Combustible Celluloid

BRUCE VILANCH: They Call Him Bruce

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Until now, Bruce Vilanch was the best-kept secret in Hollywood. The release of the new documentary "Get Bruce" will surely catapult this curly teddy-bear gag-writer into the limelight. Bruce is best known for writing and appearing on the new "Hollywood Squares" and for writing the last several Oscar telecasts. He's provided material for Bette Midler for years, and wrote for Elizabeth Taylor's birthday bash fundraiser. We even see him in the film supplying Steven Seagal with some gags for an event. In fact, he provides "more great lines than a Hollywood coke dealer," Nathan Lane tells us.

Directed by Andrew Kuehn, "Get Bruce" tends to focus on Bruce's more established clients, Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams, who all appear in the movie to sing Vilanch's praises. Sadly, this scant 72-minute documentary spends more time on these celebs than on Bruce himself, and we really don't get to know him. By the end of the movie, you'll know his face, but you won't know his soul. Happily, "Get Bruce" does deliver the laughs, especially when Robin Williams riffs on an alternate version of "The X-Files".

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet with Vilanch to talk about his new movie. (He was wearing a t-shirt covered by the face of the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz".) Coincidentally, Bruce's new website launched just today, although he hadn't seen it yet. Bruce provided me with some funny and insightful sound bites that make a nice companion to the movie.

On "Get Bruce":
"This is the only movie of the year that does not have Janeane Garofalo. She's in every movie. She's like Michael Caine now."

On his job:
"I do what I do because I like hearing the material done. I like hearing it performed. If I didn't, I'd probably be a novelist and live in a cave. You can write an original screenplay that's really really wonderful and six people read it--ever. But whether we like it or not, next year there will be a Grammy awards, and somebody will come out and say, 'good evening... my name is...' and he'll have to be funny. So at least if I can get in there and write that, I will hear my material being performed. It's better than most."

What's Bruce Vilanch's routine like?
"You hear the refrigerator door opening and closing a lot."

On writing for the Oscars:
"When the nominations came out last year, and I saw that there were two women nominated for playing Queen Elizabeth, I told Whoopi, 'what a perfect chance for you to come out dressed as Queen Elizabeth. What a great joke to have you in whiteface.' Because Queen Elizabeth was in whiteface. And what a perfect thing to say when you're out there, but 'good evening, I am the African Queen.' 'Cause it's the Oscars where you can actually do a joke about "The African Queen" and they know what you're talking about, because it was a big Oscar-winning movie, and it's the right room. It's the only place on earth you can make that joke."

When not to make jokes:
"Sometimes there are people you can't make jokes about, even if they're not dead, because the situation is embarrassing, or they're going to be there, or it's just cruel. Our Robert Downey Jr. joke we had a few years ago, and it was a funny joke, but the guy was really in trouble. And it's trouble-trouble. It's not like Charlie Sheen. He's fair game. He admits he spent $150 grand on Heidi Fliess' girls. He's open about it all. So he's a figure of fun. But sometimes it's cruel. We did have one joke one year. It's was the year of the Richard Gere rumors, which happened to be the same year "An American Tail" came out. So we had a joke, Richard Gere was going to present the next award with Fievel, but Fievel backed out. And it went right down to the wire, and Billy said, 'Richard's in the audience.' And we looked out and there he was sitting, there, and we just couldn't do it. We didn't want to have that moment in Oscar history. But then, of course the following year he came out and made a speech about how we should all save Tibet and we should all channel our thoughts to the Dalai Lama, and it was like a big grandstanding thing, and everybody sat there. And he came off and I said, 'Richard, the Dalai Lama called. He just changed the channel. He's watching "Lucy." But again, you can't make a joke about that. We couldn't have gone out and done that joke right there, because he was very earnest. And you can't make fun of him for being sincere. It's cheesy. It's a cheap shot. And even though it's funny, and you could do it the next night on Leno, it's wrong to do it there."

Has Bruce ever been discriminated against?
"I'm sure there have been situations where my name has been up for something and they said, 'no I don't want to go with him--I don't want to have him around.' I'm assuming it's happened because I've seen it happen with other people. I've been in rooms with producers and I've brought up a name of a writer, and I've had a producer say to me, 'I don't think women are that funny. I don't like to work with women. I don't like women writers.' Literally. That bald-faced. There were lots like that. So I'm sure it's happened. It hasn't happened to my face, so it's a better thing."

Being gay in Hollywood:
"George Cukor told me that there was a code at MGM. If you said a writer was 'strong on dialogue' that meant he was gay. If you said, 'what do you think of so-and-so?' and they said, 'very strong on story.' That meant 'big butch man.' Hire him for the Clark Gable movie. But if you said 'strong on dialogue,' that meant a bitchy queen and he can write for these women. Cukor was fired off "Gone With the Wind" which he always maintained was because he knew all about Clark Gable, of course he never said what he knew about Clark Gable."

