Having a smoke outside San Francisco's Prescott hotel, Bruce Vilanch is getting stares from passers-by.
In most any other city, it could just be his shaggy, sheepdog blond mane and beard, and his glasses with bright red frames garnering all the amused looks. But in a berg quite accustom to the bizarre, such protracted glances don't come so easy.
It's the fact that he's wearing a T-shirt sporting a huge print of the Cowardly Lion, which looks remarkably like Vilanch himself, that seems to be garnering the man amused sideways glances -- and he's eating it up. Waving at people and flashing an effervescent, quizzical smile, he's at least as amused as they are.
Such whimsy is Vilanch's stock in trade. As Hollywood's behind-the-scenes court jester, almost every star in town has him on speed-dial in case they need something funny to say in public.
He writes for Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal when they host Comic Relief. Paul Riser, Lily Tomlin, Rosanne, Shirley McLaine, Carol Burnett, Nathan Lane and Bette Milder all come to him for material at times. His jokes are the life support that keep the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys broadcasts from flat-lining. And now Hollywood had decided to show its appreciation in the love-letter documentary, "Get Bruce!," which catalogs Vilanch's background -- class clown, Chicago Tribune columnist, self-described "big queen," writer for "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour" and "Donnie and Marie" -- in between interviews with adoring celebrities.
Always ready with a quick witticism (when the phone rings during our interview, he answers it and chirps, "Hello, proctology..."), Vilanch is in town, on a break from his most recent full-time gig as head writer and frequent panelist for the new "Hollywood Squares," to talk about the movie that sings his praises. But, he insists with an ironic grin added to his rapid-fire speech pattern, "I'm not doing this as an act of self-promotion...although it will wind of being that anyway."
|Contactmusic.com: I don't expect you to tell me how much money you make, but how do you bill someone for making them funny? Per hour? Per joke? Per project? How does this work?|
Bruce Vilanch: I've done it every which way. I mean, when I started out I was billing per hour, like a shrink because you would sit with somebody and work. But most of it, if it's for a live show it's usually a buy-out. A flat fee. I've worked where people have called and said, "I'll pay you by the hunk" -- I've been hoping to get paid by a hunk someday! (Putting on mock imperial airs) Have him shaved and oiled and brought to my tent!
But they say, you know, 'I need five minutes on living in Beverly Hills' or whatever it is, and I'll write five minutes for a flat fee. But I do all lot of other kinds of work. I write screenplays that don't get made and pilots that don't get picked up, and I re-write other people's movies, and those are all different kinds of fees.
|Has your price gone up since the movie?|
Vilanch: (Laughing) Not yet, but it hasn't opened yet! (The film opens September 17.) But the kind of stuff I do, I mean, the price can never go up on the Academy Awards and the Emmys or any of those things because they're like honorariums anyway when you do them. It's an honor to be working on them.
|Well, that's a bit of a stretch.|
Vilanch: Can you believe it? I know! They make a humongous profit, but the people that work on the shows don't get paid a lot because they're working on the Oscars show. It's the biggest show in the world.
|Do you do a lot of screenwriting?|
Vilanch: I do a lot of screen re-writing. I've written about 15 screenplays and they all sold -- they were all sold on pitches. I've never had to write a spec script. But I've had everything happen, you know -- as (film critic) Pauline Kael says, Hollywood is where you can die from encouragement. I mean, I've sold all these scripts and nothing's been made. Studios have closed, stars have died. I had a director find Jesus. And the pictures just don't get made.
|So what's your work routine? Somebody calls you up with a project and you...|
Vilanch: Well, it depends on what it is. Generally with the Oscars or the Emmys there isn't much you can do until the nominations are announced. Then you know what kind of year you're dealing with -- what's been overlooked, what the issues are. On the Emmys show (this year), for example, "The Sopranos" got 16 nominations, which is something we're going to be making jokes about in the course of the show. But who knew before the nominations came out?
|Or that "Saving Private Ryan" would get nominated for everything at the Oscars last year.|
Vilanch: Well, that one we kind of knew. We didn't know "Shakespeare in Love" was going to sweep. But one of the reasons Billy didn't do the show was that we both knew "Saving Private Ryan" was going to be very big, and you can't make fun of it. He didn't do the show the "Schindler's List" year, either -- Whoopi did the show that year, too -- because you just can't make fun of some of these things. I mean, what was Billy's production number gonna be? Was he going to be hopping around the beach on one leg looking for his arm to "Me and My Shadow"?
|Are there any jokes that you won't do? Anything off limits?|
Vilanch: Sure. My general rule of thumb is: did anybody die? It's difficult to do joke in which death is involved! We've all seen the JFK, Jr. jokes on the internet, but you can't do those publicly. Sometimes there are people you can't make jokes about because the situation is embarrassing, especially if they're going to be there. It's just cruel.
Billy sights this Robert Downey, Jr. joke we had a few years ago. It was a funny joke, but the guy was really in trouble. It was trouble trouble. He's not like Charlie Sheen, who admits he's spent 150 grand on Heidi Fleiss girls. We had one joke one year about Richard Gere. It was the year of those Richard Gere rumors, and it happened to be the same year that "An American Tail" came out...(slipping into a capricious grin).
|Ooohhhh, nooooo. (laughing)|
Vilanch: So we had this joke that Richard Gere was going to present the next award with Fivol, but Fivol backed out.
Vilanch: It went right down the wire, and Billy noticed Richard Gere was in the audience...and we just couldn't do that. Then, of course, the following year, he came out and made a speech about how we should all save Tibet and we should all channel our thoughts toward the Dalai Lama and it was a big grandstanding thing and everybody just sat there. When Richard came off, I said to him, "Richard, the Dalai Lama just called. He changed the channel. He's watching 'Lucy'!"
|Is there a celebrity you haven't written for that you'd like to?|
Vilanch: (English comedian and actor) Eddie Izzard is absolutely brilliant. I would love to write something for him. I'm sure there are others out there, but of the top of my head...I'm tempted to say Matt Damon, just for the meeting (tosses off a quick, naughty smile). But I actually know him so that doesn't count.
|You seem like the kind of affable guy that everybody likes. Have you faced any kind of discrimination in showbiz because of your sexuality?|
Vilanch: Not that I've known...but I'm assuming it's happened because I've seen it happen with other people. I've had a producer say to me, "I don't think women are that funny. I don't like to work with women writers." I mean, that bald- faced. So I'm sure that someone has said (about me), "Well, he's a little light in the loafer for this kind of thing.")It's probably happened in areas like TV pilots or screenwriting or things like that. I think for a long time there was a code. George Cukor told me there was a code at MGM. If you said a writer was strong on dialogue, that meant he was gay. Strong on story, that meant big, butch man. Hire him for the Clark Gable movie. But if you said strong on dialogue, that meant a bitchy queen and he can write for women.
|Tell me what makes you laugh.|
Vilanch: What makes me laugh? Richard Nixon always made me laugh (ironic smile). I think, pomposity deflated. Failed seriousness, which I think is the definition of camp. Drag queens (for example) are trying very hard to be real women, and they fail, and that's what so wonderful about them. And of course, the reason they fail is because they extend themselves beyond real women. They become like hyper-women, and that's hilarious. They're commenting on women at the same time they're trying to be women. I mean, they would love to be them. That's why they're in drag. That's always made me laugh.