Everything Bruce Vilanch knows about writing for celebrities, he probably learned from the Stars Wars Holiday Special. Back in 1978, when his career was still in its infancy, Vilanch was one of those unlucky scribes hired to pen dialogue for George Lucas’s greatest televised blunder. As much mockery as the ill-advised TV special has (deservedly) received, you gotta hand it to Vilanch; writing entire scenes of monosyllabic gibberish for actors in monkey suits is a tough gig. (As Vilanch once reminisced to us, Wookiee dialogue sounds like “fat people having an orgasm.”) He also had to contend with a very coked-out Carrie Fisher, a pun-happy Art Carney (who apparently had no problem saying lines like “You might even say she did it by hand… Solo!”), and an alien-cantina-ballad-singing Bea Arthur—all of it performed (and, one would suppose, written) without a trace of irony. A decade later, when Vilanch was first hired to write for the Oscars and the ceremony began with a mind-boggling duet between Rob Lowe and Snow White, it’s hard not to imagine Vilanch smirking during rehearsals and mumbling, “I could write this shit in my sleep.”
With Vilanch celebrating his 21st anniversary of writing for the Oscars this year, I called him to talk about Hollywood’s favorite night of meaningless self-congratulation. Despite being on an oppressive deadline—the show goes live at eight p.m. this Sunday, March 7, on ABC—and writing for two hosts, one of whom has a history of threatening suicide if he doesn’t get his way, Vilanch was in remarkably good spirits.
Eric Spitznagel: Explain to me how this works. You write jokes for just the hosts or all the presenters too?
Bruce Vilanch: I write across the board. Every year it breaks down differently, depending on the host, but as we get closer to the date, all of the writers tend to be writing over each other. Everyone’s contributing to everybody else’s work. There are four of us writing the actual show, and you end up writing and rewriting so many things at the same time. So I do a little of everything.
You’ve got two hosts this year, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Do two hosts give you more opportunities, or just two ways to fail?
(Laughs.) I suppose every opportunity is an opportunity to fail. It multiples by three what we have to do for the host. Normally the host has to come out and be funny and charming and wonderful on his own. Now we’ve got two guys to think about, who’ve got to do it separately and together. I think what the audience will see is a shift in energy. It’ll be different when Alec is out there by himself, or when Steve and Alec are out there together, or when Steve is out there by himself. It’ll have some variety to it.
At any point during rehearsals did Alec call you a rude little pig?
(Laughs.) He saves that for close family members.
Are actors basically your puppets? Can you get them to say just about anything?
No, they have a vote, believe it or not. Everybody who’s ever hosted the show, I think with the exception of Hugh Jackman, is a standup or a writer. Alec isn’t a standup, but he’s definitely a writer. I’m sure you’ve seen his stuff at the Huffington Post. So it’s always a collaborative thing.
But what about the presenters? They’re just reading what you give them, right? Could you get George Clooney to walk onstage and say, “Hello, I’m a symbol of mindless consumerism that’s easy on the eyes?”
That’s entirely possible. You might have to hypnotize them backstage, but you could probably do it.
You’ve been writing for the Oscars for over two decades. At this point, do you feel like the comedy equivalent of a hooker? You’re really good at what you do, but you’ve stopped feeling genuine emotions a long, long time ago?
I have to quote Elaine Stritch. “It’s like the prostitute once said, it’s not the work, it’s the stairs.” (Laughs.) There’s a lot of mileage involved in writing for this show. You go through a lot of hoops.
After all these years, do you feel a little cocky about your comedy writing chops? Is there anything you can’t make funny?
Well, it’s always difficult to try and make the Holocaust funny. (Laughs.) That’s one I try to steer clear of. And obviously, we’re not going to do a whole medley of Haitian earthquake jokes. Some things just aren’t funny, or aren’t appropriate for the show.
What about a movie like Precious? Can you make jokes about it without being a little Michael Richardsy?
It’s tough. At one point, I wanted to have Alec and Steve come out wearing t-shirts, and one of them says “Team Precious” and the other says “Team Mama”.
Wow. That is actually really funny.
I think it’s hilarious. But it requires that you buy into the whole Twilight mania.
You also have to appreciate the lighter side of domestic violence.
Yeah, but that’s the absurdity of it. That’s the joke. The joke is that you can commercialize anything, even something as horrific as that. But it may be asking too much.
There are ten movies nominated for best picture this year. Is it still possible to say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated?”
(Laughs.) That’s very funny. Maybe we’ll use that joke. It’s a great joke.
Except a joke like that probably wouldn’t go over very well, because everybody in that audience is delighted that they’ve been nominated. They worked like dogs to get there. So they don’t tend to enjoy humor at their expense. It’s the Uma/Oprah lesson. They didn’t get this far to have some TV boy make fun of their names.
Are you just trying to get around paying me?
Having ten nominees for best picture is an interesting marketing decision. I think the impetus was when The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated despite being really critically respected and a huge blockbuster. By having ten nominees, the likelihood of more commercial pictures making the cut is much greater. You get a nice, broad spectrum of what was out there last year.
