented comedians performed. Worth noting were Adam Ferrara( jokes on apartment and Girlfriend) and Whoopi’s favorite comedian Earthquake. The one comedian who stole the show was this Irish fellow,Tommy Tiernan with his jokes and Irish accent that the audience stood up with continuous applauses.This Tommy will definitely be a huge success.
    An enjoyable unforgetable fun evening!

  • by Danielle Bernaz - July 31, 2004, 6:45 pm

    I greatly enjoyed the Caroline Rhea gala, but was brought to tears by the opening act, the acrobatic Italian who dressed Like Luciano Pavorotti and lipsang the song”La Donna Nobile” His stunts were indeed amazing, but I cannot find his name anywhere on the Just for Laughs sites. If you know of it, please post it so I may find more on his shows.

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