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Posts Tagged ‘Academy Award’

How to Write Jokes for the Academy Awards

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Vulture
6/23/2014 at 10:30 AM 3 Comments
How to Write Jokes for the Academy Awards
By Mike Sacks

4-27-2013 3-51-51 AM

Have you ever wondered how the Academy Awards gets written every year? Bruce Vilanch is the man to ask. Starting as a writer on the broadcast 25 years ago, Vilanch has been the annual show’s head writer since 2000. What he specifically writes varies from host to host, but ultimately, everything you see on the telecast goes through him. Below, in an interview with Vanity Fair writer Mike Sacks, Vilanch dishes on trying to make celebrities seem funny, the “cock joke” that Steve Martin refused to tell, and why exactly James Franco, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Letterman each bombed as hosts of the Oscars. The conversation is an excerpt from Poking a Dead Frog, Sacks’s new book of interviews with notable comedy writers such as Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, and Adam McKay,which he put together as a follow-up to his similar 2009 collection, And Here’s the Kicker. You can buy the book in bookstores starting June 24, or preorder it here.

What’s the joke-writing preparation for a televised awards show such as the Oscars? How much time and effort are we talking about?

A tremendous amount. People have no idea. Billy Crystal came up with the idea of creating a huge playbook, almost like a football team would for a big game. The script itself is three hundred pages. It’s a big hefty tome, and it’s kept offstage, generally offstage left. The host will leaf through it during commercial breaks. It’s most based on what might happen during the broadcast. “Suppose this happens. What if that happens?” You know, just in case. So, you end up creating a lot of material: “Oh, if that happens, we’re covered.” You study who’s nominated to win all the awards, the movies these people are associated with, everything that’s necessary to come up with jokes. A ton of research.”

How many of these jokes, on average, end up being used during the performance?

Out of the hundreds that we write — really, hundreds — if one or two are used, it’s a big deal. We’ll start the actual writing process about two months before the ceremony—usually in December for a February or March broadcast.
It must be frustrating to come up with some many jokes each year, only to have about 2 percent used.

Have there been any jokes you wished had been used but weren’t?

There’ve been a few. We had one joke [in 2003] that involved Steve Martin coming out after the monologue, and he was going to say, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that my fly was open throughout the monologue. The good news is the camera puts on ten pounds.” But Steve wouldn’t say the joke; he said it was a “cock joke.” He just didn’t feel comfortable doing a cock joke on the Academy Awards. I said, “But it’s not a cock joke! It’s a camera joke.” Everybody loved the joke. Even the network censor thought it was hilarious. We could have gotten away with it because it didn’t cross any kind of line, but the fact that the network censor thought it was hysterical meant we had done something right.

It might very well have become a classic if he did say it.

I know, but Steve felt it was just a little too anatomically correct. You can see the visual a bit too easily. I can understand why he would come to that conclusion. The host has to decide, “Do I want to take the audience to that place?”

The Academy Awards is a strange show to work on as a comedy writer. You’re writing jokes for over one billion people, of all ages, countries, backgrounds. How do you determine what is and what is not appropriate, without sapping out all the humor?

You have to be careful not to cross that weird line. There are celebrities you just can’t make jokes about, whether because it’s cruel or because they’ll be in the audience, or just because it’s too embarrassing a situation. Keep in mind that whatever a host says is going to live with them for the rest of their career. The choice you have to make is, Do I, as a comedian, want to be remembered for this joke or not? You can’t un-ring that bell.

Can you tell me about the backstage writing process during an Oscars broadcast? How do the writers work? Together or separately? Writing down jokes? Pitching them out loud?

It’s frantic. It’s chaos. It makes the fall of Saigon look tame. It’s all happening so, so quickly. My favorite example is from 2003, when Steve was hosting. Now, this goes back to something happening just before the commercial break that you can work off of. Michael Moore had won for Best Documentary Feature for Bowling for Columbine and he made a speech against the second Iraq War. Some in the audience booed, but we also noticed that some of the stagehands started booing him, too. When we returned from commercial break, Steve came out and said, “It’s so sweet backstage, you should have seen it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.” That was a joke that we came up with in the wings.

Who are you writing for? The live audience in the auditorium? Or the audience at home?

You’re playing to the auditorium because they’re the ones who are giving the immediate reaction that the home audience will hear. You’re always playing to both of them, really, but I think what you want most is a reaction from the live audience, clearly.

