What really goes on behind the scenes on Oscar night
By Michael Riedel February 25, 2016 | 7:16pm
“There’s no way he can ignore it,” Vilanch says of the Oscars So White controversy. “He’ll have something brilliant to say. He deals with big issues. But this year is insane anyway. The presidential race is a carnival. We have a reality TV show host .?.?. That’s a first. Even Ronald Reagan couldn’t claim that label!”
Vilanch, whose Broadway-bound musical “Sign of the Times” debuts this summer atConnecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, wrote 23 Oscar shows. He’s not on this year’s telecast, but I thought it’d be fun to get his behind-the-scenes take on the biggest award of them all (sorry, Tonys!).
The telecast, he says, is mapped out months in advance, but most of the writing is done on the fly while the show is live.
“You’re in a little room offstage, where the host ‘lives’ when he or she isn’t onstage,” he says. “A bunch of writers are huddled around a monitor, trying to prepare a joke about whoever just won.”
The best off-the-cuff joke Vilanch and his team came up with was aimed at Michael Moore. Accepting an Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine” in 2003, Moore denounced George W. Bush for sending America to war for “fictitious reasons.” The audience booed.
During the commercial, the writers began screaming out jokes. Steve Martin, the host that year, grabbed one. After the break, he walked out, smiled and said: “It’s so wonderful backstage. The stagehands are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his car.”
But when things go wrong, there’s little a writer can do but stand clear.
Vilanch worked on the 1989 telecast, whose infamous opening number featured Snow White and Rob Lowe, who attempted, sadly, to sing a parody of “Proud Mary.”
The opening was Oscar producer Allan Carr’s idea — and it killed his career. Snow White goes to Hollywood and meets great stars of the past: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Vincent Price, Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse.
“In Allan’s mind, those old stars looked like they did when he was a kid,” says Vilanch, 67. But by 1989 they looked “kind of embalmed.”
Vilanch was also backstage in 1995 when David Letterman did his much-derided Oprah-Uma-Uma-Oprah routine.
“I had suggested it might not be the best thing for TV boy to come out and make fun of their names, but it appealed to Dave’s love of the perverse,” Vilanch says. “He was having a horrible time anyway. He kept saying he felt like he was in a hostage crisis.”
On the other hand, when Jack Palance won for “City Slickers” in 1992 and did one-arm pushups onstage, the writers spun gold: “Billy Crystal was the host and he said, ‘This is too good — we have to respond to him.’?” Crystal turned it into a running gag.
Vilanch advises this year’s presenters and nominees to avoid banter.
“Unless you’re really good — like Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller — just come out and say something about the category,” he says. “Don’t make people who aren’t funny try to be funny.”
By the way, the Oscar telecast isn’t much of a pay day for a writer. “It’s viewed as an ‘honor,’?” Vilanch says, “though sometimes the gift basket is nice.”