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[whitespace] Bruce Vilanch
Have Joke, Will Travel: When celebs need to look like natural-born comedians, they call on gag writer Bruce Vilanch.

Gag Reflex

'Get Bruce!' profiles the man behind the stars' one-liners

By Richard von Busack

IMAGINE A MAN: a huge and bearded adult version of pixieish '70s TV spokesrunt Mason Reese, capped with an enormous peruke of curly red hair permed a la Encino 1976, clad in a skin-tight and violently colored T-shirt emblazoned with one rude joke or another. Now imagine this man--with a face made for the Internet--hobnobbing with glam-smothered Hollywood stars. He's written gags for, as he says, "everyone from Abba to Zadora."

This man, the gag writer Bruce Vilanch--the subject of Andrew J. Kuehn's little documentary Get Bruce!--explains a mystery of show biz: why is it that Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal are so funny on variety shows and so egregious in the movies? The answer: this Bruce is the miner who quarries their verbal rhinestones, delivering the gemlike jokes to the celebs for eight years' worth of Academy Awards ceremonies. Vilanch would be famous even if his only contribution to cultural history had been instructing Goldberg in the correct way to follow Vanessa Williams' rendition of "What Color Is the Wind?" at the 1996 Oscars: "Thanks, Vanessa. I wonder what color my wind is."

Vilanch began as a film critic at the Chicago Tribune, and he was a flack for Bette Midler, back when she was funny. He emigrated to L.A. to write gags for all and sundry, including Donny and Marie ("Helllllooo, bottom!" Bruce says). Though this is a film about a man who advertises his harmlessness in his dress and demeanor from a block away, Kuehn doesn't forget to stress the aggro quality of comedy. (One of the many celebrities interviewed is Paul Reiser, who comments that comedy disguises that urge "to beat the crap out of people.") Highlights are a visit with Vilanch's mom, obviously a real jokester herself, and a few scenes touching on the gag writer's own tragic experiences during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

When Williams calls someone "one of the funniest motherfuckers on the planet," that man is certainly worth our attention. And for a change, Williams is funny here (ready as he is to give audiences another Indian burn to their aortas in his upcoming film Bicentennial Man). And it's instructive to get a look at one Mrs. Futterman, who is the ABC TV censor--it's one of those documentary moments that would be preposterouly overacted in a fictional film. Otherwise, Get Bruce! is as slender as Vilanch is stout. The film wears out even at a short length. It's really made for a TV broadcast--obviously, one not overseen by Mrs. Futterman.

Get Bruce! (R; 82 min.), a documentary by Andrew J. Kuehn, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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