Bruce Vilanch is a name that probably registers only with that segment of the public who read Variety and follow the minutiae of the Hollywood merry-go-round, but his name is something of a mantra to some of the biggest names in entertainment, whose material Vilanch often ghosts when they appear at awards shows and charity events.
If you’ve laughed at Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Rosie O’Donnell or Robin Williams, then you’ve probably laughed at the jokes of Bruce Vilanch. Openly gay, he’s known as Hollywood’s court jester, and he’s one of the funniest comedy writers in the biz.
Vilanch is a semi-regular on the TV show Hollywood Squares, he’s been lampooned on The Simpsons, and Nathan Lane swears that he delivers more great lines than a Hollywood coke dealer. And that’s no joke.
Vilanch’s biggest gig airs next week -“ the Oscars. Seen by an audience of billions, Vilanch holds the position of chief scribe. He’s the man responsible for penning the gags that make Steve Martin funny, and a swag of stars look erudite and serious. I caught up with him on the eve of the night of nights.
SASHA NAOD: You must be close to putting finishing touches on your script -“ who are your targets this year?
BRUCE VILANCH: It’s been a very violent year, it’s difficult to ignore. Gangs Of New York. There are murderers, there are butchers, there’s the Holocaust, there are people who just put stones in their pockets and just walk in the ocean. It’s difficult because there is a lot of blood and guts and there will be a lot of talk about that -“ about what a violent group we are. Other than that I can’t really give it away -“ I promised Al Qaeda the exclusive.
SN: And Steve Martin’s in the hot seat as host.
BV: Yeah. He’s kind of like a science teacher who you had in high school, and you discover that outside of school he’s slightly off. That’s his whole approach -“ you think you’re looking at a normal person looking natty in an Armani suit, but then you discover that you’re looking at the weirdest individual who has a strange, skewed view of the world. That’s what’s so interesting about him.
SN: What’s your biggest worry as the night approaches?
BV: That nobody will laugh. That nothing we’re doing is funny. Obviously this year I’d be concerned if we’re bombing Bagdad. We don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know from one day to the next, and we just have to plan the show as if nothing’s going to happen and adjust accordingly.
SN: How will you treat the issue of war as far as jokes are concerned?
BV: Well, it all depends on what’s actually happening, you know. If something’s happened and there’s some laughs to it, we might make a couple of jokes, but if we’re knee deep in it, it’s something that’s going to have to be avoided or treated with very boring dignity.
SN: How palpable is the anxiety surrounding the breakout of war?
BV: There are lots of security concerns. It shifts on a daily basis. It’s nothing you can really make plans for. We just go blindly forward and see what happens.
SN: How do you decide what gets written about and what doesn’t?
BV: Well, we look over whatever’s happened over the year, who’s been nominated. The Oscars are basically about what’s gone on for the past year as seen through the movies. That’s how we start, we always start with references to the movies that are being honoured, because that’s essentially what the show is. And then if we can put the rest of the world in, we do.
SN: You must be more nervous than a nominee as the show goes on with your jokes and reputation on the line?
BV: You know it’s my 15th year, and I still haven’t won an Oscar! But there’s a limit to how nervous you can be. You want it to work. It’s playing out live across the world, and more people watch it than anything else, so the mistakes you make will live with you forever. But on the other hand there’s all the good stuff too.
SN: What drew you to writing as opposed to, say, performing?
BV: I was actually drawn to performing, but realised I could actually make a living from writing. With performing, I was up against every fat, funny person in the world who could be auditioning for everything. With writing, I could establish my own point of view.
SN: Is the writing process how we imagine it -“ do you all sit around in a locked room ordering takeaway pizza to get through the small hours?
BV: That’s right. Except that we go to Steve’s house, and Steve has a cook and the food is phenomenal, which makes it easy.
SN: The process of getting prepared for the big night is quite a ritual for a lot of the attendees.
BV: Yeah. They just want to look gorgeous. Most stars spend so much time getting basted and permed and sewn into their outfits and lacquered and curled -“ they don’t want to move one way or another or the Botox shifts.
SN: Who are you tipping to win the big ones this year?
BV: I think Chicago will probably take it. It’s a very good movie. It uses the vocabulary of film very well, it’s a very smart adaptation. I think Nicole has a really big shot. Actually, she’ll win unless Renee Zellweger gets caught in a Chicago scoop. I also think the Jack Nicholson movie will win because they seem to lerv Jack.
SN: You’re out and open about your sexuality -“ it certainly doesn’t seem like you’ve had any trouble being gay in Hollywood, unlike some -¦
BV: I probably have, but I don’t know about it. My feeling has always been that somebody who doesn’t want to work with me because I’m gay and I’m out is probably somebody I don’t want to work with either. It’s a bit hard to make something out of it, because I’m not a conventional human being anyway. I’m not like anyone else, I’m just me, and it’s part of the fabric of who I am and I’m not going to hide it.
The 75th Academy Awards air on Monday night.