Adrianne Tolsch, Pioneering Stand-Up Comic, Dies at 78

Courtesy Bill Scheft
Adrianne Tolsch

The wife of former 'Late Show With David Letterman' writer Bill Scheft, she headlined clubs around the world and was the first female emcee at the famed Catch a Rising Star.

Comedienne Adrianne Tolsch, an influential regular on the New York stand-up scene and the wife of longtime Late Show With David Letterman writer Bill Scheft, has died. She was 78.

Tolsch died early Wednesday morning of esophageal cancer at home in their Manhattan apartment, Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter.

Scheft said that on Tuesday, about 40 friends came to visit Tolsch, including Letterman and his wife Regina and Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer. "She made a connection with everyone," he said. She also joked that Scheft had to just love the fact that the reclusive Letterman "had to come to you!"

Scheft called the day "so life-affirming, so joyous."

A native of Brooklyn, Tolsch was a regular at the legendary comedy proving ground Catch a Rising Star in the late 1970s and then became the New York club's first regular female emcee. She managed the place for years, booking shows and serving as a mentor to young comics, male and female.

Tolsch went on to serve as the opening act for Jay Leno, The Pointer Sisters, Bobby Vinton, Chita Rivera, Pat Cooper, Billy Crystal and others before headlining virtually every major comedy club in the U.S. At the time, she was the rare female comedy opening act.

 

Tolsch and Scheft first met at Catch a Rising Star when he was a stand-up and he auditioned for her on Dec. 29, 1980, he recalled. She kept rejecting him, and he didn't land a regular gig there until his sixth audition for her many months later (he eventually succeeded Bill Maher as the emcee). They married in 1990.

An only child, Tolsch grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and then attended Erasmus High School and (starting at age 15) Brooklyn College. She waitressed at the comedy club Pips in Sheepshead Bay and did improv with the comedy troupe The Original Cast.

During an early improv appearance at the club The Bitter End, legendary comic Totie Fields was in the audience and yelled out, "What a funny little girl!" during her show. That remark brought the 5-foot-3 Tolsch a great deal of encouragement and inspired her to go out on her own.

"The first time I ever got a standing ovation, you could have taken me right to comic heaven," Tolsch said in Phil Berger's 2000 book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics. "It was such an affirmation. It's attention, love; it's everything but food and rent."

Tolsch was honored with cabaret awards in 2004 and 2006 for her one-woman shows "Trucks, Guns and Mayonnaise" and "None of Your Damn Business," respectively. She appeared on Broadway in the 1992 comedy revue 3 From Brooklyn at the Helen Hayes Theatre and co-hosted a weekly syndicated radio show, The Better Sex.

Most recently, she and Scheft were executive producers on the documentary Take My Nose … Please: Women, Comedy and Plastic Surgery, now making the rounds at film festivals.

Scheft worked alongside Letterman on his NBC/CBS late-night shows from 1991 until the host retired in May 2015, collecting 16 Emmy nominations along the way. He also has written for the Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Tonys and the ESPYs and for such TV shows as The Larry Sanders Show and Politically Incorrect.

A nephew of legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, Scheft wrote an entertaining humor column for Sports Illustrated, and his novels include The Ringer, Time Won't Let Me and Shrink Thyself.

"I could never get enough of people being jealous of our marriage," Scheft said.