Films, TV, and Theatre

Get Bruce! (1999)

Director Andrew Kuehn's often entertaining documentary looks at comedy guru, "writer to the stars," Bruce Vilanch, who's written "from ABBA to Zadora" and scripted the last several
Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy telecasts.

Stars: Bruce Vilanch, Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and just about every major Hollywood star!

Director: Andrew J. Kuehn

TV Guide

Bruce who? Director Andrew Kuehn's often entertaining documentary looks at comedy guru Bruce Vilanch, who's written "from ABBA to Zadora" and scripted the last several Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy telecasts. Vilanch (now a regular on the new Hollywood Squares) is a big, gay, Jewish bear of a man with a Mason Reese haircut and what appears to be the world's largest collection of captioned t-shirts. He's also a gifted craftsman who's put words into the mouths of many famous friends and clients who turn up here to pay tribute, A-list types including Roseanne, Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Paul Reiser, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Kuehn includes some brief how-he-got-so-funny biographical stuff: It comes as no surprise that Vilanch's mother sounds like she's just lost a gravel-eating contest with Harvey Fierstein. And Goldberg outs him as the author (at her request) of Ted Danson's controversial blackface Friars roast routine. Mostly, though, Kuehn's approach is to show a bunch of amusing folks either assuring us that Vilanch is a laugh riot and all around swell guy, or shooting off hyperkinetic comic riffs. This isn't without its pleasures; Crystal, for example, expounds hilariously on the hitherto-unsuspected homoerotic subtext of the Siskel/Ebert schtick: "They went to the movies together too many times. And what's with that thumbs up?" Not to be outdone, Williams improvs a convulsively funny fantasy about Jack Benny and Rochester on The X-Files. Still, the aroma of hagiography is unavoidable; unless Vilanch is utterly unlike everybody else in show-biz, chances are he's got some kind of dark side. But you'd be hard pressed to find it here; of all the celebrities Kuehn interviews, only Goldberg allows, in passing, that Vilanch might be "difficult" upon first meeting. Hey who needs comedy writers when you've got living saints? Steve Simels

Dennis Harvey, Variety

As the man who pens funny "ad libs" for everyone from Raquel Welch to Steven Segal when they've got to "play themselves" at an awards or charity event, Bruce Vilanch has half the industry in his debt. More guest-star-driven back-scratching exercise than anything else, this lightweight, skin-deep docu feels like an effort at repayment. Subject and approach make it natural tube fare.

Nathan Lane says Vilanch has given "more good lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer" -- ka-boom-CHA! -- and it's intriguing (if a little magic-depleting) to glimpse just how methodically he crafts bon mots so stars don't actually have to think them up themselves. Though he's written material for regular TV and stage shows (notably for longtime ally Bette Midler), most of Vilanch's efforts are admittedly "topical ... (and) don't have a shelf life, really." Academy Awards and other broadcast excerpts here duly bear out that notion.

Beyond the distinctively poodle-haired, bespectacled, plump and campy Vilanch himself -- whose personal life is kept pretty much off-limits here -- focus lays mostly on his principal ongoing collaborations with Midler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. Latter does some typical, inspired off-the-cuff riffing. Otherwise, celebs' input seldom goes beyond affirming what a character Vilanch is, how talented, etc.

He's likable enough, but "Get Bruce!" seems less a real behind-the-scenes showbiz docu than a sort of extended "Entertainment Tonight" seg. No hard questions are asked, no personalities allowed an unflattering moment. In the end, it all feels as faux-casual and scripted as the award shows Vilanch helps create.

Ann-Margret sings a tribute song ("Dorothy Parker's zaftig clone/Tallulah with testosterone") penned by Michael Feinstein and Lindy Robbins during credit crawls. Tech package is pro.

Michael Rechtshaffen

After forging a career based on putting his words in others' mouths, awards show writer extraordinaire (and frequent "Hollywood Square") Bruce Vilanch has the spotlight all to himself in the lively if somewhat superficial "Get Bruce!"

Being screened as part of Outfest '99 in Los Angeles, the star-studded documentary serves up sparkling testimonies from many who rank the busy joke doctor high on their speed-dial lists-- Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg among them -- but doesn't dig too deeply when it comes to profiling the colorful man himself and his rather driven work ethic.

Still, the parade of celeb endorsements and behind-the-scenes verbal jam sessions make for entertaining viewing, giving the Miramax release a bouncy, stellar edge over the average grouping of talking heads.

Director Andrew J. Kuehn takes a fairly conventional route in tracing Vilanch's trek from Chicago Tribune feature writer to the man who Nathan Lane says has given more great lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer.

An appreciative phone call from Bette Midler regarding a column he had written about her in the early 1970s led to Vilanch contributing patter to Midler's shows, including those now obligatory Sophie Tucker jokes.

Vilanch rapidly earned a reputation as a quipster who works quickly under pressure, and in the ensuing years he would go on to write for everyone from, in his words, Abba to Zadora.

