Rose Marie has been famous for so long that “Wait for Your Laugh,” a charming documentary about her nine decades as a performer, doubles as a history of 20th-century show business, focusing on vaudeville, early radio comedy, the birth of Las Vegas and the evolution of the female sitcom star.
Now 94, Rose Marie, who proudly asserts that she went by her first name before any other celebrity, started singing for crowds at the age of 3, pairing an adorable child’s face with the brassy belt of a grizzled diva. That distinctive voice would later become a terrific vehicle for punch lines.
After gaining fame onstage, where she sang a duet with Evelyn Nesbit (the chorus girl whose husband killed the architect Stanford White, setting off a media circus), she moved to radio, film and most notably television.
There she co-starred as a wisecracking comedy writer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and later for many years on “Hollywood Squares.” In between the successes of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Rose Marie, this movie argues, was one of the most important female comic voices in America.
Carl Reiner and Van Dyke provide colorful personal testimony about working with her — as Sally Rogers, “The Dick Van Dyke Show’s” joke-cracking, gum-snapping lone female comedy writer on Alan Brady’s (Reiner) staff, Rose Marie could nail a punchline with the best of them.
Dan Harmon, the creator of “Community,” displays an insightful critic’s eye — but the heart of this movie is Rose Marie talking you through her own life with the same attention to pleasing the audience as she shows onstage.
Her steely good cheer is good company as she relates taut, action-packed stories about run-ins with Al Capone and Jimmy Durante with a minimum of introspection.
Jason Wise’s documentary, which relies on re-enactments and backstage footage with sparing use of performances, is a love letter to the performer but not the business, in which she managed to achieve a measure of fame for nine decades, while still being overlooked.
Her single-minded focus on work is presented as admirable but also something of a curse.
As in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” this is a movie about a star never at peace unless she’s performing.
Although the”Wait for Your Laugh,” narrated by longtime “Hollywood Squares” host Peter Marshall and featuring candid commentary from Van Dyke, Reiner and Rose Marie’s daughter, Georgiana Guy Rodrigues, has a weakness for gimmicky black-and-white reenactments, Wise’s enthusiasm proves undeniably infectious.
Now using a wheelchair but in possession of a razor-sharp memory and an active Twitter account, the 94-year-old woman of honor may have forged a brassy reputation for being one of the boys, but, as handily demonstrated here, Rose Marie remains one of a kind.