Comedy Writer to the Stars

Bruce Vilanch, comedy writer to the stars, picks up the phone. “Jew speaking,” he says.

Emmy Award-winning Vilanch, 51, is one of the drollest Jews in Hollywood. He has penned the awards shows for the Tonys, the Emmys and the Grammys; he has co-written the last nine Academy Awards telecasts; he is the head writer and a regular square on the “Hollywood Squares”; and he invents funny lines for celebrities who have to play themselves at awards or charity events. Stars as diverse as Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Reiser all swear that when they need some help being funny, it’s time to “get Bruce.”

“Get Bruce!” not surprisingly, is the title of a new documentary about Vilanch by “behind-the-scenes” filmmaker Andrew J. Kuehn.

“Bruce has given more great lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer,” Nathan Lane says in the first moments of the film. “I’ve never said a word I didn’t pay him for,” Bette Midler confides.

In the documentary, we follow plump, shaggy-haired Vilanch into his clothes closet, where the shelves are weighed down by the thousands of T-shirts in his famous collection. “Only in Hollywood does your personal meshugas become your signature,” Vilanch tells The Journal.

We also see Bruce working with Billy Crystal, who describes how Vilanch helped him spoof nominated films in recent Oscar telecasts. In one sequence, Crystal morphs into the infamous bathroom scene from “Jerry Maguire.” “It was just some great Jewish whining,” the actor/comic says.

Some of the funniest moments in “Get Bruce!” however, don’t involve celebrities but, rather, Vilanch’s mother, Hennie, who embarrasses her son by displaying his bar mitzvah photographs. Vilanch is aghast to learn that all of the photos were retouched. “No Jewish kid is cute at 13,” he says.

Hennie, who is wearing sequins, was once a flamboyant singer and dancer who performed at charity events. She was “a doctor’s wife and very stage-struck,” Vilanch says, fondly. By age 7, he too was stage-struck, especially after seeing a Broadway show in which “everything was pink and spangly.”

At school, meanwhile, he played the class clown, which was an attempt to compensate for his weight problem, Hennie suggests. “I recall being alone a lot when I was a kid because I was fat and unathletic,” Vilanch says. “Because I couldn’t run fast, I knew that I could defuse potential violence with a joke or the ever-popular fart noise.”

By high school, however, the class clown had become popular and the star of all the school plays. In the 1960s, he went off to Ohio State, where he wrote about films for the school newspaper.

It was while writing a movie column for the Chicago Tribune in 1970 when Vilanch first met Bette Midler, the subject of one of his pieces. He told her that she was funny and that she should joke more onstage; she asked him if he had any lines. A Hollywood comedy writer was born, but the beginnings weren’t illustrious.

Vilanch eventually moved to Hollywood with the idea that he was “going to conquer the world of TV”; instead, he got a job writing a “Brady Bunch” variety show.

Yet over the years, he slowly built up a celebrity clientele that has included Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Rosie O’Donnell and Cher. Along the way, he wrote tributes for everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to President Clinton.

Writing comedy for celebrities, Vilanch says, is a bit like tailoring: Everybody has different measurements, so you manufacture a costume that looks good on the individual. For material, Vilanch subscribes to 64 newspapers and magazines. He is good at what he does because he is a tummler,” he says.

All his life, whether he has been a class clown or a comedy writer, Vilanch has been involved in Judaism. He attended religious school at the Conservative shul his grandfather helped found in Paterson, N.J., and was active in United Synagogue Youth. Then came his high school trip to Israel, where he discovered that he could daven in a bus or on a rooftop rather than in a fancy temple. He returned to Paterson with “disdain” for what he regarded as the “theatricality” of his suburban shul.

Nevertheless, he remained interested in spirituality and, in the 1980s, was drawn to what he jokingly calls the “booga-booga” aspects of Judaism. He began studying kabbalah with Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz and attended the Torah study class that Streisand had created to prepare for “Yentl.” “When she left to make the movie, the class kind of fell apart,” Vilanch says. “One week, there were 100 people; the next, there were three of us saying, ‘Where did everybody go?’ “

Vilanch, who is gay, has participated in benefits for Jewish groups such as Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services and the CHAI Center. But celebrities know they can’t “get Bruce” on Yom Kippur. “I don’t belong to a synagogue,” he says of his Jewish observance the rest of the year. “But I do sit in a room with other Jews and write jokes. It’s kind of the same thing.”

“Get Bruce” opens Sept. 17 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5. For information, call (323) 848-3500.