Bruce Vilanch recently dropped 85 pounds, but heâ€™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), heâ€™s become a great source of wisdom in trying times. When Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same day, Vilanch pronounced, â€œIf any of us die today, it will be in very small print.â€
Iâ€™m also among the theatre fans who still relish Vilanchâ€™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? â€œEverything but the pantyhose.â€
His nightly transformation into the Baltimore matron initially took an hour and a half, â€œbut 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 â€˜the squad.â€™â€
Edna was first played by drag queen Divine in the 1988 film, and Vilanch explains the gay subtext beneath John Watersâ€™ insistence that the role of Tracyâ€™s mom be played by a man. â€œThe 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. Itâ€™s very subversive, insightful idea.â€
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.
â€œBette was the first person I ever wrote for and Iâ€™ve been working with her ever since.â€ He collaborated with Midler on her Las Vegas extravaganza The Showgirl Must Go On which is currently packing them in at Caesarâ€™s Palace.
Vilanchâ€™s skill for putting funny words into other peopleâ€™s mouths landed him the gig of writing the annual Oscar show which heâ€™s done for the past 20 years. â€œThe 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 didnâ€™t work.â€
â€œThe 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.â€
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 fansâ€™ existence, but in the internet age of YouTube, itâ€™s everywhere. â€œHad I known 30 years ago that it would be so famous, I wouldâ€™ve done a better job â€“ but at the time we were all chemically altered.â€
The fiasco featured the Star Wars cast plus Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll, Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur â€“ as the bartender of an alien cantina. â€œThe highlight for me was Bea singing a very Brechtian number with all the creatures.â€
The plot centers on Chewbaccaâ€™s attempt to get home for his planetâ€™s Life Day celebration. â€œThe problem was that wookies donâ€™t speak, so all the dialogue was like, â€˜Eeeeee-ooohhhh.â€™ Since they couldnâ€™t speak, there was a lot of pantomime but you canâ€™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.â€
To enjoy more of the wit and wisdom of Bruce Vilanch, Netflix the documentary film Get Bruce! â€“ a star-studded tribute to his comedic prowess.
For more of Adam Sandelâ€™s Happy Hour interview with Bruce Vilanch on Energy Talk Radio, go to: