When you get an opportunity to interview Bruce Vilanch, one of the most celebrated comedy writers in history and a way-out gay man to boot (and boots go with anything), you do not pass it by.
Vilanch spoke with me last week about a cause close to his heart, the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation and the great work it does and will continue to do thanks to the bucks it seeks to rake in from a one-night-only Help Is on the Way cabaret benefit: the Broadway touring cast of Beautiful will perform in Motown & More on Monday, September 12, 2016, at 7:30 p.m. at the Marines' Memorial Theater in San Francisco.
The highly anticipated show will be co-hosted by Vilanch and operatic drag diva Katya Smirnoff-Skyy. Get your tickets here.
Vilanch's career took off when a friendship with Bette Midler (before she was Bette Midler!) led to him writing for her 1974 Broadway show Clams on the Half Shell. He's collaborated with her many times, and has written for a dizzying array of TV shows and performers, from Donny Osmond to Elizabeth Taylor, and for some of the funniest people of our time: Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr (she really did used to be funny), Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin and more.
Help Is on the Way performers speak out about the charity:
Somehow, Vilanch has been able to be a part of the best and worst of pop culture, writing for the Oscars for 27 years and counting, and also counting The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976-1977) and that infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) among his credits. He is the nuclear cockroach of HA!, and always the best thing about whatever project he's tackling.
Vilanch survives in any milieu because everyone knows he knows from funny. He's beloved because, unlike some very funny people, he also has a sense of humor about himself, and a sense of duty toward the gay community and people in need.
Read on for my chat with the most hilarious person in the room, because the room is usually filled with people delivering lines he's given them to say ...
Boy Culture: First, tell me about the event!
Bruce Vilanch: The event is being sponsored by the Richmond/Ermet AID Foundation, a fascinating organization founded by two women who met when their sons were both dying of AIDS in the same ward in a hospital. It was such an interesting story that there was a TV movie made about it with Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret [Our Sons (1991)]. They started this charity, and basically what it does is it raises money for all the other little charities in the San Francisco Bay area that can’t afford to have fundraisers and marketing, but provide actual services to people … who need it. So it’s a clearinghouse. And they work very close to the bone, so all the money that’s raised actually goes to these charities.
Twice a year, we do a big revue called Help Is on the Way and what we also do is every now and again when a big musical comes to town, the touring company, we take the dark night, Monday, and all the people from that show come over and they get to sing songs—anything but what’s in the musical. This one is Beautiful, the Carole King musical, so they get to sing anything but Carole King. And they’re brilliantly talented and they can’t wait to sing something besides Carole King because they’ve been doing that eight times a week.
This has a theme—a Motown theme. There are a lot of Motown people in the Carole King show because Carole started at the Brill Building in New York writing for black acts, basically—rhythm & blues acts—so there are a lot of people playing the Shirelles and the Drifters, and they’re itching to do Motown. Also along for the ride—because it’s San Francisco—is a superstar drag queen.
BC: Yes, have you seen Katya's work before?
BV: I’ve done other benefits with her—she’s brilliant. If you remember Anna Russell—wow, this is a name to drop—Anna Russell was a comedienne soprano who did opera parodies and she was a big star on the concert circuit. She was kinda like Victor Borge, a female version. I’m nothing if not arcane.
BC: When you were starting out, drag was very niche—now, it's everywhere.
BV: Thank you, RuPaul. I would say drag’s come of age, but that would be a terrible thing to say because a lady never tells her age.
BC: Is the mainstreaming of drag a good thing? Is anything lost?
BV: We have the RuPaul TV show to thank and I think it’s great—I mean, there’s always been an exotic kind of acceptance of it, but it really lived in the gay subculture, and now I guess it lives in the mainstream culture. Drag is women in quotes, and women especially enjoy seeing women in quotes because it gives them an extra laugh. They see a person like RuPaul and they say, “Well, that’s what I’m supposed to look like if I really put effort into it.” And of course drag queens get to be ridiculous and dirty and crazy, and men love that, too.
BC: You're no stranger to drag—you played Edna Turnblad. Are you looking forward to Hairspray Live!?
