Art & Understanding
August 1998

Avalanche of Fun/Bruce Vilanch
For Funny Man Bruce Vilanch Commitment to the Cause Remains Strong
by Dann Dulin

Does Bruce Vilanch really exist? After months of playing phone tag, and sending faxes cross country I wasn't really sure. I wanted to set up this interview. One of the several messages funny man Bruce left on my voice mail was, "Should I bring anything to the interview? I'll wear my tap shoes. I don't know why. I can't tap!" We never spoke.

Weaving and winding roads lead to Bruce's rustic sixties style cabin in the Hollywood Hills. It is hidden from the road by tall, expansive trees and foliage. A warm breeze whirls the leaves onto a creek which borders the triplex. Soaring directly out of the middle of the wood patio is an enormous tree trunk en route to the entrance. I am reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright who advocated building into nature.

I ring the bell. A jolly, hairy, robust man with a radiant grin greets me at the door. We are both so excited that we shake hands twice! Bruce shows me around his home. Everything is oversized, from the cut-stone wall fireplace and the Gulliver-sized kitchen, to the Santa Fe-style wood chairs in the living room. As we walk around his home I notice his career mementos, so we talk about his career—comedy writing.

Not only does Bruce provide the words for Bette Midler—even before she was singing at New York's Continental Baths in the early seventies—but he also writes for numerous celebrities including Whoopi, Liz and Lily. He's also written, just to mention a few: concerts (Barry Manilow, Cher), television shows (Donny & Marie Show, Saturday Night Live), award shows (the Grammys, the Oscars), specials (Oprah, John Ritter), one man/woman shows (Shirley MacLaine, Diana Ross), televised tributes (Ray Charles, Comic Relief), and benefits (mostly AIDS related). He co-wrote the last nine Oscar telecasts and won Emmys for the 63rd and 64th Annual Academy Awards with Billy Crystal. Is there no limit to Bruce's versatility? The beginning line of his résumé simply says, "Bruce Vilanch is a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey, Exit 156."

Bruce has a long list of awards including the Daniel P. Warner Service Award from Los Angeles Shanti Foundation, an AIDS service organization. He is resolute in his commitment to the battle against AIDS. He is constantly occupied with one benefit or another, mostly for AIDS causes. He is always right there to volunteer his talents to emcee, perform standup, and to script the event.

We sit in the oversized chairs and Bruce suddenly remarks, "Isn't it hysterical that homosexuality is becoming trendy…The same thing happened to the blacks in the sixties." That is what is so wonderful about Bruce. You never know when those pearls will drop from his mouth. He keeps you on your toes. He's a natural.
"We all know that gay people are not like the parade coverage that we see on television. They are as normal and as dreary as anyone. Part of the root of the gay military controversy is that many, many heterosexuals can't envision gay people being ordinary. Their only conception of gay people is as ravers. They can't imagine that any gay person could be so ordinary as to want to be a grunt and go off to Somalia and kill warlords. They can't imagine that anybody would want to do that when they could be a decorator at Bloomingdales." He laughs loud and short as he strokes his salt and pepper beard.

What was it like for Bruce to come out? He quickly tells me that he never came out because he was always out! "I viewed myself as being conventionally faggie. When people are surprised to hear that I'm gay—I'm surprised that they're surprised! I always thought I was a screaming queen. I thought I had a sibilant "s," and I thought I minced when I walked, and I was an unusual looking person before I affected this," as he points to his hirsute face and his wild, rusty silver colored scrambled hair. "(Even) before I decided that I was going to have a different look, when I was attempting to have an ordinary look, I thought I looked odd. That was just my own self-image. I couldn't imagine that anybody wouldn't be on to me. So I never tried to hide it. My case was that I was theatrical. If I was ever nervous about it I decided, well, I'm just flamboyant. I'm in the theater!" he shouts as he sucks on a pink straw.

From the start he was drawn to the theater. The first things he learned how to read were the ads for movies and plays! His aunt, Blanche Vilanch, used to take him to Broadway shows every weekend. His first show was The Vamp with Carol Channing. Even though it was a bomb, it was enough to intoxicate Bruce with show business.

Bruce finds peace in writing and loves being in the entertainment world. He is not really interested in doing anything else—and it shows. He beams when he talks about his accomplishments and experiences. He's quick, articulate and talented. Although, he admits pressuring himself the other day by wondering why he hasn't written a gay play or an AIDS play; then it dawned on him that he has done over 400 benefits in which he has written about AIDS. Practically every time somebody steps on a stage, he's written it.

Taking alphabet soup and turning it into comedy is demanding and time consuming. When does Bruce find time to date? Finding somebody is not a theme in his life anymore, as it was years ago. Bruce learned that it's okay to be alone. That life is complete without being in a relationship. How did he come by this? Something happened. Bruce started burying friends with AIDS. "The whole kind of specter of death began taking over. And I just began to realize life is just too short to worry about any of that stuff. To worry about whether you're married, whether you're not married, whether you've got someone." He crosses his fire engine red pants legs and continues. "Just have fun. Just do what you want to do. Just be happy in your work and be happy in your friendships. And if that attracts somebody, fine. If it doesn't attract somebody, also fine." Bruce speaks with fervor and conviction.

Like many of us, Bruce has been there at the beginning of this AIDS war. He has personally been in the trenches tragically watching his friends die, and is anticipating V-Day. What is his take on this long journey? "For me, the difference between AIDS then and AIDS now is that a lot of people who thought they were going to die are going to live. This means a lot of people who cashed in their chips find themselves still in the game, only they don't know which card to play anymore. So I'm seeing a lot of depression where there should be jubilation." He props his hands back on the armchair which shifts him forward. He's intense. "Likewise, on the benefit front, it's getting harder and harder to get people to support AIDS fund-raising because the disease has gone from being a surefire killer with no government support to a disease in a perceived remission with not enough government support. In this regard, it is like a dozen other diseases. Nevertheless, the commitment of people like me, who have lost hundreds of friends to the plague, remains strong."

Over a course of two or three years it was like rush hour at Cedars Sinai hospital for Bruce. The volume of people dying had a cathartic effect on him. All of this translated into loving himself. This catharsis also manifested itself in altering his business behavior. If there was a disagreement, Bruce would step aside. His priority now is his comfort level. He only does what he wants to do. This is Bruce's way of maintaining his respect and self-love. He has learned to live fully every day for all of its value. "This is it. This is all we get. Life's too short. Have a good time with it," he says wide-eyed and smiling—a Santa Claus face peering through cherry tinted glasses.