The problem is that the vibe in the room changes as the night progresses. As the night gets longer, there are more and more audience members who have not won an award. Their high hopes have disappeared. For every winner, there are at least four or five who won’t win. It gets chilly. The audience is not really paying attention. At this point, you’re getting down to the big awards; its been a long day. The audience would like to get out of there and start drinking—those who aren’t already potted, that is. So, by the end, the audience is not really paying close attention. Also, there are a hefty amount of seat fillers, because have children, have to relieve the babysitters, they get bored, they just leave. Say, for an example, there are ten supporting actor nominees and those categories are given early. Those ten faces will be gone, generally, by the middle to the end of the show. And they’ll be replaced by secretaries from Paramount who might not be too keen to laugh.

Were you responsible for some of the jokes that bombed the night Letterman hosted, such as the Uma/Oprah joke?

No. The Uma/Oprah joke was written by Rob Burnett [executive producer, Late Show With David Letterman], who lethally takes credit for it. Just lethal. I told Rob not to do it. I thought it was a bad idea to have David Letterman from New York TV making fun of these huge stars from Hollywood. Hosts are vital to the show’s tone. It’s a very specific role that the host plays. You have to bring your personality, but you have to do it in a clever way so it doesn’t feel like a retread of what you do at your other job. I think that’s what happened with Letterman. The comedy didn’t translate well. It takes a very specific type of performer to do well at the Oscars. Ellen DeGeneres [in 2007] had a different approach, and I don’t think it worked. She was very daytime. There wasn’t a sense of occasion. She was scared, I think, and wasn’t willing to go the extra mile. James Franco [in 2010] didn’t work out well at all. He was really out of his comfort zone. He’s not a live stage performer. It’s better if the hosts are comedians. They have to have a bit of an attitude. It’s easier for us writers to find words that suit a comedian’s attitude. Actors tend to act. It’s tough for them to play themselves, to have a persona. You’ll never see Johnny Depp performing An Evening With Johnny Depp.

What’s it like to write for celebrities presenting awards, many of whom are not used to performing comedy before a live audience?

It’s tough. It’s constantly a negotiation of some sort. Each of these celebrities has a flotilla of assistants who are advising them or what to say and not to say. A lot show up with their own writers, depending on who they are. And it’s hard for me to bitch about that. That kind of goes with the territory. So that doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is when you get people who don’t do this kind of performing for a living and they go into a major panic and every single word has to be edited by everybody. By their hairdressers, their yoga instructor, their publicist, their pet psychiatrist. Everybody’s got an opinion. And all of those people who are supposedly helping are really enemies of comedy, because they don’t want anybody to get into trouble. You can’t be funny by saying, “I’m not going to get anybody into trouble.” You know, that’s the risk you run. Read Freud on jokes and tell me that you’re not ever going to get anybody into trouble.

From Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, by Mike Sacks. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Michael Sacks.

Bruce Vilanch: How To Write For The Oscars

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Vulture
How to Write Jokes for the Academy Awards
By Mike Sacks

4-27-2013 3-50-43 AM

Have you ever wondered how the Academy Awards gets written every year? Bruce Vilanch is the man to ask. Starting as a writer on the broadcast 25 years ago, Vilanch has been the annual show’s head writer since 2000. What he specifically writes varies from host to host, but ultimately, everything you see on the telecast goes through him. Below, in an interview withVanity Fair writer Mike Sacks, Vilanch dishes on trying to make celebrities seem funny, the “cock joke” that Steve Martin refused to tell, and why exactly James Franco, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Letterman each bombed as hosts of the Oscars. The conversation is an excerpt from Poking a Dead Frog, Sacks’s new book of interviews with notable comedy writers such as Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, and Adam McKay,which he put together as a follow-up to his similar 2009 collection, And Here’s the Kicker. You can buy the book in bookstores starting June 24, or preorder it here.

What’s the joke-writing preparation for a televised awards show such as the Oscars? How much time and effort are we talking about?
A tremendous amount. People have no idea. Billy Crystal came up with the idea of creating a huge playbook, almost like a football team would for a big game. The script itself is three hundred pages. It’s a big hefty tome, and it’s kept offstage, generally offstage left. The host will leaf through it during commercial breaks. It’s most based on what might happen during the broadcast. “Supposethis happens. What if that happens?” You know, just in case. So, you end up creating a lot of material: “Oh, if that happens, we’re covered.” You study who’s nominated to win all the awards, the movies these people are associated with, everything that’s necessary to come up with jokes. A ton of research.”