The film works best from a craft perspective, showing how Vilanch adjusts his working methods to fit the various personalities of his collaborators. In the case of Williams, Vilanch says, "You don't write for Robin, you write at Robin. You kind of throw the material into the cage." When it comes to working with Crystal -- including coming up with material for his Oscar-hosting gigs -- it's like watching a game of verbal handball, with the players lobbing concepts and punch lines back and forth at a breakneck pace.

But when it comes to addressing what makes the main subject tick, Kuehn doesn't get much more intimate than taking the viewer into Vilanch's closet for a guided tour of his extensive T-shirt collection and flipping through the old family photo album. For the most part, he remains hidden behind those big red glasses and all that shaggy hair.

Production-wise, there's a nice backstage feel to Jose Luis Mignone's camera work, while Ann-Margret coos the Michael Feinstein-penned title theme song with Vegas-y panache.

Roger Ebert

"Get Bruce" is exactly the kind of documentary we all want to have made about ourselves, in which it is revealed that we are funny, smart, beloved, the trusted confidant of famous people, the power behind the scenes at great events and the apple of our mother's eye. That all of these things are true of Bruce Vilanch only adds to the piquancy. I have known him for 30 years. If there is a dark side to his nature, I believe it shows itself mostly when he can't decide which T-shirt to wear.

Vilanch writes "specialized material" for Hollywood stars. When Whoopi emcees, when Billy does the Oscars, when Bette Midler opens a new show at Radio City Music Hall, much of what they say (and most of the funniest stuff) has passed through Bruce's laptop computer. He has written the recent Oscarcasts and can be found backstage at almost every big Hollywood awards show or charity benefit, suggesting "improvised" one-liners as the host dashes onstage between acts. His greatest triumph was arguably the night Jack Palance did the one-armed pushups, and Billy Crystal milked it for the whole evening.

It is not that Billy, Robin, Whoopi, Bette and the others are idiots who need Vilanch to put words in their mouths. Quite the opposite, as this film shows in some fascinating footage of them at work. Vilanch is a foil, a collaborator, a dueling partner, a lateral thinker able to help them move in the direction they want to go. Only when some clients are insecure or truly at sea does he become a ventriloquist.

I knew him a long time ago, in Chicago, when he worked for the Tribune, the film says, although I recall, perhaps imperfectly, that it was Chicago Today. He was very funny then. He looked about the same: large, always wearing a well-stretched T-shirt, his face a cartoon made of a mass of hair, a Santa beard and glasses. He wrote wonderful celebrity profiles, and that's how he met Bette Midler at Mister Kelly's and went from rag to riches.

I may not have actually been present when they met, but I was there at Kelly's one night at about the same time. Mort Sahl was on the stage. I was in the booth next to the runway to the dressing rooms. I heard a voice. "Why do I have to open for this guy?" It was Bette Midler. Another voice. "Why do I have to be your piano player?" Her piano player was Barry Manilow.

The world was young then and Bruce flirted briefly with the possibility that he could build a performing career of his own. He actually opened at Kelly's as a stand-up comic. This was in the days before comedy clubs, and it took nerve to stand up in front of a room of friends and critics (the friends were more frightening) and try to be funny. I do not recall that he was a hit. I can see from "Get Bruce," however, that he's good in front of an audience these days, no doubt because he has a lot more confidence and because his persona is familiar to his audiences.

"There isn't a show in town that can be held without him," says one of the subjects of "Get Bruce." He recalls, usually with the perpetrators, how specific material was generated. Not just the triumphs (Palance's pushups) but the disasters like Ted Danson's appearance in blackface at the Friars' Club roast for Whoopi Goldberg. Vilanch wrote a lot of Danson's material, which went over so badly, it occupied the entire front page of the New York Daily News the next day, but Goldberg defends him: "It was my idea. All my idea."

I remember when he left for the coast. There was a farewell party at mutual friend Larry Dieckhaus' and we all sat on the floor around a coffee table, eating pizza and weeping with laughter.

At first it was slow going in L.A. He got a job on "The Brady Bunch Hour," and then interviewed with Donny and Marie. What he said to Donny during their unsuccessful meeting cannot be quoted here, but will be much quoted elsewhere. He also recalls some of the people he did not write for; he is well paid, we learn, and Barbra Streisand's offer was so low he told her, "Jim Bailey offered me more to write the drag version of this act."

Some of the film's best sequences have Vilanch bouncing lines back and forth with Crystal and Williams. He works differently with each client. With some he's a counselor, a source of calm reassurance. With others he's a competitor, a one-upper. Lots of funny lines are generated, and he remembers a few that went too far and were wisely left out of the script.

Where does he get his humor? Maybe from his mother back on Long Island, whose every statement is hilarious--apparently unintentionally, although we sense she knows exactly what she's doing. Bruce was adopted, she confides, but "he's more like me than any child who was ever naturally born." High praise. Deserved.