We Got Bruce!

The Man Behind The Oscars


North Jersey.com
Former Paterson resident is man behind the lines at the Oscars
Sunday, March 7, 2010
BY VIRGINIA ROHAN
The Record
STAFF WRITER

With any luck, somebody who wins an Oscar tonight will do or say something remarkably silly or stupid, maybe even shocking, to enliven the festivities.

And Bruce Vilanch will jump right on it.

“The only really spontaneous parts of the show are the winners. Everything else is scripted. And so, unless somebody else goes off script, we know what everybody else is saying,” says Vilanch, a former Patersonian, who has written for the Oscars for the past 21 years. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen with the winners, and often, they do things that are really entertaining or say stuff that we didn’t expect.”

Take, for example, the 2003 Oscars, hosted by Steve Martin, when Michael Moore won for his documentary “Bowling for Columbine” and used his acceptance speech to lambaste then-President George W. Bush for starting the Iraq War (four days earlier) for “fictitious reasons.” Backstage, the stagehands were loudly booing Moore.

“I was in the wings with Steve and that particular year, we had [writers] Rita Rudner and Dave Barry and Jon Macks, and when that happened, we just started throwing jokes at each other,” Vilanch recalls. “And Steve was sitting there. He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to do.”

The joke Martin wound up delivering, three minutes after the incident, was memorably hilarious: “It’s so sweet backstage. You should see it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

Says Vilanch, “It was a group effort, and we were just so happy.”

On a recent evening, during his busiest time of year, the writer and performer — who’s known for his colorful eyeglasses, unique collection of T-shirts and wickedly sharp wit — carved out time for The Record, to share his insider’s view of the Oscar telecast.

“Most of the time, I’m in the wings, with the host, and we’re watching the show in a little changing area off stage left. We’re watching the show on a TV like everybody else and we are making changes as we go along, depending on what’s happened,” he says, adding that if there’s a break when, say, the host is changing costumes, Vilanch will run over to the green room to check on the presenters, who are “laying in wait, ready to hatch their material on the stage.”

This year, for the 82nd annual Academy Awards, Martin is back, sharing hosting duties with Alec Baldwin — a pairing Vilanch calls an “interesting contrast.”

“Steve’s a precision instrument. He writes a lot for himself and he likes to have collaborations, so since the nominations were announced, we’ve sat down [with him] every few days, a group of us, and worked on stuff,” he says.

Working by phone

Because Baldwin had, until last week, been in New York doing “30 Rock,” the Oscar writers worked with him by phone. (“Rock” writers reportedly also wrote material for Baldwin.)

“His process is a little different, because he’s mostly an actor who gets a script,” Vilanch says. “But the nice thing is that they’ve got such interesting personalities. Alec is kind of professionally pissed off and political, and has a very colorful real life that he can draw from. And Steve is goofy.”

The fact that there are not five, but 10 best picture nominees this year, and that some are box-office blockbusters, makes for “more accessible” jokes, he says.

“A broader range of movies were nominated, so we have a bunch of pictures that people have seen,” says Vilanch, noting that one nominee, however, inspires little humor. ” ‘Precious’ is a movie that is about so many harsh things, and it involves rape, and no one wants to be lighthearted about it. … At one point, I said Steve and Alec should come out wearing T-shirts that said, ‘Team Precious’ and ‘Team Mama.’ That almost made it, but then finally, no.” (Watch for jokes “around,” but not specifically about, the movie.)

The number of writers who work on the Oscar telecast varies from year to year.

“This year, we’ve got eight,” he says, explaining that some write just for one host or the other, some for both, and some specialize in other things. “But then when we’re actually in the theater the week of the show, everybody’s writing everything.”

Asked if stars have ever taken offense at a joke about them, Vilanch says, “If we think something’s going to be really controversial, we call them ahead of time and say, ‘We want to do this joke. Are you going to be pissed off?’ It’s a big show and you don’t really want to offend people. You want them to laugh with you. [But] in my experience, most people are so excited when a joke is made about them on the Oscars, ’cause they realize that they’ve had enough of an impact on the culture that that joke could be done.”

Vilanch, who was a child actor, got into comedy early in life. “I was funny as a kid, because I was fat and not athletic, so you get a head start when you make a joke. They’re not so quick to jump you if you make them laugh,” he says.

Born in New York, Vilanch was brought to Paterson at 4 days old. “It was an early injustice,” he jokes, before acknowledging happy memories of the Silk City.

