The Flashback Interview: Bruce Vilanch
By JOHNNY CAPS
AUGUST 10, 2021
I first came to know of Bruce Vilanch’s work in the 1990s. Whether it was through the jokes he wrote for Academy Awards hosts like Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, or through his deliciously saucy answers on the late-90s incarnation of Hollywood Squares, Mr. Vilanch made quite an impression on me. In 2021, with the assistance of Clay Mills of The Katz Company, I was able to set up an e-mail interview with Mr. Vilanch about various aspects of his work. Even in written format, his unique wit comes shining through, and I hope you all enjoy this interview.
Johnny: One of your very first television writing credits was for a variety show pilot for Charo. With Charo as a jumping-off point, when you’ve written jokes for international performers, have any of them had difficulty understanding your style and references, or are they able to pick up on it pretty quickly?
Bruce: Depends on how much English they have and how strong their dialect is, and if they are in the business of making fun of themselves, like Charo. With her, the more ridiculous the better. She loves doing jokes that feature her mangling her adopted tongue. In fact, give her that sentence and she will get a three-minute laugh and wind up showing the audience her tongue. I didn’t write, it, but I was in a movie with Marcello Mastroianni many years ago. He was extremely suave and pulled-together, and he spoke English, but he felt his accent made him sound like Chico Marx, or the guy on TV selling spicy meat-a-balls. He didn’t want to be looked on as a clown, so he pretended he didn’t speak English. On set, we would speak French to each other. It was an Italian picture of the 70s, so we each learned the lines in whatever language we liked and spoke them that way, as it was all going to be dubbed later. I think I was dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge.
Johnny: In addition to your work in creating jokes, you’re also an accomplished songwriter, and one of your credits as a songwriter was the title theme for the 1985 Stephen King adaptation Cat’s Eye. That movie was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, so as you have many stories about larger-than-life Hollywood personas, do you have any stories about Dino?
Bruce: Not about that picture, where I wrote the song with Jacques Morali (creator of The Village People), but when I was at the Chicago Tribune, I interviewed Dino at his palatial apartment on Central Park South, with the absolutely gorgeous Silvana Mangano floating in and out and their absolutely gorgeous children making a racket somewhere on the south forty. If I remember correctly, he was about to come to Chicago to shoot a mafia picture, and he wound up asking me more things than I asked him, and the food was absolutely gorgeous.
Johnny: In 1987, you worked with The Walt Disney Company on two very different TV specials, Walt Disney World Celebrity Circus and Funny, You Don’t Look 200: A Constitutional Vaudeville. What was it like to be working with Disney in the time period when they were well into recovery from the failure of The Black Cauldron, yet still a long way from the top of the entertainment world?
Bruce: They didn’t talk much about The Black Cauldron. I believe that was a holdover from the previous administration, the last one with a Disney relative in charge, before my people — the Jews! — took over. At that point, I don’t think Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, both of whom I had worked with elsewhere, were much interested in Disney’s variety TV production. The Constitution special was a passion project of Richard Dreyfuss, who was making some big comedies for them, and so they got behind it. Also, it was a nice idea to try to educate an audience about the Constitution in a hopefully entertaining way. There were lots of names, but my favorite was Whoopi, with whom I got to work very closely and with whom I still work with very closely many x’s and o’s later.
The Celebrity Circus was more or less executed by the parks division, as it was a big plug for Walt Disney World. We all flew to Orlando. Tony Randall, far too erudite for this sort of carry-on, was the host and we had a fantastic time. It was wonderful to watch him work surrounded by circus people and Disney characters, and see him cast a baleful eye at all of them. He was determined to have one of the acts done to classical music, but I don’t think that happened. On a private note, the Cosby kids were guests on the show, and I got to take a hot tub with Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, and I fell in love with an elephant trainer, but that may be my YA novel.
Johnny: You’ve written for many Academy Awards ceremonies over the years. Although you’re well-known for your jokes on the Oscars, did you ever write any more serious segments for the show, and if so, which are you most proud of having written?
Bruce: Here’s the sick part. I remember the jokes. I don’t remember any of the serious stuff. I know I did some. There were always other writers who were not too funny, but very grown-up and elegant when they wrote about the various disciplines. It’s difficult to come up with something meaningful about sound effects editing, but they did it. These same writers generally blanched when I told them Martin Short and Carrie Fisher were going to present an award together, and their dialogue was going to be entirely about the fact that they were each wearing the same dress.