How many of these jokes, on average, end up being used during the performance?
Out of the hundreds that we write — really, hundreds — if one or two are used, it’s a big deal. We’ll start the actual writing process about two months before the ceremony—usually in December for a February or March broadcast.


It must be frustrating to come up with some many jokes each year, only to have about 2 percent used. Have there been any jokes you wished had been used but weren’t?
There’ve been a few. We had one joke [in 2003] that involved Steve Martin coming out after the monologue, and he was going to say, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that my fly was open throughout the monologue. The good news is the camera puts on ten pounds.” But Steve wouldn’t say the joke; he said it was a “cock joke.” He just didn’t feel comfortable doing a cock joke on the Academy Awards. I said, “But it’s not a cock joke! It’s a camera joke.” Everybody loved the joke. Even the network censor thought it was hilarious. We could have gotten away with it because it didn’t cross any kind of line, but the fact that the network censor thought it was hysterical meant we had done something right.


It might very well have become a classic if he did say it.
I know, but Steve felt it was just a little too anatomically correct. You can see the visual a bit too easily. I can understand why he would come to that conclusion. The host has to decide, “Do I want to take the audience to that place?”


The Academy Awards is a strange show to work on as a comedy writer. You’re writing jokes for over one billion people, of all ages, countries, backgrounds. How do you determine what is and what is not appropriate, without sapping out all the humor?
You have to be careful not to cross that weird line. There are celebrities you just can’t make jokes about, whether because it’s cruel or because they’ll be in the audience, or just because it’s too embarrassing a situation. Keep in mind that whatever a host says is going to live with them for the rest of their career. The choice you have to make is, Do I, as a comedian, want to be remembered for this joke or not? You can’t un-ring that bell.


Can you tell me about the backstage writing process during an Oscars broadcast? How do the writers work? Together or separately? Writing down jokes? Pitching them out loud?
It’s frantic. It’s chaos. It makes the fall of Saigon look tame. It’s all happening so, so quickly. My favorite example is from 2003, when Steve was hosting. Now, this goes back to something happening just before the commercial break that you can work off of. Michael Moore had won for Best Documentary Feature for Bowling for Columbine and he made a speech against the second Iraq War. Some in the audience booed, but we also noticed that some of the stagehands started booing him, too. When we returned from commercial break, Steve came out and said, “It’s so sweet backstage, you should have seen it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.” That was a joke that we came up with in the wings.


Who are you writing for? The live audience in the auditorium? Or the audience at home?
You’re playing to the auditorium because they’re the ones who are giving the immediate reaction that the home audience will hear. You’re always playing to both of them, really, but I think what you want most is a reaction from the live audience, clearly.


The problem is that the vibe in the room changes as the night progresses. As the night gets longer, there are more and more audience members who have not won an award. Their high hopes have disappeared. For every winner, there are at least four or five who won’t win. It gets chilly. The audience is not really paying attention. At this point, you’re getting down to the big awards; its been a long day. The audience would like to get out of there and start drinking—those who aren’t already potted, that is. So, by the end, the audience is not really paying close attention. Also, there are a hefty amount of seat fillers, because have children, have to relieve the babysitters, they get bored, they just leave. Say, for an example, there are ten supporting actor nominees and those categories are given early. Those ten faces will be gone, generally, by the middle to the end of the show. And they’ll be replaced by secretaries from Paramount who might not be too keen to laugh.


Were you responsible for some of the jokes that bombed the night Letterman hosted, such as the Uma/Oprah joke?
No. The Uma/Oprah joke was written by Rob Burnett [executive producer,Late Show With David Letterman], who lethally takes credit for it. Just lethal. I told Rob not to do it. I thought it was a bad idea to have David Letterman from New York TV making fun of these huge stars from Hollywood. Hosts are vital to the show’s tone. It’s a very specific role that the host plays. You have to bring your personality, but you have to do it in a clever way so it doesn’t feel like a retread of what you do at your other job. I think that’s what happened with Letterman. The comedy didn’t translate well. It takes a very specific type of performer to do well at the Oscars. Ellen DeGeneres [in 2007] had a different approach, and I don’t think it worked. She was very daytime. There wasn’t a sense of occasion. She was scared, I think, and wasn’t willing to go the extra mile. James Franco [in 2010] didn’t work out well at all. He was really out of his comfort zone. He’s not a live stage performer. It’s better if the hosts are comedians. They have to have a bit of an attitude. It’s easier for us writers to find words that suit a comedian’s attitude. Actors tend to act. It’s tough for them to play themselves, to have a persona. You’ll never see Johnny Depp performing An Evening With Johnny Depp.


