The history of 20th-century American culture should devote a large chapter to comedy writers, the unsung shapers of popular taste whose material has so much impact on how we view and laugh at life. And in the part covering the years from 1970 on, the name of Bruce Vilanch should figure prominently.
Some comedy writers are virtually unknown except to aficionados of program credits and record liner notes; others, such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, made the transition all the way from the background to the footlights. Vilanch is an unusual case: he moved from public celebrity to the relatively anonymous (though highly paid) role of behind-the-scenes creator. From 1970 to 1974 he was one of the most familiar funnymen in Chicago: by day a heavily promoted personality journalist, by night a “sit-down comic” with a devoted following.
In 1975, Vilanch moved to Los Angeles to become a full-time comedy writer. It was a vocation he had been pursuing for several years, since his newspaper work had brought him into contact with a little-known singer-comic named Bette Midler.
“She was playing at Mr Kelly’s, and I interviewed her,” says Vilanch, now 41, of his meeting with Midler. “She called me up a day after the interview appeared and said, ‘You’re very funny. Got any lines?’ I said, ‘You should talk more.’ Because at the time she was mostly just singing. So I would fly into New York on the weekends and write for her.”
Those were Midler’s early years, during which she moved from the relative obscurity of late-night gigs at the Improv comedy club and the gay-oriented Continental Baths in New York to increasing mainstream recognition on the strength of Tonight Show appearances and her record The Divine Miss M. The camp sensibility that Midler embodied stirred a responsive chord in the larger popular culture–and Vilanch’s contributions were a major factor. It was Vilanch who gave Midler her occasional alter ego of “Soph,” the reincarnation of the lewd, rude Sophie Tucker in a rock-and-roll world. Vilanch’s “Soph” jokes were part and parcel of his old “sit-down” routine at Punchinello’s. Vilanch’s regular gig at the popular Rush Street nightclub included original and vintage shtick, songs, and story telling.
Vilanch returns this week to the town and the format that launched him when (Punchinello’s having closed years ago) he plays a one-night stand at George’s, 230 W. Kinzie. Except for having bleached his dark hair to blond–a change required for a brief role in the Sidney Lumet film The Morning After–he remains much the same: a roly-poly bearded man with longish hair, a wicked smile, a mind like a steel trap, and a penchant for provoking shameless laughter at the expense of almost anyone, including himself.
Raised in Paterson, New Jersey, Vilanch started out as an actor at a young age. “I was a child model–a charming chub for Lane Bryant, then I became a stylish stout and my career ended,” he says. “Carol Lynley and I were a child modeling team–the idea was that if you put this fat kid in these clothes he would attract this perfect girl.”
In college at Ohio State University in the late 1960s he turned from theater to journalism. “I decided if I stuck in journalism I could get involved in show business in a much bigger way than if I were just another fat actor,” I he says candidly. “I didn’t have a passion for journalism, but I developed one as I got involved. There was an unusual degree of commitment that I liked–though there was also a degree of cynicism, which grinds on you after a while.”
Vilanch came to Chicago in 1970–“two years and two days before Watergate,” he says with practiced precision–to work at the trendy tabloid Chicago Today as a general features writer and “wipe-up critic, reviewing things no one else would review.” Vilanch soon emerged as the court jester of Chicago journalism as he embarked on a series of stunts under Chicago Today’s aegis.
“I think the first one was ‘Reduce Fat Bruce,'” Vilanch says. “I went on a diet and the city went on a diet with me, and later I wrote a series of columns about it. I think I went on 13 different diets in a 13-week period–and lost 13 pounds. Later we did a TV version. This was years before Oprah.”
Then there was his stint as “Mr. Mommy.” “We ran a contest: let our drama critic come to your house for a week. The contest was won by a woman in Blue Island. She had four children and a dog named Boner. She left town for a week and I moved in and did everything she did except sleep with her husband–and the neighbors werent too sure about that! I hosted a PTA meeting, I baked cookies . . . I really tried! And later I wrote a column about it.” On another occasion, Vilanch walked sideways down Michigan Avenue from the Tribune Tower to the Water Tower, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.
After Chicago Today folded, in the summer of ’74, Vilanch went to California to write the Transfer’s summer replacement series for CBS. In the fall he came back home, “packed up my animals,” and relocated permanently. Today, the list of performers Vilanch has written for runs literally from A (Peter Allen) to Z (Pia Zadora); his stylistic range is even more extreme–from the flamboyantly bawdy Midler to the marshmallow Mormonism of Donny and Marie Osmond. In between these one finds on Vilanch’s long client list such names as Cher, Barry Manilow, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Rivers, Diana Ross, Michael Feinstein, George Carlin, Dionne Warwick, Eartha Kitt, the Pointer Sisters, Paul Lynde, Wayland Flowers, and George Burns. Platinum, a Broadway musical authored by Vilanch, opened in 1978 starring Alexis Smith as an aging star making a comeback by rerecording her old hits as disco. “It played 33 performances, but who’s counting?” Vilanch laughs. “The Broadway people didn’t like the rock-and-roll elements and vice versa.”
How does a writer turn out scripts for such diverse performers? “I try to spend a lot of time with them if possible,” says Vilanch, “to hear how they talk, pick up the rhythm of their speech. As you get to know them, you begin to hear about things they’ve done, how their lives connect with their work.” The best comedy, Vilanch notes, comes when the audience feels that the performer is really talking about things that stem from his or her real life rather than just delivering funny lines. That touch of personal identification is the mark of really memorable humorists like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and, yes, Midler.
But professional objectivity and flexibility are vital, too, especially to the man who puts the material together. “It’s all just show business, you know,” Vilanch says. “People ask me, ‘How can you write for Bette Midler and the Osmonds?’ I say, ‘Shakespeare wrote both Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, after all.’ But did he ever have to write a good-night spot for the Osmonds and Lola Falana? That’d prove how good he really was!”
Bruce Vilanch’s show at George’s begins at 8:30 PM, Monday, December 19. Tickets are $17.50, and there’s a two-drink minimum; information and reservations at 644-2290.