What are the ingredients of a really good Oscar party? Should the guest list include friends and family, or just catty gay men?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know, because I haven’t been to an Oscar party in twenty years. I’ve been in the wings of the Kodak Theatre. I’ll tell you what I remember: I was always bothered by that person at the Oscar party who wins the pool with dumb luck. It’s usually some drunk girl who says, “I don’t know, what’s Art Direction?” She has some stupid, improbable system, like she only picks names that start with B, or the third letter is a vowel. She’s a girl you want to take to the track, because she’s obviously blessed.
What about Oscar drinking games? You have the inside track, so you can give us an advantage. What will be some of the recurring motifs at this year’s ceremony?
I’m sure Avatar will be mentioned quite a bit, so that will be a good opportunity to hoist a few. That’s a given. Otherwise, I probably shouldn’t say anything. Last time I suggested a drinking game, it backfired totally. In 2008, ABC had done a remake of Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs and they were airing it the night after the Oscars. So Sean Combs came to the show solely so they could shoot him in the audience and plug the movie. I mentioned to somebody that this would be a great drinking game. Every time you see Sean Combs, you have to drink. But then it leaked and the director decided at the last minute to change all the shots.
Can award shows be incestuous? Is it okay to make a joke at the Oscars about Kanye West at the VMAs saying “Imma let you finish?” Or is that the comedy equivalent of screwing your sister?
It’s acceptable, but at this point it’s too old. Every joke about Kanye has already been made. I don’t even think there’s room for a Conan O’Brian joke anymore. But I wouldn’t rule it out. You never know. Desperate people do desperate things.
I guess there’s nothing you can do if one of the presenters goes rogue and starts improvising.
That’s so rare. Occasionally it will happen, but for the most part the show is scripted and everyone has signed off on every joke. These scripts are delicate negotiations.
Avatar and The Hurt Locker are tied with nine nominations each. Which begs the obvious question: will we give a shit about either of these movies in ten years?
I think Avatar will still resonate. It’s not the greatest show on earth, but it’s a big-ass crowd pleaser like Spartacus. It’s funny, if you’d asked me back in 2005 if Brokeback Mountain or Crash would still be relevant in 2010, I would have said Brokeback Mountain. It had a timeless quality.
And yet Crash won best picture. Do the Oscars actually mean anything?
I think so, yeah.
But look at the track record: Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas. Kramer Vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now. Rocky beat Taxi Driver. Has there ever been a best picture winner that was legitimately the best picture of that year?
The Oscars are about the dynamics of that moment, of that season. It reflects what’s been going on in the world every year through the movies. And a lot of times, what’s popular at the movies is popular because of what’s going on in the world at that moment. A picture like The Hurt Locker rises to the top because it mirrors the frustration that a lot of people feel with those two wars. The movie is a metaphor for that frustration.
A friend recently pointed out to me that Up in the Air, despite scoring six nominations, was left out of the best editing category, and that no film has won best picture without an editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1981. Should I get less nerdy friends?
(Laughs.) Well that goes without saying. Unless they’re heavily endowed, in which case you’d be very wise to keep them at your side.
I should pick my friends based on their penis size?
Exactly. You wouldn’t be the first. I didn’t know that statistic about best editing. That’s fascinating.
Because of your day job, do you have an unusually high tolerance for obsessive theorizing about Oscar predictions?
It makes me laugh. I think it’s fabulous. I love the idea that people parse the awards like that. Who knew we had all this O.C.D. in the world? Well actually, I suppose it’s pretty obvious. It explains Sudoku, doesn’t it?
I need to address the elephant in the room. You totally look like Sweetums from The Muppets. You do realize that, don’t you?
I didn’t. Which one is Sweetums again? Does he look like a Viking?
No, not really. He’s… well, I guess the polite adjective is hirsute.
Yeah, I figured. (Laughs.) It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been mistaken for a Muppet. As I’m fond of saying, Jim Henson has had his fist up my ass many, many times.
Yikes. Did you just out a dead guy?
Wait, I just Googled Sweetums and…. okay, yeah, I guess do look like him.
It’s like looking in a mirror, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah. (Long pause as, I can only assume, he studies his muppet doppelgänger.) It’s definitely weird.
There are some subtle differences. You’re not as fangy, for one thing.
No, thank god. But I’m as close as you’re going to get. For years, I was compared to Wookiees, especially after I did the Star Wars Holiday Special. I have some photos of me with a few of the Wookiees on the set, and it’s hard to tell us apart.
Getting back to the Oscars, can you see yourself doing this for another 21 years?
Absolutely. It’s the greatest show on earth. It’s like asking somebody, “Hey, would you like to play in the Super Bowl next year?” Did anybody get into football not to play in the Super Bowl? Does anybody get into show business not to do the biggest show in the world?
When you die, are you going to haunt the Kodak Theater? Do you plan to be like the Phantom of the Opera, lurking in the shadows and muttering one-liners?
(Laughs.) Only if I can’t get into the Erotic Video Awards.