What’s it like to write for celebrities presenting awards, many of whom are not used to performing comedy before a live audience?
It’s tough. It’s constantly a negotiation of some sort. Each of these celebrities has a flotilla of assistants who are advising them or what to say and not to say. A lot show up with their own writers, depending on who they are. And it’s hard for me to bitch about that. That kind of goes with the territory. So that doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is when you get people who don’t do this kind of performing for a living and they go into a major panic and every single word has to be edited by everybody. By their hairdressers, their yoga instructor, their publicist, their pet psychiatrist. Everybody’s got an opinion. And all of those people who are supposedly helping are really enemies of comedy, because they don’t want anybody to get into trouble. You can’t be funny by saying, “I’m not going to get anybody into trouble.” You know, that’s the risk you run. Read Freud on jokes and tell me that you’re not ever going to get anybody into trouble.


From Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers,by Mike Sacks. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Michael Sacks.

Bruce Vilanch, Jeff Bowen, Drew Gasparini, Joshua Salzman, Phoebe Kreutz, and More at Work on New Musical

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Playbill
Jeff Bowen, Drew Gasparini, Joshua Salzman, Phoebe Kreutz, Bruce Vilanch and More at Work on New Musical
By Andrew Gans
17 Jun 2014

4-27-2013 3-49-54 AM

UnsungMusicalsCo. will present a workshop production of the new musical revue The Passing Show June 26–29 at MTC Creative Center.

Conceived and directed by Ben West, The Passing Show features choreography, tango and music hall dances by J. Austin Eyer, Shannon Lewis, Mark Stuart and Ryan VanDenBoom. Fran Minarik serves as musical director and dance arranger.

The revue is being written by a team that includes Obie Award winner Jeff Bowen, Sam Carner and Derek Gregor, Drew Gasparini, Rick Hip-Flores, Phoebe Kreutz, Sam Salmond, Drama Desk nominees Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham and Emmy Award winner Bruce Vilanch. The work also features a newly adapted comedy sketch by Arnold B. Horwitt, an unpublished melody by Tony winner Albert Hague and three trunk songs by the Academy Award-winning team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.

The cast will comprise Holly Ann Butler, Nick Gaswirth, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Andrew Hodge, Stephanie Martignetti, Ruth Pferdehirt and Clifton Samuels.

“Hard-boiled Broadway agents, tap-happy temps, and deliriously lustful in-laws raise a racket in this outrageous fun-fest filled with an exciting nod to the British music hall, a pair of celebrity-crazed theatre producers, and all-new material! Borrowing its name from what is considered the first American revue, The Passing Show puts a contemporary spin on the classic form,” according to press notes.

Tickets, priced $15, are available at www.SmartTix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444. MTC Creative Center is located at 311 West 43rd Street in New York City.

For more information visit www.UnsungMusicals.org.

Bruce Vilanch To Receive Icon Award April 26

Friday, March 28th, 2014

White Party announces firstIcon Award winners
Dave Nyczepir, The Desert Sun 1:54 p.m. PDT March 27, 2014

4-27-2013 3-54-35 AM

PALM SPRINGS – White Party Palm Springs will recognize people whose achievements “embody the spirit” of the gay dance music festival with the first Icon Awards at this year’s 25th anniversary celebration.

The festival is April 25-28, with the awards bestowed April 26.

Among the 28 recipients are singer Cher in the artist category, songwriter Sir Elton John and husband David Furnish in the philanthropist category, actor Bruce Vilanch in the activist category, and BRAVO TV personality Andy Cohen in the pioneer category.

“We are thrilled to present our special Icon Awards to individuals who have exemplified White Party’s defining principles of unity and celebration, commitment to excellence and leading edge creativity,” Jeffrey Sanker, founder and producer, said in a statement. “I look forward to presenting those attending recipients their awards on the White Carpet.”

About a third of the honorees have tentatively committed to attending, according to organizers. Sanker promised elaborate video displays, Bent Collective’s live DJ performance debut, and that SiriusXM would broadcast live from the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conceptual photographer Duke Shoman will create photographic tableaus throughout the weekend as part of a fundraising auction effort to benefit Desert AIDS project.

Uber, a ride-hailing service through your phone, will serve as the official transportation, with stations set up throughout the festival.