BV: Sure! They’re doing it on the Universal lot outdoors with audiences, so it won’t be confined to an airplane hangar, and Harvey [Fierstein] will get to do his original interpretation—he was the first one to do the part after Divine—which I think is great.
I wish I could be a part of it.
BC: In looking over your credits, I couldn't see anyone you haven't worked with. Who would you still love to collaborate with in some way?
BV: Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, both of whom shouted out to me in their books, are people that I’d love to work with. They didn’t shout out about working with me—I mean, essentially, I was a sight gag for both of them—but I would love to work with them, I think they’re both pretty great. I’ve been lucky. I don’t keep close track of who’s around I could seize. What happens is if you do enough of these awards shows and benefits and things, you’re writing for everybody. We all get called into those things. It’s a combination of having a need to do good and a need to have your ego stroked.
BC: Is there anyone you've worked with not known for being funny who surprised you with their comedic flair?
BV: Raquel Welch—because she made fun of herself, and that’s always good when they’re wiling to make fun of their image. They can get surprise laughs off of that. But a lot of times you work with actors on awards shows who have no persona. They’re brilliant actors, like Johnny Depp, but there’s no Johnny Depp character for him to play. He’s not comfortable doing any of that, so he’s hard to write for. Sometimes it’s a disaster. I once tried to write something for Keanu Reeves in his Bill & Ted character. Which of course works great in the movies, but was not anything he knew how to do onstage. But why would he? When did Keanu Reeves ever come out and do a show full of monologues? Except when he was Hamlet. It’s a muscle that actors don’t develop.
We did six years of Hollywood Squares. Antonio Banderas is not inherently funny. This was before he was doing Puss in Boots. And he was making fun of himself, of the Latin lover, and he was very funny doing it. Well, at least his wife would laugh … but then the marriage didn’t last, so who knows?
BC: Humor has changed a lot over the course of your career, and people are often offended by jokes these days. Is that ever a valid reaction, or are you of the mind that humor always gets a pass?
BV: I think it’s worth registering that you’re pissed off, that it’s in what we used to call bad taste back when there was taste. But at the same time, it’s the comedian’s job to take things to extremes that can sometimes be offensive. It’s kinda like, no matter how much painkiller they may give you, the dentist may hit a nerve.
BC: Bette Midler recently took it on the chin when she was perceived as mocking Caitlyn Jenner for being trans.
BV: Personally, I thought that was insane. She wasn’t making a joke about transgenders, she was making a joke about the monetizing of transgenderism, which is being done by Caitlyn Jenner.
BC: I guess the waters are muddied because people want to mock Caitlyn, and she's so famous for being trans.
BV: Exactly. Anybody who would make that leap is out of their mind. It’s not a joke about transgenders, it’s a joke about this person who will do anything to remain in the public eye—and who is not our friend, by the way. She’s more to be pitied than censured. There’s no accounting for the taste of some. You find generally in communities like in the gay community that activists have no sense of humor. They are so sensitive about everything. And to jump on Bette Midler is kind of like, “Excuse me? Where’ve you been for the last 50 years?” Well, you know, probably in Trinidad, Colorado, deciding what you wanted to look like, I don’t know.
That alone would get me in jail. That remark. You know, you’re not allowed to say anything!
BC: What about the movement away from fat jokes? I watch old TV shows and movies I've seen a million times and suddenly, some of the so-called body-shaming feels cringeworthy. Or just ... dated.
BV: We’re hypsersenstive now. I do fat jokes about myself and people go, “Ohhhh ... have some self-esteem!” The audience, which is ordering their fifteenth Cointreau. What are you gonna do? It’s very bad news for anybody who writes jokes because there’s a whole area that’s now being withheld for all the right reasons, but still, hey, it’s a hard job to begin with. Where’s my parade?
I personally don’t indulge in it myself except if it’s about me because those jokes are so easy. A slob is funny, but a fat slob it much funnier.
BC: If you make a fat joke about Chris Christie, it gets a lot of positive response, but always has a few very loud negative responses.
