Almost Fabulous: Bruce Vilanch at Feinstein’s
By Tony Phillips
“Good evening,” comedian Bruce Vilanch begins, “I’m Chastity Bono.” And from there, the writer embarks on his one-man-show entitled Writer on the Verge, which played Feinstein’s on January 11. The mistaken-identity, name-dropping doesn’t stop with Chaz. From his black tee emblazoned with the phrase “I’m not Brad Pitt” to his claim he was mistaken for Barbara Cook by the hotel staff on his way into the Loew’s Regency, where this particular cabaret resides, Vilanch’s show isn’t so much Hollywood name check as a one-man Day of the Locust.
But perhaps trotting out the household names, whose acts he’s been penning since he wrote pal Bette Midler’s show Clams on the Half Shell in 1974, is more than fair as the six-time Emmy winner eases out from behind his laptop and into the spotlight on his own. HIs material is funny, there are several laugh out loud moments, but the overall effect is bracing in a way that might not have much to do with Vilanch himself. His art, that of the doctoring jokesmtih, is rapidly going the way of the Edsel. Name a comedian under the age of 30 who doesn’t write their own material? Vilanch’s art is a dying form, and to see him spinning his near-extinct magic onstage, while side-splittingly funny, is also akin to watching the prehistoric wooly mammoth mewl in the pit just before its head slips under the bubbling tar.
Perhaps a cabaret act is the way to go, but one can’t help but think taking on apprentices and passing down the craft that way might be a better, more philanthropic way to go. I’m sure Logo could even be cajoled into filming it. And Vilanch acknowledges learning his craft at the feet of the master–Paul Lynde–who took up Plato to Vilanch’s Socrates early in the writer’s own career. Hollywood’s Gayest “center square” met Vilanch when they were both working on “The Donny & Marie Show” in the mid-70s. After a long, Osmonds-waged war against ABC, that production relocated to Orem, Utah, to be closer to the pair’s funky Mormon Mecca and thus began Lynde and Vilanch’s weekly commute from Hollywood to LDS-land aboard the now-defunct Western Airlines.
Vilanch remembers one of the funniest men he’s ever known, but with just “two drinks” something a bit more distinctly evil emerged. Lynde’s sex toys on the luggage carousel story from Vilanch’s 2000 off-Broadway one-man-show Almost Famous is now legend, but here Vilanch updates his Lynde lore with a crowded Western Airlines flight, a few cocktails over Lynde’s two drink minimum and an encounter with a rowdy baby in which Lynde told the parents, “Either you shut that baby up or I’ll fuck it.”
How you feel about the above punchline will probably determine how you feel about Vilanch’s act. It’s insidery and twisted, but for
Bruce’s turn as Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical Hairspray
some also uproariously funny so that even the well-worn jokes–like his infamous, but unuttered “Fievel backed out” line as a goof on Richard Gere’s co-presenter penned for Billy Crystal’s hosting duties at the Academy Awards the year that Speilberg’s American Tale was up for best original song–bear repeating.
And Vilanch also throws in something new, almost as a reward for listening to him rehash some of his patented zingers. In this case, it’s an anecdote from the year that Steve Martin hosted as Vilanch, Martin and the network censor went roundelay on the back-from-commercial, good news/bad news joke that Martin’s fly was open, but the camera adds ten pounds. “It’s a cock joke,” Martin maintained. “It’s a camera joke,” Vilanch countered.
That’s not to say Vilanch is all about Hollywood. He was born in New York and definitely knows where he is, even conceding a Broadway joke or two, albeit ones that have been around at least as long as last season.
There’s his oft-told Pia Zadora as Anne Frank joke wherein the audience tips off the Germans by screaming, “She’s in the attic!” But there’s also a gag about Valerie Harper’s Tallulah Bankhead from last season’s Looped which Vilanch informs the audience was “up last season for at least three weeks.”
So this isn’t Vilanch’s first time at the rodeo. He also appeared in one of the many second casts of the Broadway musical Hairspray, even shaving his trade-marked beard to take on the role of 60s mama Edna Turnblad, but he clearly didn’t make it to the American Idiot opening.
As a run-up to Oscar, his show was an invaluable primer. And naturally, Vilanch weighs in on this Sunday’s mega-watt hosts for the “Los Angeles national holiday,” James Franco and Ann Hathaway. “They’re movie stars,” Vilanch says, “they don’t have to come out and kill.” Not so Vilanch. And he does, for the most part, but when he doesn’t kill, it does cause one to question venue. Seeing Bruce Vilanch at Feinstein’s is a bit like watching a hockey game at the Metropolitan Opera.
First off, there’s his attire. I get that the “funny tees” are a trademark, but no lint brush? The comedian’s wardrobe is covered in stray hairs from his fly-away blond pageboy and along with the Sally Jesse Raphael red glasses, it adds up to a look that probably wouldn’t get him past the maitre’d were he not headlining. Or being mistaken for Barbara Cook.
Overall, his last foray into one-man territory in New York was much more accessible because he was able to own the room. Almost Famous played a smallish, downtown theatre, but didn’t come with all the trappings of the even smaller room at Feinstein’s, where one has patience for the patter, but first and foremost expects the headliner to eventually sing.
I know it’s wrong to evaluate comedy on a sliding scale, but the $85-$95 ticket price for Chelsea Handler’s last blow through town stuck in the craw just as much. Shouldn’t comedy be cheaper? But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened. Vilanch writes patter for the man whose name is above the door. The why of it is, like the $25 food minimum, a little harder to fathom.
And for the upscale ticket price., many of his best tales would be greatly aided by multimedia. An Oscar ceremony where Val Kilmer vamped with Roy Roger’s horse Trigger (and “Trigger wasn’t having it”) almost needs to be seen to be believed, but this room really doesn’t allow for that type of capability.
Vilanch was also a bit stiffer onstage than he was ten years ago, when he devoted the entirety of the second act to audience Q & A. Here, there’s very little riffing with the crowd, as if the stiffness of the venue has set in like arthritis. Toward the beginning of his act, Vilanch joked, “I’m following in the footsteps of Lorna Luft.”
Liza’s half-sister got her start in television at age 11 on her mom’s Judy Garland Show. Vilanch’s own career launched a bit earlier than that modeling for the “charming chub” division of Lane Bryant. As he observed the year that Bjork wore her infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress and he overheard her screeching into her cellphone in Icelandic, “She really is a swan.” He might as well have been describing himself. And maybe after generations of a celebrity-driven rape of the swan, it’s about time momma got paid.