Information: www.jeffreysanker.com

Icon Award recipients

ARTIST

Carmen Electra — artist, activist

Cher — pioneer for LGBT community, activist

Jai Rodriguez — actor, activist

Kathy Griffin — comedian, philanthropist, activist

Lady Gaga —pioneer for LGBT community, philanthropist, activist

Lance Bass — actor, activist

PHILANTHROPIST

Aaron Walton — philanthropist, activist

Bryan Singer — director, activist

David Cooley — founder of Abbey, philanthropist

Fred Arens and Jason Duguay — philanthropists, activists

Roland Emmerich — director, philanthropist

Sir Elton John and David Furnish — philanthropists, activists

ACTIVIST

Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley — NoH8 Campaign, activists

Bruce Vilanch — actor, writer, activist

Lisa Vanderpump — reality star, activist

Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo — Prop 8 activists

Ron Oden — Former Palm Springs mayor, activist

Ronnie Kroell — activist

Todd Saporito — philanthropist, activist

PIONEER

Andy Cohen — BRAVO TV personality, activist

Candis Cayne — pioneer of LGBT community, activist

David Stern — former publisher of Frontiers, activist

DJ Abel Aguilera — deejay, activist

Reza Farahan — BRAVO TV personality, pioneer of LGBT community

“An Evening with Bruce Vilanch” Saturday, Aug. 31, Los Gatos

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

JWeekly
Thursday, August 29, 2013
A wacky night at the JCC with Oscars joke-meister Bruce Vilanch
by dan pine, j. staff

4-27-2013 4-01-43 AM

Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch is normally not a praying man. But backstage at the Academy Awards, for which he has long served as head writer, he often gets religion.

“You pray that somebody will make a fool of themselves in the early minutes of the evening,” Vilanch says of the unpredictable live telecast, “then you take it and run with it.”

The classic example came during the 1992 Oscars, when Jack Palance celebrated his Best Supporting Actor win by doing a few one-armed push-ups. That sparked a night of priceless quips from host Billy Crystal, many written on the fly by Vilanch (“Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood Sign”).

With his Elton John eyewear, kooky T-shirts and trademark blond tresses on display, Vilanch might recount that story in delicious detail when he appears Saturday, Aug. 31 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos. The event is billed as “An Evening with Bruce Vilanch.”

Avilanch_bruce_vilanch_normal_sizeAs this JCC performance shows, Vilanch is not just a behind-the-scenes funny man. He starred in a Broadway revival of “Hairspray” and currently stars in an off-Broadway hit, “Rubble.” He’s acted in films and for many years he was a familiar X and O on “Hollywood Squares.”

But his role as a writer for awards shows such as the Oscars and Emmys has given him his widest notoriety. Somehow, in a town famous for eating its young, Vilanch has lasted 23 years at the Oscars, serving up jokes for hosts great (Billy Crystal) and not so great (James Franco).

The New Jersey native credits the great Jewish comedians of old for his sharp wit. “I was exposed to so many of them as a kid,” Vilanch recalls. “I was a rabid fan of Henny Youngman and Alan King.”

He also salutes his mother, who was a master quipster like her son.

Vilanch tells the story of how his mom used to keep the living room furniture covered in plastic most of the time. Eventually she decided to reupholster the well-preserved pieces, and when Vilanch asked her why, she replied, “I’m telling people it’s because Sonny Bono died.”

The Vilanch family belonged to a local Conservative synagogue. Little Bruce attended Hebrew School three times a week, was a member of United Synagogue Youth, and was bar mitzvahed.

After college he gave journalism a try, but when Bette Midler met him in 1970 and offered him a job writing jokes for her, the comedy die was cast, and a lifelong personal and professional relationship began.

A move to Los Angeles led to staff writer positions on variety shows, and hired-gun joke-writing jobs with stars such as Lily Tomlin and Joan Rivers.

He made his premiere as an Oscar writer in 1989, eventually becoming head writer in 2000. Once asked if he wanted to keep working on the show after so long, he replied, “It’s the greatest show on Earth. It’s like asking somebody ‘Hey, would you like to play in the Super Bowl?’ ”

Long before it was cool or commonplace, Vilanch, who is gay, was a major activist for LGBT rights. He says the social progress made on that front in the last two years has been “absolutely staggering.”

But now he has turned his attention to Russia, which recently instituted harsh anti-gay laws and has seen an uptick in anti-gay violence.

Says Vilanch, “All of a sudden comes [Russian president] Vladimir Putin, fresh from a midnight reading of ‘Mein Kampf,’ and he decides to make gay people the new scapegoat in Russia.”

It’s a rare solemn moment for Vilanch, who prefers to make light of most situations.