BV: Roger Stone, who works for Trump, tweeted that it’s wrong if you’re that fat to wear shorts. I happen to agree and I’m that fat, so call me old-school. I think you’re fair game if you do that. I guess you’re not anymore. They’re trying to make a joke about that person for other reasons, and so they seize on that because it’s a nice, cheap and easy and fast way to make a joke about them. They wanna make a joke about Chris Christie because they’re opposed to Chris Christie. Who is opposed to Melissa McCarthy?
BC: Maybe Rex Reed—he wrote that she was “tractor-sized.”
BV: Well, he compared Sandy Dennis to a taxi cab years ago, with all the doors open. He lives in the city, you know, so it could be on his mind.
I guess my point is, when somebody makes a joke about a woman who is kind of benign, who is not a political character, they’re just making a joke about how she looks, as opposed to what she represents. Chris Christie represents something hateful.
BC: What about when people mock Hillary Clinton's fashion sense?
BV: Women are always, you’re always commenting on how they look, good or bad. That’ll be harder to get over. It’s a slow climb.
BC: I have to ask you about a few items on your résumé that are personal obsessions: First, you wrote “Where Is My Man” (1983) for Eartha Kitt—how did that happen?
BV: “Where Is My Man”—I’m still looking for the answer to that one. I had written the first draft for one of the worst movies of all time, Cant Stop the Music (1980). Allan Carr had gotten me into that and I wrote the first draft and then I quit, but I got friendly with Jacques Morali, the co-creator of the Village People. In the early '80s, he called me and said, [French accent] “Dahhhrling, I think you are a lyricist.” He wrote songs for the Crazy Horse in Paris and famous people would record them and the girls would lip-synch them. He said he had Eartha Kitt and he only had the title, “Where Is My Man” and he needed a lyric ... and I said, “Oui!!!”
So we recorded the song and it was released as a dance single and became a huge hit. We had gold records from all over the world—everyplace but the U.S. They wouldn’t play a song that long on the radio. Or a disco song. It kinda revived Eartha’s career. She was sitting up here in Connecticut kind of doing nothing, and it put her back on the map. So we did an album. We went over to Paris and we did an album of all those kinds of songs [I Love Men (1984)], and now it’s 30 years later and the song is kind of iconic. I wound up doing an album for the Village People [Sex Over the Phone (1985)] after that, also.
I was in Mykonos last week sitting at JackieO' and one of these obscure Village People songs played and then an Eartha song and I thought, “Oh, they know I’m here!”—immediately taking it to the level of ME, but the guy said they play those all the time. I’ve found Nirvana!
BC: You also had a part in one of my favorite TV shows, Bosom Buddies (1980-1982).
BV: I did an under-five on one episode called “Kip Quits,” about Tom Hanks quitting his job and becoming a hot dog vendor and I was the Orson Welles of customers. They both looked pretty hot at the time. He was on a sitcom which was doing pretty well so I figured the next thing would be The Tom Hanks Show ... and of course he took a little detour into movies.
BC: I noticed you weren't on the Rob Lowe roast, even though you were with the Oscars during the Snow White debacle (1989).
BV: I haven’t appeared on any. I’ve written for some of them. I was in Europe. They stock them up with Comedy Central people who they’re trying to promote.
BC: Like Ann Coulter?
BV: That was a smart bit of programming because it gives them a lot of social media attention before it airs. It’s one of those things like, “Why is she there?” Well, why was Bea Arthur at the Pam Anderson roast? It was very smart booking. I was gonna do the Joan Rivers roast for a minute and I don’t know what happened but it didn't happen. I think, actually, they put Amy Schumer on it.
BC: And she went nowhere.
BC: Are you a fan of that format?
BV: Nah. No. I don’t like Punk’d shows, I don’t like roasts. I think they’re funny when they’re really no holds barred, but I don’t particularly go for that kind of humor anymore. I’ll slide a line in here and there, but it’s a series of yo' mama jokes. It’s funny to hear some of them,. but something I don’t find particularly thrilling to be a part of.
Now I’ll never do one of those roasts!