Bruce Vilanch: Hollywoodâ€™s incorrigible diva
Bruce Vilanch is, arguably, the funniest man in show business. Stars like Bette Midler and Whoopi Goldberg have known it for years, hiring Vilanch to pen their most raucous material. The veteran of dozens of television awards shows and comedy specials â€” with a batch of Emmys to his credit â€” Vilanch has been out doing his own shtick for the past couple of years. Heâ€™ll bring his one-man show, a â€œcrazy quiltâ€ of autobiography and anecdotes culled from his five decades in show biz, to Provincetown on Sept. 1, 2 and 3 in a benefit for the New Provincetown Players.
Vilanch met Shawn Nightingale, who is co-producing the show, in Los Angeles, where Nightingale is busy pitching his Provincetown reality series. â€œHeâ€™s a sweet guy and itâ€™s nice to help out,â€ said Vilanch over the telephone from his home in LA. Vilanch has great memories of Provincetown; he was a guest of the Provincetown International Film Festival in 2000 when the documentary about him, â€œGet Bruce!â€ premiered. He enjoyed the festivities with another comic legend, John Waters, who was presenting a film at the Wellfleet Drive-in.
Insiders may know Vilanch, 57, as a top-notch comedy writer, but mainstream America got hooked on him during his stint on â€œHollywood Squaresâ€ from 1998 to 2003. Hired by Goldberg as the game showâ€™s head writer, Vilanch soon earned a spot as a â€œsquareâ€ and became popular with viewers. Channeling the gay game show spirits of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, Vilanch pushed the comedy envelope with innuendo-laden gay jokes. With his teddy bear looks, cherubic smile under his fuzzy beard, and his trademark eccentric eyewear, Vilanch was cuddly enough to make the off-color material palatable for middle America.
Asked if he missed the show, Vilanch says, â€œI miss the money. I was paid very well to have a party. We were nine divas carrying on and if one of us went too far, there were eight others going, â€œWho do you think you are?â€™ I was stunned myself by the jokes we got away with.â€
Not that it was always easy to get by the network censors. â€œThere were endless fights. My argument was always, â€˜If [viewers] donâ€™t get it, they wonâ€™t be offended.â€™ But they didnâ€™t understand that for some reason.â€ What Vilanch appreciated most about his tenure with the show was the seemingly simple fact that â€œI got to say I was gay. I had a sexual life. And that caused the biggest censorship fights,â€ he said. â€œThey would tell me, â€˜OK, everyone knows youâ€™re gay. You donâ€™t have to be graphic about it.â€™ And I would say, â€˜Iâ€™m not being graphic. Iâ€™m just being myself. You wouldnâ€™t tell Brooke Shields sheâ€™s being graphic if she talked about her dates.â€™â€
Vilanch left â€œHollywood Squaresâ€ in 2003 for the national touring company of the mega-hit musical â€œHairspray,â€ based on the John Waters movie. He followed the sizable footsteps of another gay comic legend, Harvey Fierstein, who won a Tony award for the role of Edna Turnblad on Broadway. After touring with the show across the U.S. (he appeared in Boston at the Colonial Theater) Vilanch made his Broadway debut after Fiersteinâ€™s departure from the long-running show. Performing eight shows a week in a demanding musical wasnâ€™t easy for this â€œolder bride,â€ he says. â€œYou have to conserve your energy all day to be able to do the show at night. You have to pace yourself, so your whole life is about the show. All you do, especially on the road, is eat, sleep and perform.â€
Despite the rigorous schedule, Vilanch says he would do Edna again â€œin a minuteâ€ if a quality production asked him to (there is currently a non-equity company making the rounds of smaller cities).
Vilanchâ€™s many TV credits include a recent stint on â€œCelebrity Fit Club.â€ â€œI lost 25 pounds while on the show, and five or 10 more since,â€ he says. â€œI wear black to make sure I look slim.â€ Still, the show wasnâ€™t a pleasant experience for the veteran actor and writer.
â€œReality TV is a nightmare,â€ he says. â€œI loved the people, the diet and the workout, but not this contrived situation where they try to pit people against one another, and try to get you at your nastiest. They edit for the storyline that they have in mind from the beginning. It is no fun. Money is the motivator, but itâ€™s not enough to make a fool out of yourself.â€
This fall, Vilanch will be back doing what he does best: heâ€™s writing again for â€œComic Relief,â€ the benefit hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams that will be performed in Las Vegas and aired on both HBO and CBS. And he is â€œgoing around and being a performance divaâ€ in his solo show. After making the rounds of many cities and towns across the country, Vilanch is looking forward to the friendly venue of Provincetown where heâ€™ll engage with the audience, the part of his show that allows him to exchange anecdotes and display his quick wit. And he wonâ€™t have to worry about the censors.
The Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St. â€œAlmost Famous with Bruce Vilanch,â€ 10 pm Fri.-Sun. $29. Call (508) 487-9793 or www.ptowntix.com