Bruce Vilanch Talks About The Slap-Happy Academy Awards

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The Hollywood Reporter
Bruce Vilanch Compares Will Smith Oscar Slap to 1954’s ‘A Star is Born
by Seth Abramovitch 
March 29, 2022

James Madison accidentally slaps Judy Garland at the 1954’s Oscars

Bruce Vilanch Talks About The Slap-Happy Academy Awards

As the head writer for every Academy Awards ceremony between 2000 and 2014, no one knows more about how a joke can live or die on the Oscars stage than Bruce VilanchThe Hollywood Reporter caught up with the legendary quip-writer, 73, to get his take on Will Smith’s instantly infamous slapping of guest presenter Chris Rock at Sunday night’s ceremony. The altercation arose over a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her shaved-head look, which the comic suggested would be suitable for “G.I. Jane 2” — seemingly unaware Pinkett-Smith has alopecia.

As jaw-dropping as it was, the moment — followed by Smith’s expletive-laden shouting at Rock to keep his wife’s “name out of your fucking mouth” — was not entirely without precedent, though Vilanch had to reach into the Oscars metaverse (the ceremony held in 1954’s A Star is Born) to find a comparable moment.

Hi Bruce. So where were you for this very memorable Oscars?

I am in New York so I wasn’t at the show. I had nothing to do with the show. I did write a couple of jokes for people, but I certainly was not around for the big slap fest. In fact, this has just come in: “Sean Penn has canceled his Oscar meltdown because he can’t compete with Will Smith’s.”

That’s a good one.

Thank you. Lead with that.

In terms of Chris Rock’s “G.I.Jane” joke itself, do you think it was out of line at all?

I don’t follow Jada Pinkett Smith’s personal life, so I don’t know about her alopecia. And I don’t know if Chris Rock knows about it, either. I just think he was doing a joke about her look without knowing what was going on with her look. I don’t think it was a scripted joke. Everything of course that’s scripted gets vetted, but I think probably he came up with it when he was standing on stage. That’s what comics do. I think that if anybody had seen it ahead of time, they would’ve pointed out to him that probably it was not the best idea.

Was it slap-worthy? Is it any joke?

I certainly know that when people get up on stage, comedians especially, they say things, and they’re in the moment, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And then when it doesn’t work on the Oscars, they hear about it for the rest of their lives. 

But that does not excuse somebody getting up and assaulting somebody else. I mean, that’s crazy. Not since James Mason slapped Judy Garland in A Star is Born has the Oscars seen this kind of activity. And that was unintentional. He was just making a grand gesture and happened to conk her while he did it. This was like a calculated move. He got up, and he strode over there, and he did it. I think the moment it happened you realized this was not in the script.

When you said that anything that’s scripted is vetted, you mean it’s vetted by the producers, but you wouldn’t necessarily go to the target of the jokes and say, “We’re going to be doing X, Y, and Z about you.”

Not necessarily. Sometimes you do. It depends on the relationship that the person telling the joke has with the person the joke is about if they feel squeamish about it. I remember calling Elizabeth Taylor because we had an Al Pacino [joke at her expense]. Al had lost seven times. Billy [Crystal] was going to say he’s “heard another man’s name cried out in the night more times than anyone except Elizabeth Taylor.” And so we had to go to Elizabeth to clear the joke. She cleared. She thought it was hilarious. She can’t walk back from eight marriages.

And she was there that night, and it all went great?

Yeah. There were bits on the show last night that you knew people were in on. I mean, did she really pull all those guys out of the audience that gets their COVID tests? They must have known that was going to happen. I can’t believe that they didn’t know it was going to happen. Because when they tried to get Will Smith up there — he wasn’t going to budge. But maybe it was spontaneous. I don’t know. 

What do you make of the Academy’s response or lack of one during the broadcast?

I think they’ll have to dig their way through the idea that somebody was supposed to arrest Will Smith for assault. I don’t think anybody was sitting backstage looking through the Academy code of conduct. And I suspect if they were, they decided just to let it play out, and it’ll be dealt with after the broadcast. To call attention to it by then having him disappear from his seat would really overshadow everything that was going on, so I think that was the decision that they made.

And what do you think this is going to do to the Oscars? Is it going to chill them in terms of hosts and presenters making more pointed jokes?

I don’t know how it will change, and then I don’t think it will change the Oscars. The show is what it is. The sad part is that it overshadows all the good stuff that was on that show, the range of diversity of the winners, and the fact that Deaf representation, gay representation, Black representation, all of that stuff, was [celebrated]. And there were more popular films involved, and the whole idea that the buzz was back on the show and the glamour was back and Timothee Chalamet with no shirt. All of that was there, and that’s now all overshadowed by The Punch and Judy Show.

But it sounds like you liked the show overall?

I thought there was some great stuff in it. It moved along. I don’t know that I would have dancers in the In Memoriam section. It was a nice idea, but it kind of upstages the faces that you’re looking at. I mean, you want to have that mean something, so I don’t know about that. It was hit and miss.

No pun intended?

Certainly, the opening was strange. I mean, it really was a kind of a Grammy opening to open with what looked like a Beyonce video. But they wanted to have a big star right up front, so they had the Williams sisters and Beyonce, and then they brought out the [hosts] who made some funny jokes at the beginning.

Yeah, some of those jokes were, I would say, a little meaner than the one that got the slap.

Which one was meaner?

I guess how Amy Schumer kept going after Being the Ricardos, saying how it wasn’t funny.

Oh, the Ricardos thing. Yeah, she did do that.

And Don’t Look Up: “I guess the Academy members don’t look up reviews.”

Yeah. Well, it was basically negative. That’s kind of her thing: sweet face and saying these things.

And then they made a joke also about Will Smith’s open marriage during the COVID bit, and they laughed that off.

Well, that’s their brand. I mean, what are they going to do?

The interview was edited for length and clarity.