Q&A with Bruce Vilanch
BY GLENN MCDONALD
CorrespondentFebruary 6, 2014
Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch has carved out a very specific niche in Hollywood. A six-time Emmy winner, he’s the go-to joke writer for awards shows like the Tony awards, the Grammy awards and most famously, the Oscars.
Vilanch isn’t participating in this year’s Academy Awards – host Ellen DeGeneres is bringing her own team of writers, Vilanch says. But their loss is our gain. As part of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, Vilanch will present an evening of dishy stories on Wednesday at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. He recently spoke to the N&O about guilty pleasures, George Lucas and the art of extemporaneous joke writing.
Q: Your headline show at the festival is essentially a storytelling show, right?
A: That’s kind of what I do, and since my life and times has mostly been in show business, they tend to be backstage stories and the guilty-pleasure television shows that I’ve written. I’m always amazed that people tend to remember those shows, with loathing or delight.
Q: You were a writer on the infamous 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special,” right?
A: I certainly was. I’m proud and guilty to admit that. George Lucas had a storyline that he sold to CBS as this television special. That was what I had to write. Unfortunately, the lead characters were the Wookiees, who speak no known language. That was our ground zero dilemma, and it just built from there.
I don’t know, it was the 1970s – we were all chemically altered. It was just another of these insane TV specials.
Q: The Oscars are coming up, and you’ve been writing jokes for that show for 20 years. When do you actually start writing for each year’s event?
A: There isn’t much actual writing until the nominations are announced – who’s going to be at the show and who will exercise the ritual taking-of-umbrage because they got snubbed. So the writing starts on the day of the nominations, up to and through the show.
Q: And you’re writing jokes during the broadcast, right? Is there like an emergency joke station backstage?
A: There is! If you look closely, you’ll see that the host almost always comes to the podium from stage left. There’s a small room built on that corner of the stage, with a team of writers and a television monitor and food. We basically work with the host from a playbook of prepared material: Here’s when you’re on, here’s what precedes that, here are the joke opportunities.
One of the years that Steve Martin hosted, Michael Moore made a political joke and the stage hands were booing so loud that the audience could hear it. After the commercial, Steve came out and said: “It’s so nice, the stage hands are backstage helping Mr. Moore into the trunk of his car.” That was a joke we came up with during commercial. We were just shouting out ideas.
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