The Queen Behind The Scenes – Bruce Vilanch

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Wicked Local
The vociferous voice of Bruce Vilanch
By Loren King
Sat Aug 23, 2008, 02:37 PM EDT


Bruce Vilanch is the go-to guy for great jokes in Hollywood. Whether punching up an Oscar telecast or Bette Midler’s Vegas act, Vilanch’s ribald, irreverent and very gay wit is legendary. Now, Vilanch turns his insider’s eye and writer’s pen to his own material, bringing his autobiographical “sit-down” (as opposed to stand-up) act to Provincetown’s Madeira Room at Vixen Aug. 22 and 23.

“It’s a queen behind the scenes,” quips Vilanch about his solo show. And there’s plenty to talk about. Vilanch’s resumé includes nearly two decades of writing for the Academy Awards telecasts, collaborating with Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman and others. He became head writer in 2000, and supervised this year’s Oscars with host Jon Stewart, working feverishly to mount a show after a prolonged writers’ strike threatened to cancel the entire event. Vilanch has written for all the major industry awards shows, but admits that “the Oscars and the Tonys are the fun ones.” He’s currently developing “something unusual” with Blue Man Group, which he describes as “a New York interactive sight-seeing experience.”

Vilanch’s long association with Bette Midler — he’s credited with introducing the Sophie Tucker jokes to Midler’s stage act back in the ’70s — will no doubt provide plenty of anecdotes, too. Vilanch worked closely with Midler on her current Las Vegas show, “The Showgirl Must Go On,” that opened earlier this year at Caesar’s Palace. She alternates at Caesar’s Palace with Cher and Elton John.

“It’s very gay,” says Vilanch. “The men’s room attendant is Larry Craig.”

No stranger to Provincetown, Vilanch, 59, performed last summer in a benefit for the New Provincetown Players organized by his friend Shawn Nightingale, the new owner of Vixen.

He was a big part of the Provincetown International Film Festival in 2000 when “Get Bruce,” a documentary about his career, premiered. He enjoyed the festivities that year with another gay bon vivant, John Waters, who was presenting a film at the Wellfleet Drive-in. The two quip-masters crossed career paths again in 2003 when Vilanch joined the national touring company of the mega-hit musical “Hairspray,” based on Waters’ popular movie. After touring with the show across the U.S. (Vilanch appeared in Boston at the Colonial Theater, a high point of the tour for him) Vilanch made his Broadway debut after Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein left the long-running show.

“I’d go back to ‘Hairspray’ in a minute, but they’re not paying what they used to,” said Vilanch from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m actively looking for a stage role. I’ve had a few false starts. It’s hard to find the right role. All the Zero Mostel revivals have already been done with Nathan Lane.”

With a cherubic smile under a fuzzy beard, mop of unruly hair, and his trademark eccentric eyewear and T-shirts, Vilanch endeared himself to middle America during his tenure on “Hollywood Squares” from 1998 to 2003. Hired by pal Goldberg as the game show’s head writer, Vilanch soon earned a spot as a “square” and became popular with viewers for his Paul Lynde-esque double entendres and jokes far gayer than anything Lynde could get away with back in the day. Vilanch often did battle with the network censors over the friskier material, and he often won.

“The success of ‘Squares’ was nine celebrities having a party,” says Vilanch, noting that such success has been difficult for other game show revivals, such as “The Match Game” and “To Tell the Truth,” to replicate. “I think ‘What’s My Line’ would work today but there’s nothing quite like ‘Squares,’” he says. The game show he’d most like to bring back, he says, is “Masquerade Party,” a popular 1950s show that featured a panel of celebrities that questioned another celebrity in disguise.

Vilanch’s own tastes in television include police procedurals such as “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “The Closer,” along with “Mad Men” and Showtimes’ “Weeds” and “The Tudors.”

As the writer for variety shows like the original “Donny and Marie” and “The Brady Bunch Hour,” Vilanch laments that except for awards and chat shows, variety has all but disappeared from TV, except for “reality” competitions like “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol.” Vilanch doubts that today’s 500-channel universe would welcome a non-competitive variety hour. “What made variety so special was that audiences saw performers that they could not see anywhere else,” he says. “Now you can see the Jonas Brothers seven days a week, on Regis then Ellen and then on Martha Stewart. There’s no scarcity anymore.”

But show biz aficionados can relive glory days past and present this weekend at Vixen through Vilanch’s unique, and very funny, perspective.