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The Joker: Bruce Vilanch Performs at Houston’s Crocker Bar

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By Steven Foster

A few words about Bruce Vilanch, Hollywood’s perennial funnyman who’s coming to Crocker Bar on October 10 for a Bunnies on the Bayou fundraiser. This time he’s keeping all the good jokes for himself and handing them out to Houston.

Virtually anyone can get a Bruce Vilanch joke. They usually begin with an almost universally known reference, and his targeted, pithy, pointed bon mots usually land exactly where aimed. You’ll rarely hear that dreaded silence that follows the thud of a joke landing flat.

But the man himself, while certainly not a joke, is not quite as readable as his beat-perfect verbal eye-rolls. To understand this joker as easily as one can understand his jokes is a whole different story.

We all bemoan how studio execs constantly green-light action pics made for teenage boys. It’s a hoary town that continually talks itself into believing that remakes break new ground and a franchise based on a board game is bleeding-edge. Yet somehow, Vilanch manages to remain relevant, edgy, and very in-tune with this ever-changing world. How?

“Sex with young men,” Vilanch says, his voice gliding along with the slightest musicality to it. It’s up to you to write the lyrics. Is this a tease or the truth? The answer is probably a little bit of both. And it’s in this dichotomy, or sly duality, where you realize his comedy is a lot smarter than it sounds. Anyone can get a Bruce joke, but it takes just a little more study to get Bruce.

The 1999 documentary title of the same name, Get Bruce, inferred a less intellectual reading of the man and more of an action command. For many in Hollywood, Bruce was practically tethered to a landline Batphone. The film reveals that some of Hollywood’s biggest names have felt like plagiarists—Vilanch had given them so much material over the years. Perhaps you saw an actor on a talk show displaying an impressive wit and surprisingly observational sense of humor and wondered, “Damn, I’ve totally misjudged Ariana Grande.” No you haven’t. Grande just got Vilanch’s cell number.

It’s not implausible that he’d jot down a joke or two for her. This is the man who’s given Hollywood more good lines than a West Coast coke dealer. He’s not gonna quit now that he’s got them all addicted.

The doc performed modestly at the box office, but when game-show perennial The Hollywood Squares rebooted, that’s when middle (and top and bottom, left and right) America truly got to know Vilanch. And he’s not an easy get. He’s a gleeful smashing of boomeranged clichés, an anti-stereotype as he tweaks the cheek of all the stereotypes without ever being one himself.

He’s an easily accessible mash-up of the weird and the wise. Despite his girth, his sheer enjoyment of everything around him is so enchanting that he seems as weightless as a pixie. His notorious Knots Landing-era blond shag is stubborn as stone in its refusal to be dragged into the now. His iconic rainbow bright-framed glasses are second only to Sir Elton John’s trademark shades. And his endless wardrobe of word-smart T-shirts is like Twitter’s precursor, broadcasting just as loudly, only through the medium of cotton.

America would get their closer look at Vilanch when he became one of the regulars on one of the more successful resurrections of The Hollywood Squares. Oh, he’d acted before, but he was and is, in every sense, a writer. But instead of being locked in some writer’s room backstage with stale takeout and a ball and chain around his ankle, here he was alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Griffin, Martin Mull, and Jeffrey Tambor, as if he deserved a place at their table. It’s not that much of a stretch to say that without Vilanch, there would be no J.J. Abrams appearing in an Andy Samberg music video.

In fact, Vilanch is so effervescent, it’s easy to forget how big a slice of the showbiz pie is his. An unapologetic, guiltless glutton—he has a lust for Oreos churros that equals his fondness for hotness—it would seem that punishment may be his true craving.

The Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys are almost summer jobs compared to the Oscars. Those occasional moments of humor during the endless night of groaners? Thank Bruce. Since 2000, Vilanch has been the head writer for the biggest night of television on earth. No pressure. But Vilanch has more than earned his place and his stripes. Set aside the pressure of how public the gig is, made worse now with Internet vultures live-blogging every moment. Overlook the sheer number of egos he has to deal with every year. He not only answers to each new producer who believes their Oscar telecast will be Emmy-worthy, but also morphs comedy crews into an organism that adapts to (or tries at least) a carousel of rotating hosts, even Seth McFarland. Seeing him run this act for over 15 years now, you have to wonder how he keeps on top of things.

I can’t imagine him throwing an Ari Manuel-like Hollywood smackdown, but he’s got to have iron balls to tackle the Oscars every year. Then again, during his very first year as a writer, the broadcast featured the infamous Rob Lowe and Snow White duet, and it felt like the entire country recoiled in horror at what was happening. That night was the reigning champ of WTF moments the Oscars have had so far. But there’s always a tomorrow for a new celebrity to destroy both his reputation and Mulan’s in the same night. I ask him if there’s anyone he longs to write for.

“I don’t think about whom I haven’t written for, only whom I haven’t slept with.”

What: A Night with Bruce Vilanch Benefiting Bunnies on the Bayou
When: October 10, 8 p.m.
Where: Crocker Bar, 2312 Crocker St.
Details: facebook.com/events/1628529474086567

Steven Foster is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Steven Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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