Columbus gets Bruce

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Columbus Dispatch
Columbus gets Bruce
by Nick Chordas

Writer and performer Bruce Vilanch has carved a number of unique career niches since graduating from Ohio State University in 1970. As a comedy writer, he has won two Emmy Awards and is preparing for his 22nd year of penning jokes for the Academy Awards broadcast. He was the subject of the documentary Get Bruce (1999). He appeared on Hollywood Squares and Celebrity Fit Club and played Edna Turnblad in the national touring production of Hairspray. Vilanch will be at the Lennox 24 movie theater Friday, Dec. 24 through Sunday, Dec. 26 for showings of Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!, a comedy in which he has a small role opposite Lainie Kazan (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Saul Rubinek (Frasier, Unforgiven) and Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos).

Vilanch talked via telephone last week about his days in Columbus, the upcoming Oscar telecast and co-writing The Star Wars Holiday Special, a notoriously terrible TV production.

Q: Do you have fond memories of your time in Columbus?
A: I have the fondest. I was there from ’65 to ’70 on campus … It was a very sexy time. It was the beginning of sort of the carefree, innocent Woodstock era before things got harsh. People were discovering film and music as serious avenues of expression. Before the mid ’60s, rock ’n’ roll was just junk music. It became serious with things like Sgt. Pepper’s and Beggars Banquet and Tommy and albums like that. This is what the generation was embracing. So it was a very exciting time.

Q: So you still bleed scarlet and gray?
A: I wear it constantly. I have several bruises in scarlet and gray that I can’t seem to shake. Woody Hayes was God at the time. This was before he started attacking players and cameramen. He was a great big grandfatherly figure.

This was Columbus back when, if the students demonstrated, it was a riot. But if we beat Northwestern and they tore down High Street, it was youthful high spirits. But things have changed. We shut the school down because they wouldn’t start a black studies course and the last time I was there to get the theater library I had to go through the black studies floor. Things really did change rapidly.

Q: How did you get involved with Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!?
A: The crazy Russian (director Evgeny Afineevsky) just kept chasing me and said, “I vant you to be in this! I vant you to be in this!” He had seen me in Hairspray where I had played Edna Turnblad and he decided I should play Lainie Kazan’s brother — and it always amused me that he didn’t think I should be Lainie Kazan.

I play the suspicious uncle. There’s one in every family. They don’t know quite what to say about him … He has married, but he hasn’t produced any children, which of course is a big question mark. He’s odd looking, but he’s still part of the family.

Q: When do you start preparing to write for the Oscars? Are you writing down ideas all year?
A: You kind of jot things down, but every year it’s like inventing the wheel again because new producers come in and they have ideas. If it’s somebody who has produced the show before, then you kind of know what to expect. But if it’s a new guy, he’s going to want to do different things.

The first thing that has to be done is to get a host — and each host dictates different requirements … but you don’t really know what to write about until the nominations come out. Then you know what the Academy has gone for and what they’ve snubbed. You also know who will come and who will practice the ritual taking of umbrage at having been egregiously overlooked. So a lot of it gets written in the month before.

Q: Is it a special challenge when the host isn’t known as a “comedian” — like Hugh Jackman or this year’s hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway?
A: It’s a double edged sword. The (non-comedian) host doesn’t have the responsibility of coming out and making people laugh and having to do that first 10 minutes of “scoring,” but at the same time they do have to loosen the atmosphere and make people feel welcome. So they have to use their other skills … having the two of them (Franco and Hathaway) together gives them a chance to do some funny stuff that we couldn’t do otherwise
We haven’t had a man and a woman co-hosting. We haven’t had the chance to do Fred and Ginger.

Q: How does it work backstage at the Oscars?
A: There’s a tiny cubicle in the wings where the host does costume changes. There’s also a monitor and that’s where a couple of us (writers) hang out and we have a playbook of things that we might use if certain things happen — if certain people win. You might have a great joke for somebody and then they come up and they give a fabulous speech that you just can’t top, so that joke goes away.

So we’re back there watching the show like everybody else and following along in our hymnals.

Q: This is for the geeks, including me: did you really co-write The Star Wars Holiday Special?
A: I did. And I’m proud of it. Had I known that this thing from 30 years ago would have lived that long, I would’ve paid closer attention and probably not have been so chemically altered. But it was 1977, you know. We were all chemically altered. Now it can be told.