Comedy Writer Bruce Vilanch Reflects on His Journey from Ohio State to the Oscars Stage
By Sheldon Zoldan
October 16, 2023
Ask Bruce Vilanch if he is famous, and he has a simple answer: It depends. “I will be in an airport surrounded by people giving selfies, and somebody will walk by and say, ‘Who is he?’
“So, what can I tell you? It ain’t Brad Pitt. There are declensions of fame.”
If you still don’t know the name, you might recognize his cherub face—not to mention his attention-grabbing T-shirts, long, blond hair, and red-framed glasses. It’s a familiar visage from his four years on the third iteration of Hollywood Squares.
In show business, however, there is no debate whether he’s famous. Vilanch knows almost everybody, and almost everybody knows him. He’s written jokes for the funny (Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres) and the not-so-funny (Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Cher, the Osmonds). He wrote for as many as 25 Oscar shows, at least 14 as head writer. He co-wrote Bette Midler’s Johnny Carson tribute, “You Made Me Watch You,” for her Emmy-winning appearance on the late-night host’s last regular show. Vilanch is famous enough to have had a documentary made about him, “Get Bruce.”
On Oct. 20, he returns to Ohio State to host “The Lantern Reunion: An Evening with Bruce Vilanch, the Almost Famous Buckeye,” sponsored by the School of Communication.
Born in 1948 in New York City, Vilanch was adopted four days later and whisked away to Patterson, New Jersey, where he grew up as a happy, chubby, only child who fell in love with the theater. “I was not one of the cool kids,” he says. “What made me palatable to them was I performed.”
He did summer stock as a teenager, sharing billing with well-known actors of the time, like Tallulah Bankhead and Ethel Merman. Vilanch wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh because of its theater program, but his perfect SAT score in English didn’t counterbalance his 350 score in math. “I couldn’t make change; I was terrible,” he says.
So, it was off to Ohio State. “I said OK, I’ll go to Ohio State because it had a big journalism school, and it had a theater department, and it was an hour by plane, which was as long as the leash would go,” Vilanch says.
He started school in 1965, just as the Vietnam War protests were percolating. Vilanch began working for the school newspaper, The Lantern, first as a reporter and then in various editing roles. Being a reporter wasn’t easy. “It was difficult because I was trying to be fair and balanced,” he says, “but I was anti-Vietnam, and I was mad at the [school] administration that they would not do a Black studies course.”
He took to the stage like he did to journalism. On campus and off, he acted in plays, such as “Carnival,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Glass Menagerie,” to name a few. His favorite was “My Fair Lady.” “Because it was a big show at Mershon [Auditorium], and I played Doolittle the father, and he had a lot of great numbers, and I got to do a lot of dancing and carrying on.”
Vilanch had a great time in Columbus. “I loved being in Columbus,” he says. German Village was a constant stop. “Very artsy people were living there, and it wasn’t gentrified the way it is now. So, we would go down there with a group that did plays.”
He finished his five-year program in 1970 minus a graduation ceremony. The school shut down early because of campus protests after the Kent State shootings. “It was probably the only time that the commencement speaker got a kill fee because they canceled,” he jokes.
That speaker? “It was Walter Cronkite, and I think it cost them a little bit of money.”
Vilanch’s next stop was the Chicago Tribune as a feature writer; that’s where he met Bette Midler when she was a newcomer performing at a local nightclub. He loved her act, but in his critique, he said she should talk more on stage because she was funny. She asked him to write some lines for her.
He soon was off to Hollywood where he wrote for the Manhattan Transfer’s summer variety show. Then he moved on to writing for Donnie and Marie Osmond’s variety show, the Brady Bunch variety show, Sonny and Cher, and others.
Vilanch first wrote for the Oscars telecast in 1989. He was one of the few survivors of a reviled program that included Rob Lowe and Snow White opening with a song medley.
He had the title of head writer from 2000 to 2014. Vilanch is like a parent who doesn’t want to name a favorite child, but he thought the Hugh Jackman-hosted show was terrific, as were two or three of Billy Crystal’s, Steve Martin’s first show and Whoopi Goldberg’s.
These days, Vilanch keeps busy with several projects. He just finished a book, “It Seemed Like a Bad Idea at the Time,” about how he wrote some of the worst television shows—including the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special—but survived.
He also co-wrote a musical, “Here You Come Again,” about a down-and-out waiter stuck in his parents’ home during COVID. The server tries to stay sane by talking to an imaginary Dolly Parton.
The musical has two characters and 12 Parton songs. It has played in six venues around the country. “We’re going to see what happens with it; so far it’s been a hit every place, and audiences love it,” he says.
Bruce Vilanch Discusses Some of His Famous Collaborators
Bette Midler: “She’s one of the few performers I know who can turn on a dime. She can have you laughing hysterically one minute and crying the next.”
Billy Crystal: “He’s the last of the vaudevillians. He can do everything. He can sing, dance, tell jokes. He can break your heart, and he can probably juggle. He’s a full-service performer.”
Whoopi Goldberg: “She is unique. There’s nothing like her. She’s equal parts street and Upper East Side.”
Robin Williams: “He was a force of nature, which is a cheap way of saying he was explosive. There’s nobody who was that fast and funny and congenial at the same time.”
Cher: “She’s a survivor. She’s had hits in every single decade. She has managed to reinvent herself while still being Cher the whole time.”
Steve Martin: “He’s an oddball. His stuff is at another level. He has a quality of absurdism about what he does.”
Bruce Vilanch Recalls a College Prank by R.L. Stine
The Sundial was a campus humor magazine that loved to make fun of The Lantern, the student newspaper. Jovial Bob Stine was the irreverent editor of the magazine, and in one issue put an ad on the back page for a pizzeria offering cheap pizza. The phone number wasn’t the pizzeria’s; it was The Lantern city desk.
“I was on the desk, and these calls kept coming in from every dorm for pizza orders,” Vilanch says. “I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. Of course, it was Jovial Bob, getting revenge for something we had written about him.”
Jovial Bob became R.L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps book series for young teens.
This is an expanded version of a story from the October 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.