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Oh, Bruce!

Bruce Vilanch is Almost Famous Off-Broadway, and a Hollywood comedian's best friend.

By New York City
If you've laughed at Whoopi, Billy, Lily, or Bette, you've probably laughed at jokes written by Bruce Vilanch. One of America's cleverest comedy writers, Vilanch is finally getting his moment in the spotlight as the star of the one-man show Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous at Westbeth Theater Center, opening May 11.

Weeknights, he can be seen on the syndicated game show The Hollywood Squares. (With Vilanch providing one-liners and his old friend Whoopi in the center square, HS has to be one of the best guilty pleasures on the tube.) When not penning bon mots for Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony, Vilanch keeps busy hosting and/or writing AIDS benefits, including AIDS Project Los Angeles' Commitment to Life. He stars in the current video release Get Bruce, a documentary of his crazy life and a must-see for all TheaterManiacs. Bruce also has his own website, BruceVilanch.com.

Bruce assures us that Almost Famous will give audiences a good taste of his infamous wit, plus backstage tales of Hollywood's biggest stars. After a quick bite of Chinese food near Westbeth, Bruce settled down for a chat before a preview performance.

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TM: So, how's it going?

VILANCH: Wonderful! I'm doing my third preview tonight. The first was phenomenal, and the second was like any second show; I was putting in new material and pushing and pulling and trying to get the form right. Tonight, I think I have it right where I want it.

TM: Have you done Almost Famous before?

VILANCH: I've done parts of it before in California, but I've written a bunch of new stuff for New York.

TM: Let's back up a little. Have you ever lived in New York?

VILANCH: Not formally. I'm from Paterson, New Jersey, and I've been coming here my whole life. I tell people I grew up in New York because I was in New York every weekend when I was young, shopping, going to shows, hanging out at Port Authority...

TM: I saw your movie last night, Get Bruce. In it, you say that you started writing movie reviews in high school.

VILANCH: Right.

TM: And while you were writing for the Chicago Tribune in the early 1970s, you saw Bette Midler's act and introduced yourself. Was that a turning point in your life?

VILANCH: Yes, you could call it that!

TM: Do you remember the first joke you sold or gave to her?

VILANCH: Oh, gosh, something about Chicago...something that would have been timely back then. Jokes can have such a short shelf life.

TM: Were you interested in the entertainment business when you were a kid?

VILANCH: I always knew I wanted to be in show business. I learned to read from movie ads. The first word I knew how to read was Mayo. It was from Virginia Mayo--or it could have been mayonnaise. We're not sure.

TM: Your mom was in show business, right?

VILANCH: Yes, and she said from the very beginning that I should follow in her footsteps. I never thought I'd attack it from the writing end. I thought I'd be a fat comedian/actor--a Zero Mostel or a Jackie Gleason--but it didn't turn out that way. I was in competition with a lot of guys who were older and fatter, and at one point I thought, "Why am I doing this when I can just write about it?" So I decided to approach it that way. I had a knack for writing, and it kind of stuck.

TM: Was there a specific moment when you decided to go West instead of East?

VILANCH: Yes. I was living in Chicago, writing for the Chicago Tribune. I was about 27. I had an opportunity to come to New York and write for Saturday Night Live, which was just starting up, or I could go to California and write for The Manhattan Transfer series. I thought I could always come back to New York, and since someone was paying me money to go to California, I might as well go. To me, Hollywood was a dream.


TM: Do you find it easier to write for men or women?

VILANCH: What a great question! Women have a tendency to have more flamboyant stage characters, and that's fun to write. I think they're more willing to make fun of themselves. Men and comedy are harder. Many men in comedy want to be cool and not look too stupid--Billy, Robin, and Nathan are exceptions. Women will hit the wall if you tell them to, and that's where the big laughs are. It's not a hard-and-fast rule: God knows, Marty Short will hit the wall if you tell him to.

TM: So, do you have a secret stash of off-color jokes? Politically incorrect stuff?

VILANCH: Oh yes, and you'll hear some of those in this show.

TM: Of the awards shows you write for, do you have a favorite?

VILANCH: I love doing the Oscars. It's the biggest show in the world. Johnny Carson said it was two hours of entertainment spread out over four hours.

TM: Who's your favorite dead movie star?

VILANCH: There are so many. I guess Bette Davis. Or Marilyn Monroe; she was amazing.

TM: You say in Get Bruce that you like reading local newspapers for topics to put into your writing. What do you think of the New York papers?

VILANCH: I devour them. Who wouldn't? They are like candy.

TM: Will you be seeing many of the Broadway shows while you're here?

VILANCH: Everything, because I'll be writing the Tony Awards this year. I've been in and out of town and have seen a lot of things already.

TM: What's your favorite place on earth?

VILANCH: Between the waist and the knees--and I try to visit as often as I can.

TM: Where do you do most of your writing?

VILANCH: Between the waist and the knees.

TM: What's your favorite sound?

VILANCH: It has to be laughter.

TM: And your favorite food?

VILANCH: That's hard. I wish I could narrow it down to just one and eat that! Look at me--how could I choose just one?

TM: How do you pick your glasses?

VILANCH: They have to match my T-shirts. I do accessorize heavily. It's all coordinated: socks, shoes, T-shirts, glasses. Mix-and-match. Bobbie Brooks color coordinates.

TM: What's your favorite four-letter word?

VILANCH: I want to say "love."

TM: That's good. One last question. When was the last time you saw yourself without your beard?

VILANCH: 1971. I grew it for a movie. Picture this: It turned out to be the only Marcello Mastroianni movie to flop in Italy. Very distinctive. It was filmed mostly in Chicago, and I grew a beard for the part. I had to keep a three-day growth, which was miserable. I vowed after the picture that I would never shave again. And I haven't, for 30 years. Oh...can I change one of my answers? I just remembered, "dick" is a four-letter word.


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