“At the time, it was pretty fantastic, because the city was dying on the vine, as we used to say, but it was ethnically very diverse,” Vilanch, 61, says. “A lot of Jews and Italians and Irish, and then blacks and Puerto Ricans. But we all sort of got along in that kind of ’50s way that I guess wasn’t really getting along at all. But we didn’t see it that way. And we were all caught up in civil rights and the betterment of mankind and all of that. And of course, to me, the great advantage was that it was close to New York … where the theater was, and show business. … So, I had a balance of both.”

Peculiarity of Garfield

He was at Eastside High School when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — a tragedy that nonetheless produced some local humor.

“This is actually a true story. Shortly after Kennedy was assassinated, the town of Garfield petitioned the legislature to change their name to Kennedy,” Vilanch says. “The legislature came back and said, ‘You can’t change your name to Kennedy, you’re already named after an assassinated president.’ They didn’t know this. They thought they were named after a cat.”

He insists this actually happened (though the cartoon cat part seems specious).

At Ohio State University, Vilanch studied theater and journalism.

“My parents thought I should have a career when I graduated, something I could fall back on, so I went into journalism and managed to combine it by writing about show business and things that I knew,” says Vilanch, who was a Chicago Tribune entertainment writer when he reviewed Bette Midler’s cabaret act.

She asked him to write for her act. “And suddenly, I was a comedy writer,” he says.

Vilanch actually started writing for the Oscars indirectly, by privately penning material for Midler and others, who wanted “something special written for them.”

“And that led to actually going on staff with the show 21 years ago,” says Vilanch, who has won two Emmy Awards for his Oscars work.

Producer Allan Carr hired him as a full-time writer for the 1989 telecast — the one that featured Rob Lowe’s infamous opening duet with Snow White.

“I had nothing to do with that, really. I had a T-shirt that said, ‘Everything but Snow White,’ ” Vilanch says. “I did the rest of the show, which was not terribly received. And the ratings were fabulous.”

His favorite unexpected moment was in 1992, when 72-year-old best supporting actor winner Jack Palance did one-armed pushups onstage. This became a running gag for host Billy Crystal, who made jokes like, “Jack Palance just bungee jumped off the Hollywood sign.”

“It’s hard not to love that, cause it’s great when a big star comes out and makes a fool of himself early on and you can comment on it for the rest of the evening,” Vilanch says. “And that’s what we did.”

With any luck, somebody who wins an Oscar tonight will do or say something remarkably silly or stupid, maybe even shocking, to enliven the festivities.

And Bruce Vilanch will jump right on it.

“The only really spontaneous parts of the show are the winners. Everything else is scripted. And so, unless somebody else goes off script, we know what everybody else is saying,” says Vilanch, a former Patersonian, who has written for the Oscars for the past 21 years. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen with the winners, and often, they do things that are really entertaining or say stuff that we didn’t expect.”

Take, for example, the 2003 Oscars, hosted by Steve Martin, when Michael Moore won for his documentary “Bowling for Columbine” and used his acceptance speech to lambaste then-President George W. Bush for starting the Iraq War (four days earlier) for “fictitious reasons.” Backstage, the stagehands were loudly booing Moore.

“I was in the wings with Steve and that particular year, we had [writers] Rita Rudner and Dave Barry and Jon Macks, and when that happened, we just started throwing jokes at each other,” Vilanch recalls. “And Steve was sitting there. He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to do.”

The joke Martin wound up delivering, three minutes after the incident, was memorably hilarious: “It’s so sweet backstage. You should see it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

Says Vilanch, “It was a group effort, and we were just so happy.”

On a recent evening, during his busiest time of year, the writer and performer — who’s known for his colorful eyeglasses, unique collection of T-shirts and wickedly sharp wit — carved out time for The Record, to share his insider’s view of the Oscar telecast.

“Most of the time, I’m in the wings, with the host, and we’re watching the show in a little changing area off stage left. We’re watching the show on a TV like everybody else and we are making changes as we go along, depending on what’s happened,” he says, adding that if there’s a break when, say, the host is changing costumes, Vilanch will run over to the green room to check on the presenters, who are “laying in wait, ready to hatch their material on the stage.”

This year, for the 82nd annual Academy Awards, Martin is back, sharing hosting duties with Alec Baldwin — a pairing Vilanch calls an “interesting contrast.”

“Steve’s a precision instrument. He writes a lot for himself and he likes to have collaborations, so since the nominations were announced, we’ve sat down [with him] every few days, a group of us, and worked on stuff,” he says.

