The vociferous voice of Bruce Vilanch
By Loren King
Sat Aug 23, 2008, 02:37 PM EDT
Bruce Vilanch is the go-to guy for great jokes in Hollywood. Whether punching up an Oscar telecast or Bette Midlerâ€™s Vegas act, Vilanchâ€™s ribald, irreverent and very gay wit is legendary. Now, Vilanch turns his insiderâ€™s eye and writerâ€™s pen to his own material, bringing his autobiographical â€œsit-downâ€ (as opposed to stand-up) act to Provincetownâ€™s Madeira Room at Vixen Aug. 22 and 23.
â€œItâ€™s a queen behind the scenes,â€ quips Vilanch about his solo show. And thereâ€™s plenty to talk about. Vilanchâ€™s resumÃ© includes nearly two decades of writing for the Academy Awards telecasts, collaborating with Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman and others. He became head writer in 2000, and supervised this yearâ€™s Oscars with host Jon Stewart, working feverishly to mount a show after a prolonged writersâ€™ strike threatened to cancel the entire event. Vilanch has written for all the major industry awards shows, but admits that â€œthe Oscars and the Tonys are the fun ones.â€ Heâ€™s currently developing â€œsomething unusualâ€ with Blue Man Group, which he describes as â€œa New York interactive sight-seeing experience.â€
Vilanchâ€™s long association with Bette Midler â€” heâ€™s credited with introducing the Sophie Tucker jokes to Midlerâ€™s stage act back in the â€™70s â€” will no doubt provide plenty of anecdotes, too. Vilanch worked closely with Midler on her current Las Vegas show, â€œThe Showgirl Must Go On,â€ that opened earlier this year at Caesarâ€™s Palace. She alternates at Caesarâ€™s Palace with Cher and Elton John.
â€œItâ€™s very gay,â€ says Vilanch. â€œThe menâ€™s room attendant is Larry Craig.â€
No stranger to Provincetown, Vilanch, 59, performed last summer in a benefit for the New Provincetown Players organized by his friend Shawn Nightingale, the new owner of Vixen.
He was a big part of the Provincetown International Film Festival in 2000 when â€œGet Bruce,â€ a documentary about his career, premiered. He enjoyed the festivities that year with another gay bon vivant, John Waters, who was presenting a film at the Wellfleet Drive-in. The two quip-masters crossed career paths again in 2003 when Vilanch joined the national touring company of the mega-hit musical â€œHairspray,â€ based on Watersâ€™ popular movie. After touring with the show across the U.S. (Vilanch appeared in Boston at the Colonial Theater, a high point of the tour for him) Vilanch made his Broadway debut after Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein left the long-running show.
â€œIâ€™d go back to â€˜Hairsprayâ€™ in a minute, but theyâ€™re not paying what they used to,â€ said Vilanch from his home in Los Angeles. â€œIâ€™m actively looking for a stage role. Iâ€™ve had a few false starts. Itâ€™s hard to find the right role. All the Zero Mostel revivals have already been done with Nathan Lane.â€
With a cherubic smile under a fuzzy beard, mop of unruly hair, and his trademark eccentric eyewear and T-shirts, Vilanch endeared himself to middle America during his tenure on â€œHollywood Squaresâ€ from 1998 to 2003. Hired by pal Goldberg as the game showâ€™s head writer, Vilanch soon earned a spot as a â€œsquareâ€ and became popular with viewers for his Paul Lynde-esque double entendres and jokes far gayer than anything Lynde could get away with back in the day. Vilanch often did battle with the network censors over the friskier material, and he often won.
â€œThe success of â€˜Squaresâ€™ was nine celebrities having a party,â€ says Vilanch, noting that such success has been difficult for other game show revivals, such as â€œThe Match Gameâ€ and â€œTo Tell the Truth,â€ to replicate. â€œI think â€˜Whatâ€™s My Lineâ€™ would work today but thereâ€™s nothing quite like â€˜Squares,â€™â€ he says. The game show heâ€™d most like to bring back, he says, is â€œMasquerade Party,â€ a popular 1950s show that featured a panel of celebrities that questioned another celebrity in disguise.
Vilanchâ€™s own tastes in television include police procedurals such as â€œLaw & Order,â€ â€œCSIâ€ and â€œThe Closer,â€ along with â€œMad Menâ€ and Showtimesâ€™ â€œWeedsâ€ and â€œThe Tudors.â€
As the writer for variety shows like the original â€œDonny and Marieâ€ and â€œThe Brady Bunch Hour,â€ Vilanch laments that except for awards and chat shows, variety has all but disappeared from TV, except for â€œrealityâ€ competitions like â€œDancing with the Starsâ€ and â€œAmerican Idol.â€ Vilanch doubts that todayâ€™s 500-channel universe would welcome a non-competitive variety hour. â€œWhat made variety so special was that audiences saw performers that they could not see anywhere else,â€ he says. â€œNow you can see the Jonas Brothers seven days a week, on Regis then Ellen and then on Martha Stewart. Thereâ€™s no scarcity anymore.â€
But show biz aficionados can relive glory days past and present this weekend at Vixen through Vilanchâ€™s unique, and very funny, perspective.