Melissa Rauch
After the Big Bang, NJ’s sparkly star returns to TV
By Jayne Jacova Feld


Melissa Rauch’s debut comedy act took place on an unlikely stage. The actress, who would later shine in “The Big Bang Theory,” and spearhead and star in NBC’s current revival of “Night Court,” learned in first grade about a beauty pageant taking place just a short drive from her New Jersey hometown.

Not quite grasping the concept of the Cinderella Pageant, she begged her parents to let her compete.

“I wasn’t the kind of kid who should have been doing beauty pageants by any means,” says Rauch, whose spot-on impressions of celebrities were by then a strategic move to delay bedtime. “I had no front teeth and was very awkward. But it said right on the flier that there would be a talent competition. My parents said if I saved up half the money, I could enter.”

In her young imagination, Rauch pictured “Star Search,” the TV show that helped launch so many entertainers in the ’80s and ’90s. But the local Cinderella contest was nothing like that. Lined up among the dolled-up and poised contestants, Rauch stood out. 

“It was a little bit weird,” she says. “I was this 6- or 7-year-old with zero teeth getting up there and doing impressions while everyone else was doing tap dances or something very cute and girly.”

Not being crowned the belle of the ball didn’t hold Rauch back from showcasing her talent. Far from it. “The judges were very kind and laughed at my act,” Rauch says. “And that laughter just fueled me, so that encouraged me to keep doing impressions for show and tell, talent shows and things like that.”

A moment of reckoning came when she committed to comedy as her bat mitzvah party theme. “That was a very important decision at 13,” says Rauch, 43, a Marlboro native. “Every table featured a different comedian. And I had a captive audience to do stand-up comedy to varying degrees of laughter.”

 “I was a very shy kid,” she adds. “And this was my way of expressing myself where it felt safe – even though I was for the most part hiding anytime I wasn’t on stage.”

Embracing the idea that the world was now her stage, Rauch headed to Marymount Manhattan College after high school to pursue an acting career. It was there she met Winston Beigel, who would become both her life partner and collaborator in writing. Following successes like “The Miss Education of Jenna Bush,” a one-woman off-off Broadway comedy sketch that earned Rauch critical acclaim for her portrayal of the former President’s daughter in 2005, the duo decided to take their talents to Los Angeles.

But she never forgot where she came from. New Jersey and its influence are always on her mind, especially when it comes to her strong work ethic.

“There’s a kind of hustle you get from Jersey that I feel is a part of me and I’m really grateful for,” she says. “There’s always this push that keeps me moving forward.”

That hustle kept Rauch going through the many lean years. And it paid off spectacularly in 2009 with a breakthrough that came with a bang – quite literally. Although her role as Bernadette Rostenkowski on the CBS megahit “The Big Bang Theory” was initially meant to be a brief guest appearance in the third season, Bernadette not only charmed astronaut Howard Wolowitz, she quickly became a beloved character in her own right, earning a nod for the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2013. 

Rauch credits Bernadette’s distinctive, high-pitched voice to a spur-of-the-moment decision to stand out in auditions by channeling her mother’s voice – but to do so in a way that dialed down the New Jersey accent.

“I wasn’t even expecting to do it,” she says. “But I had just gotten off the phone with my mom, who I talk to a million times each day, and her voice was in my head.”

The subtle tweak in accent, combined with the higher helium-like pitch, came close to being a failed science experiment. Somehow her pronunciation of the word “about” sounded distinctly Canadian. Instead, it caught the attention and curiosity of Big Bang’s Executive Producer Chuck Lorre. 

“I think he asked ‘Are you from Canada? Why did you just say ‘about?’’’ she says. It was only later, after securing her place on the show, that she fessed up to Lorre about the accidental melding of Jersey and Canadian. 

“It’s not just the inflection,” Rauch adds. “Some of Bernadette’s mannerisms were deeply influenced by my mom’s Jerseyness. And even though I’ve lived in LA for years now, New Jersey is still in my heart and in my blood. You definitely can’t take the Jersey out of the girl.”

And that, it turns out, serves her well as both an executive producer and star of the reboot of “Night Court,” the beloved classic sitcom that dives back into the funny and sometimes weird world of criminal arraignment in the city that never sleeps.

“Even though we are filming in sunny California, we’re all super mindful of the energy,” she says. “The original version did such a wonderful job capturing the New York grit.”

Now in its second season, the reboot features a largely new cast of quirky characters with some nostalgic nods to the old show, including a reprisal of the theme song used for the original opening credits as well as the use of a live audience. A big score is having actor John Larroquette back as snarky Dan Fielding. Once the notorious prosecutor known for his womanizing ways, Dan rebooted is now the public defender. The passage of time and personal losses, including the loss of his wife, have mellowed his once prominent playboy tendencies and win-at-all-cost ways.

Rauch steps into the role of Judge Abby Stone, daughter of the original series Judge Harry Stone, adding a layer of nostalgia. Much like her father, Abby is portrayed as an unwavering optimist with a deep belief in the goodness of people. 

The backdrop remains unchanged, with the night court serving as a magnet for a wide variety of eccentric characters facing arraignment in the wee hours. And Night Court: 2.0 also upholds the legacy of guest appearances, delivering unforgettable moments in its debut season with former Olympic figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski appearing as themselves, along with actor/comedian Pete Holmes portraying Abby’s fiancé, Rand, among others. The second season has welcomed “The Big Bang Theory” alum Kunal Nayyar as Abby’s fleeting love interest and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself in the Christmas special premiere, plus actress Jessica St. Clair playing the role of Abby’s childhood friend. Additionally, Marsha Warfield, known for her portrayal of Roz Russell, the salty, no-nonsense bailiff, continues to come around in the reboot.  

Still to come, Kate Micucci, another “The Big Bang Theory” alum (she played Lucy, a love interest of Raj) will be in an upcoming episode, Rauch adds.

“Something that was really important when we were crafting this version was staying true to the DNA of the original Night Court by having this super broad and almost vaudevillian humor, while also having emotional moments of heart that will surprise you,” she says. “It’s something that the sitcoms of the late ’80s and early ’90s did really well and our writers are doing a wonderful job capturing this.”

Regarding the show’s second-generation Judge Stone, the goal was to add complexity to her character through a backstory of alcoholism and recovery, she says.

“With Abby coming in as a turtle optimist relentless in her desire to see the best in people, it had to be rooted in something rather than just this character who’s like Pollyanna about the world without any reason behind it,” she says. “She’s seen the dark and is actively choosing the light on a daily basis. Even though it’s not something we touch on every episode, it’s something that drives her. She wants people to see the best in themselves as a way of reminding herself of that.”

Initially, Rauch envisioned her contribution to Night Court as strictly off-camera, working alongside her executive producer husband to breathe new life into the beloved show of her youth. She says she didn’t even consider the possibility of playing Abby until Larroquette was on board and asked if she was stepping into that role. 

Then the possibility began to resonate with her, especially after talking it over with Beigel. “My husband actually said, ‘If you were sent this script, this would be something you would be jumping all over,’” she says. 

“There’s a lesson in that,” she says. “It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to get to work with John and on the set that I loved so much growing up. I’m very glad I’m not kicking myself now.”  

March 2024
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