Bruce Vilanch Loses 85 lbs

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Bruce Vilanch recently dropped 85 pounds, but he’s still as funny as ever. The legendary comic recently graced San Francisco stages with a stand-up appearance at the Rrazz Room, judging Dancing With the Drag Queen Stars, and interviewing Patty Duke at the Castro Theatre tribute Sparkle, Patty Sparkle!

Having interviewed Vilanch in both print and on my radio show Happy Hour (and counting him among my Facebook friends), he’s become a great source of wisdom in trying times. When Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same day, Vilanch pronounced, “If any of us die today, it will be in very small print.”

I’m also among the theatre fans who still relish Vilanch’s turn as Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, which he performed for the year-long national tour and for a year on Broadway.

What does he miss about performing in Hairspray? “Everything but the pantyhose.”

His nightly transformation into the Baltimore matron initially took an hour and a half, “but we got it down to an hour, with a makeup artist, a wig master and a dresser helping me into the fat suit and pantyhose. I had five wigs and seven costume changes, so every time I left the stage I was besieged by ‘the squad.’”

Edna was first played by drag queen Divine in the 1988 film, and Vilanch explains the gay subtext beneath John Waters’ insistence that the role of Tracy’s mom be played by a man. “The movie is about acceptance, of other races and body types, and in the course of the evening, the audience accepts the Turnblads as a loving married couple. It’s very subversive, insightful idea.”

Bette, Oscar and Chewbacca

Vilanch initially came to show biz prominence as a ghost writer to comics, and like Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Katie Sagal and many others, his career began while working with Bette Midler.

“Bette was the first person I ever wrote for and I’ve been working with her ever since.” He collaborated with Midler on her Las Vegas extravaganza The Showgirl Must Go On which is currently packing them in at Caesar’s Palace.

Vilanch’s skill for putting funny words into other people’s mouths landed him the gig of writing the annual Oscar show which he’s done for the past 20 years. “The hard part is writing for actors who are used to playing characters, but have no persona of their own. Who is Keanu Reeves when he comes out and talks? I once wrote something for him to do in his Bill and Ted character. It didn’t work.”

“The biggest challenge of writing the Oscars is keeping it afloat for three and a half hours. Keeping the people at the ceremony amused gets harder as the show goes on. As they give out more and more awards, the room fills up with losers who just want to go home and start firing people.”

Early in his career, Vilanch had the distinction of being one of five writers on the most notoriously ill-conceived program in television history: The Star Wars Holiday Special. The 1978 musical extravaganza has long been the bane of Star Wars fans’ existence, but in the internet age of YouTube, it’s everywhere. “Had I known 30 years ago that it would be so famous, I would’ve done a better job – but at the time we were all chemically altered.”

The fiasco featured the Star Wars cast plus Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll, Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur – as the bartender of an alien cantina. “The highlight for me was Bea singing a very Brechtian number with all the creatures.”

The plot centers on Chewbacca’s attempt to get home for his planet’s Life Day celebration. “The problem was that wookies don’t speak, so all the dialogue was like, ‘Eeeeee-ooohhhh.’ Since they couldn’t speak, there was a lot of pantomime but you can’t move very well in wookie suits. Six Star Wars movies and 30 years later, George Lucas has much less sense of humor about it than the rest of us.”

To enjoy more of the wit and wisdom of Bruce Vilanch, Netflix the documentary film Get Bruce! – a star-studded tribute to his comedic prowess.

For more of Adam Sandel’s Happy Hour interview with Bruce Vilanch on Energy Talk Radio, go to:

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