What’s My Line?

Four people recognize Bruce Vilanch as he walks from 20th Street, where he’s rehearsing his one-man show, Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous, to 21st Street, where he’s got a costume fitting. This doesn’t count the folks whose eyebrows race for their hairlines at the very sight of him in a form-fitting Betty Boop T-shirt, one of 1,500 in his collection.

“By the end of the run, I may have to scratch out the Almost,” says Vilanch, 52, a wide and wise guy whose beard, blond mop, and signature candy-colored glasses give him the look of an escapee from the Jim Henson workshop.

“Saw the video last night,” a young man hollers, referring to Get Bruce!, the 1999 documentary chronicling his life as the comedy scribe of choice for everyone, as he puts it, from ABBA to Zadora – who requires le joke juste to gild appearances at all-star tributes, galas, and benefits and on concert tours, talk shows, and awards shows. He’s been a writer for the past dozen Academy Awards, twice winning Emmys – another extravaganza that routinely gets Bruce, as do the Grammy, Tony, Screen Actors Guild, and World Music awards. “Everything except the American Bulimia Awards,” he says. “But if Calista calls …”

In an earlier era, Vilanch would have been tummler-in-chief on variety shows, all now replaced by award shows and what Daniel Boorstin once called “pseudo-events.” Thus, his résumé includes “You Made Me Watch You,” the touching valedictory Bette Midler crooned as a send-off to Johnny Carson; several of Billy Crystal’s show-starting – and show-stopping – Oscar salutes (“Those eyes / those thighs / surprise! / it’s The Crying Game,” sung to the tune of “The Tender Trap”); and, rather more notoriously, the material Ted Danson performed in blackface at a 1993 Friars Club roast of his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg.

On such occasions, things can shift with amazing speed from “Get me Bruce” to “Get me Bruce’s head on a platter.” “There are no cinches, no dead-bang certainties,” Vilanch says. “I can pretend it doesn’t make any difference, but you don’t get to weigh 250 pounds by not caring. I mean, there’s a cannelloni behind every one of those jokes that didn’t make it.”

“Are you the gentleman from Hollywood Squares?” asks an elderly fellow.

Gentleman? “Yeah, that gave me pause, too,” says Vilanch, who’s head writer on the syndicated game show as well as one of the squares.

Vilanch, who’d been doing a comedy act in Los Angeles on and off for the past nine years, brought a revamped version into town partly to take advantage of the double hit of attention from Get Bruce and Hollywood Squares, partly to shut up some pals. “People were always saying, ‘Well, you get up and do this stuff. See how you like going out there and bombing,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try.’ “

“Bruce is a very entertaining guy, so it should do very well and he shouldn’t worry about the critics,” counsels his friend Nathan Lane. Thus far, Vilanch has resisted asking Lane or other famous cronies for help – “I haven’t said, ‘Do you think I should do the strip or the patriotic tableau?’ ” – though Bette Midler offered to get involved. “I could direct Bruce’s act,” she says. “I am Bruce’s act. I just hope the house is big enough for him. But,” she adds, “I don’t think he should give up his day job. He’s making a fortune.”

Bruce describes Almost Famous, which opens May 11 at the Westbeth Theatre, as “a saga of my life in the comedy gulag. I don’t really do stand-up. I’ll be standing up, but it’s as more of a raconteur.

“It’s stories and songs and behind-the-scenes dish,” he adds, alternately swigging diet Dr Pepper and crunching potato chips. “The only thing missing is my nightmare descent into booze and pills, which I’m hoping to have between now and the opening. I’m working on it so I can have a Behind the Music special of my very own.”

The only child of an optometrist father and a mother with thwarted showbiz ambitions, Vilanch grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, where his first – and enduring – passion was theater. “My mother said I learned to read looking at movie ads. The first word I learned was mayo, which she said was Virginia Mayo, but it could have been mayonnaise.”

Vilanch’s is the classic story of the overweight, klutzy kid who discovers that humor can be an effective bully-repellent. At performing-arts camp in the Berkshires, and in subsequent summer-stock productions, he was invariably cast as the chubby sidekick – Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, Ali Hakim in Oklahoma, Marryin’ Sam in L’il Abner. “I didn’t get the girl,” he says. “I didn’t get the guy,” he adds, never coy about being gay. “I was always out. Years ago, I read a comment by Merle Miller that a fag is a homosexual gentleman who’s just left the room. And I thought, If they’re going to make fag jokes, they’re going to have to make them to my face.

A onetime entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune – “He could get absolutely anyone to talk to him,” recalls a former colleague – Vilanch saw his career path change when he wrote a glowing review of the then-unknown Midler, who was performing at a local club. “She liked the column,” he recalls. “I met her and told her she should talk more in her act, and she said, ‘You got any lines?’ “

“I used to think I was going to be Neil Simon. Everything I was doing was a preparation for that,” says Vilanch, who’s written and doctored a number of movies, among them Can’t Stop the Music, and the 1978 Broadway flop Platinum. “But after a while I realized, This is not preparation. This is it. I think it didn’t really hit until they came to me to do the documentary and I said, ‘Why? I haven’t done anything yet.’ And they said, ‘You’ve done this and that and the other thing,’ and I realized I’d made a career for myself and that it’s unique, and I thought, I guess I’m not going to become Neil Simon.

He has settled, instead, for becoming a comedy éminence blond. “You have to have an ear for how people sound and for their rhythm,” he says, “and you have to do your homework, clock their sensibility. Fortunately, I have a knack for that.”

The playwright Vilanch once thought he wanted to be, he says, “has a much harder job. He has to invent all those voices. The voices are all given to me. I just have to find them and write to them.

“On the other hand,” he observes resignedly, “if you’re a playwright, the characters don’t bite you back. I don’t think Hamlet ever said to Shakespeare, ’ “To be or not to be?” What is this crap?’”

What’s My Line?