Johnny: When I watched the 93rd Academy Awards this year, I found it to be very dry and rather bereft of humor, and I really wish you had been involved in the show to give it a boost of fun. What would you have done differently if you were part of the Oscars writing staff for this year’s show?
Bruce: I would have bought a house for the comic personality who would agree to host the show. I would have told the new producers that there is a good reason we always give one of the acting awards in the first half-hour. People want to see stars and emotions. They are not so interested in the origin stories of writers. I would have moved the show around a little so it didn’t look like Stork Club night at the high school prom, with a curtain draped over the hoops and the bleachers arranged as nightclub tables. Does anyone tune in to the Oscars to see a low-key intimate show?
When the highlights of the evening are Glenn Close doing Da Butt and Frances McDormand calling to her pack, I think it’s not unfair to say something is awry. I actually think the Academy missed a good bet not shooting the whole thing at the new museum, which they are attempting to make a hot SoCal destination like Disneyland and Universal. Clean it up and put it on worldwide TV. They will come.
Johnny: Jumping back to the 90s, you were a regular for several years on the late 90s/early 00s revival of Hollywood Squares. What joke, or jokes, would you say were the funniest you had written for that show during your time on it?
Bruce: I know a few jokes I loved. One of the biggest laughs I got was when Tom Bergeron asked me which television show boldly goes where no man has gone before. I said: Ellen. I also mentioned that Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn were going around New York camouflaged as Maury Povich and Connie Chung. At the time, it was a big laugh.
Johnny: Going forward into the 00s, you did a season of the VH1 Celebreality series Celebrity Fit Club. I’ve asked this question of several reality TV veterans, including Rocky DeMarco and Jeana Keough, and I’d like to ask it of you as well: How much reality would you say is in reality television?
Bruce: The first rule of reality TV is nothing is real. They have an arc worked out for each person, and they guide you into giving them what they want by having a little meeting with you each week and telling you things to make you mad or upset at a specific person. Since we were all professionals on that show — it was not The Biggest Loser — we figured out how to give it to them without making fools of ourselves. They want you to lose it. It’s good TV. If you don’t play along, they edit you out or they make you look like a crazy person. Paddy Chayefsky lives!
Johnny: Platinum, the 1979 Broadway musical you co-wrote the book for, was revived in 2010 by UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc. Were you involved in the revival, and if not, would you have been interested in doing so?
Bruce: I was marginally involved. Ben West had written a new version of the show, not all that different, and we gave him the right to do that. My principal worry after Platinum flopped was that I would have to sit under the poster on Joe Allen’s wall for the rest of my life. I told Joe and he asked how long we ran. I told him, 33 performances. He said, “Are you kidding? You were a smash. You have to close opening night to get on this wall, or better, in New Haven!”
Johnny: You’re well-known for wearing humorous T-shirts of various kinds. What’s the origin behind that style, and what shirt would you say is your favorite?
Bruce: I was a portly child with a perfectionist mother who always made me dress a certain way, and I have been in rebellion my entire life. T-shirts were the perfect out, especially when I moved to LA and discovered you can go almost anywhere wearing one. My favorite is, undoubtedly, in a very serious font: Excuse me, you’re standing on my penis.
Johnny: Although we’re slowly making our way back to normalcy, COVID-19 has made an indelible impact on all of us. How has coronavirus impacted your life and work, and how do you hope people will have changed once the saga draws to a close?
Bruce: It’s been a year without pants. I’m a writer, so I got to sit at the keyboard and pound it out. Wait, that came out wrong. I got to write and Zoom, and if I didn’t forget myself and stand up and do a Jeffrey Toobin, I was alright. Live performing disappeared, so I did a lot of podcasts to exercise that muscle. I also wrote a musical about a guy in quarantine, but I can’t talk about it yet.
As for how people have changed once the saga draws to a close…I’m hoping for a comeback for French kissing. Listen, so much happened between BLM and #metoo and the fall of Orange Julius Caesar. Let’s just hope we have a recognizable planet to inhabit as kinder, gentler people. except for Jake Paul and Lea DeLaria, who should have a YouTube fight that he will never win.