What makes Bruce laugh?
"Failed seriousness, which is probably the definition of camp. It's the Queen of England cutting a fart when she gets up off the throne."

On Cheech Marin:
"I wrote a show for Cheech, who's now a San Francisco icon, I guess. So we had a series on NBC. We only shot three episodes 'cause the Writer's Guild struck. I took it personally! I finally had a series on the air, how can you pull me off of it! Of course, the series went away and the strike went on for six months. It was Cheech playing like a homeboy in L.A. drifting from job to job. I played a society columnist, Louella Fella. It was me--my own hair, my own beard, in a huge pink mother-of-the-bride outfit. And I come in and they say, 'hormone problem--no one ever mentions it.' It was hilarious. People loved it. Had the series gone on, Louella Fella would have made recurring appearances. But that's the extent of my drag work."

On the 1996 San Francisco Halloween Fest:
"What a catastrophe. My assistant was telling me that when you do a [web] search that's the first thing that comes up. They haven't taken it down. It's like it's still going on! It's this ongoing Halloween party."

On Hollywood Squares:
"They called me and they said, 'we're bringing back Hollywood Squares and it's going to be a comedy show.' [This was] before Whoopi was on board. This was about two years ago. We want it to be much more comedy. We'd like you to come in and supervise all the jokes, and make sure all the celebrities have jokes they can use if they want, which is the way it works. It's a balance. Sometimes they use them, sometimes they use their own, sometimes they don't do anything. We mix it up. And I said, 'well sure!'"

"They mentioned the fee, and said, 'can we call you Head Writer?' and I said, 'for that money you can call me Marie Osmond.'

"And I said, 'it'll be fun!' We shoot on weekends when everybody's available. And they started the hunt for a center square. They wanted a big name to be the center square, and they got Whoopi. And as part of her deal, she's one of the producers of the show. So as one of the producers of the show, she said, 'I think Vilanch should host it.' And they said, 'huh?' But she was the producer. They couldn't piss her off. So they said, 'we'll test him.' So they brought me in and they did a test. I was in the room with all the other host candidates. They were all big blonde guys with big teeth, and going, 'this is for the Lexus, Kevin!' And we shot the test, and the next day they said, 'you're a little too edgy. We'd like to be a little more mainstream. But we like the energy. We'd like you to be in a square.' So I said, 'okay that'd be fine.' And Whoopi said, 'put him next to me and we'll carry on. We'll make trouble.' And it worked. I thought any minute somebody would call and say, 'get that queen offa there.' But in fact, it's the opposite. They're not threatened by me. They think I'm kind of 'amusingly out' in an unveiled way. Like with Paul Lynde and 'his secret'. But I'm so out there I think they're kind of entranced by it. In fact, the CBS affiliate in Dallas called about two weeks ago and said, 'we want more promos on the show--get that gay guy. He's funny! We like him!' Dallas! They killed Kennedy in Dallas. I'm scoring!"

On the cheesiness of Hollywood Squares:
"I haven't done telethons yet."

On the 1978 "Star Wars Holiday Special" (Bruce co-wrote the movie):
"It was hilarious. It was between "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" and George Lucas wanted to keep the flame alive. It's hysterically bad. I just saw it. I got it from a collector. I didn't realize how poor. I worked on it with George. That's how I got to know him. And he pulled the story out of the vault. It was like "episode 32" of the saga, and it was the one that was set on the planet of the Wookiees, and the Wookiees were the central characters. Unfortunately all the Wookiees look like me and sound like fat people having orgasms. So, they're tough to write for. Every line of dialogue is 'oh, ee, ahh'. How do you write that? The Wookiees can't speak, but the Wookiees were the central characters. So I said, 'well we have to load this up with stars who sing and dance and do schtick to cover up that the story is about these walking carpets. It was one nightmare after another, but it's a very funny show. At the Cantina on Tattooine, Bea Arthur is the bargirl. To give you some idea what the show is like. Jefferson Starship is on it. Carrie Fisher sings something. It was Thanksgiving."

On "Ice Pirates" (Bruce had a role in the movie):
"I love 'Ice Pirates'. Ted Turner loves it. It's his favorite movie. He airs it once a month on one of his 420 stations. One night Anjelica Huston was on Tom Snyder promoting a picture she directed "Bastard Out of Carolina", and the first question out of his mouth was, 'I was watching a picture last night called "The Ice Pirates", and I watched the color drain from her face. I called her the next day and she came to the phone and said, 'I surrender. It'll never go away. I'm resigned to it now. Nothing I do will make this go away.'"

Sept. 10, 1999

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