And though he’s far from the first person to note the long, powerful link between Jews and comedy, Vilanch has his own theory as to why it’s been such a fruitful association.

“Any people who are oppressed find humor as a way to deal with it,” he says. “African Americans have, gay people have. It’s a common thread, and the Jews are really good at it.”

“An Evening with Bruce Vilanch” takes place 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. $15-$20. http://www.svjcc.org or (408) 358-3636.

Interview: A candid conversation with Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety coach, appearing at Feinstein’s at the Nikko this week

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Modern Luxury
Bruce Vilanch Has “More Chins Than a San Francisco Phonebook”
Caleb Pershan | July 17, 2013

4-27-2013 3-58-43 AM

Bruce Vilanch would be the first to admit he’s had a strange career. With that in mind, we decided to look over his Wikipedia page with Vilanch himself to see if we could make any sense of it. “A lot of the stuff on here is wrong,” Vilanch said from his home in L.A., where he’s caring for a sick pug (“It’s a pug kind of town—there’s no air to breath anyway”). “I’m not 64, in fact I’m 65, and I’m collecting Obamacare like crazy.” The Hairspray star, Hollywood Square, and Academy Awards head writer also bills himself as Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety coach and the latest success on Christian Mingle (“just got set up with a guy who used to be Pope!”). Vilanch regaled us with the following thoughts and anecdotes “from behind, before, and squatting over the footlights.”

This Wikipedia entry says you have Hitchcock’s hair—what?
No no, not hair: My wobbles, I have Hitchcock’s wobbles, his chins. He was pretty much hairless in the ‘50s when he was on television every week. It’s more that I have his profile. I’ve got more chins than a San Francisco phonebook.

What can we expect at the Nikko on Thursday night?
I’ll be doing stories about my dark career in show business, writing 23 Academy Award shows, Hollywood Squares, et cetera. There won’t be any Sondheim, that I promise.

What was it like, in your first acting role, to work with Diana Ross
Bizarre, because I thought I was rehearsing with her stand in, this skinny kid, and then she would come out of the trailer with the eyelashes and the wig, and glamour, glamour, glamour. I was like oh my, that’s Diana Ross. I told her this, and she told me yes, it’s all done with mirrors.

When you appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race 3 dressed as Santa, what were some of the items contestants asked for when they sat on your lap?
Big ticket items. And hey, I also worked with RuPaul back in his “Sashay! Shantay!” days, before Drag Race, when he had his talk show on VH1. And, there may be more RuPaul in my future.

How did you identify with your character Missy, the gay porn director from Going Down in LA-LA Land?
I didn’t want to play it like Boogie Nights: the role I played was an homage to Chi Chi LaRue, my neighbor across the street, a great friend of mine and a hysterical character. If I were directing porno everything would be IMAX. Not 3D, though, it makes everything look closer to you, but it’s all smaller! It should be bigger.

Fine, tell us about the Oscars already!
Well, I’ve been writing since 1989, and it’s the greatest show on earth, isn’t it? It’s like the Superbowl— and some years you fumble. But it’s the kind of show that tries to reinvent itself every year, because it has to say something every year. They take it dead seriously, the Academy. At the core of it is the idea of serious people in a serious profession, and in it, everybody is equal to everybody else, the guy who does sound as well as the best actor: everyone has to be treated with equal reverence. So of course, I write jokes. One of my favorite moments was when Whoopi [Goldberg] was hosting the show, and two people had been nominated for playing Queen Elizabeth, and Whoopi came out in white face and said “I’m the African Queen!” Only a Hollywood crowd really gets that one.

You’re responsible for the Star Wars Holiday Special, right?
Right, and George Lucas won’t even speak of it, he’s disowned it. I don’t think there’ll be another one of those.

You’ve done lots of charity work—what makes you most proud?
All the AIDS work I’ve done, especially at the very beginning, because it was something we had to do. When AIDS hit, lots of people banded together to take care of each other and do what the government wasn’t doing. When you grow up Jewish, as I have, you learn that everybody hates you, no one’s going to help you, and you have to take care of yourself. That’s a great maxim to the gay community and we took it to heart, we took care of our own. I would trade off other disease fundraisers, raising for other causes that would raise for ours, and that’s how I learned all the major diseases and got into “big charity.” As I’m fond of saying, though, if the Holocaust led to the creation of Israel, then maybe AIDS has led us to where we are now.

Vilanch performs tomorrow (Thursday, 7/18) at 8pm at Feinstein’s at the Nikko.