Working by phone

Because Baldwin had, until last week, been in New York doing “30 Rock,” the Oscar writers worked with him by phone. (“Rock” writers reportedly also wrote material for Baldwin.)

“His process is a little different, because he’s mostly an actor who gets a script,” Vilanch says. “But the nice thing is that they’ve got such interesting personalities. Alec is kind of professionally pissed off and political, and has a very colorful real life that he can draw from. And Steve is goofy.”

The fact that there are not five, but 10 best picture nominees this year, and that some are box-office blockbusters, makes for “more accessible” jokes, he says.

“A broader range of movies were nominated, so we have a bunch of pictures that people have seen,” says Vilanch, noting that one nominee, however, inspires little humor. ” ‘Precious’ is a movie that is about so many harsh things, and it involves rape, and no one wants to be lighthearted about it. … At one point, I said Steve and Alec should come out wearing T-shirts that said, ‘Team Precious’ and ‘Team Mama.’ That almost made it, but then finally, no.” (Watch for jokes “around,” but not specifically about, the movie.)

The number of writers who work on the Oscar telecast varies from year to year.

“This year, we’ve got eight,” he says, explaining that some write just for one host or the other, some for both, and some specialize in other things. “But then when we’re actually in the theater the week of the show, everybody’s writing everything.”

Asked if stars have ever taken offense at a joke about them, Vilanch says, “If we think something’s going to be really controversial, we call them ahead of time and say, ‘We want to do this joke. Are you going to be pissed off?’ It’s a big show and you don’t really want to offend people. You want them to laugh with you. [But] in my experience, most people are so excited when a joke is made about them on the Oscars, ’cause they realize that they’ve had enough of an impact on the culture that that joke could be done.”

Vilanch, who was a child actor, got into comedy early in life. “I was funny as a kid, because I was fat and not athletic, so you get a head start when you make a joke. They’re not so quick to jump you if you make them laugh,” he says.

Born in New York, Vilanch was brought to Paterson at 4 days old. “It was an early injustice,” he jokes, before acknowledging happy memories of the Silk City.

“At the time, it was pretty fantastic, because the city was dying on the vine, as we used to say, but it was ethnically very diverse,” Vilanch, 61, says. “A lot of Jews and Italians and Irish, and then blacks and Puerto Ricans. But we all sort of got along in that kind of ’50s way that I guess wasn’t really getting along at all. But we didn’t see it that way. And we were all caught up in civil rights and the betterment of mankind and all of that. And of course, to me, the great advantage was that it was close to New York … where the theater was, and show business. … So, I had a balance of both.”

Peculiarity of Garfield

He was at Eastside High School when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — a tragedy that nonetheless produced some local humor.

“This is actually a true story. Shortly after Kennedy was assassinated, the town of Garfield petitioned the legislature to change their name to Kennedy,” Vilanch says. “The legislature came back and said, ‘You can’t change your name to Kennedy, you’re already named after an assassinated president.’ They didn’t know this. They thought they were named after a cat.”

He insists this actually happened (though the cartoon cat part seems specious).

At Ohio State University, Vilanch studied theater and journalism.

“My parents thought I should have a career when I graduated, something I could fall back on, so I went into journalism and managed to combine it by writing about show business and things that I knew,” says Vilanch, who was a Chicago Tribune entertainment writer when he reviewed Bette Midler’s cabaret act.

She asked him to write for her act. “And suddenly, I was a comedy writer,” he says.

Vilanch actually started writing for the Oscars indirectly, by privately penning material for Midler and others, who wanted “something special written for them.”

“And that led to actually going on staff with the show 21 years ago,” says Vilanch, who has won two Emmy Awards for his Oscars work.

Producer Allan Carr hired him as a full-time writer for the 1989 telecast — the one that featured Rob Lowe’s infamous opening duet with Snow White.

“I had nothing to do with that, really. I had a T-shirt that said, ‘Everything but Snow White,’ ” Vilanch says. “I did the rest of the show, which was not terribly received. And the ratings were fabulous.”

His favorite unexpected moment was in 1992, when 72-year-old best supporting actor winner Jack Palance did one-armed pushups onstage. This became a running gag for host Billy Crystal, who made jokes like, “Jack Palance just bungee jumped off the Hollywood sign.”

“It’s hard not to love that, cause it’s great when a big star comes out and makes a fool of himself early on and you can comment on it for the rest of the evening,” Vilanch says. “And that’s what we did.”

E-mail: rohan@northjersey.com

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