Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch is normally not a praying man. But backstage at the Academy Awards, for which he has long served as head writer, he often gets religion.
“You pray that somebody will make a fool of themselves in the early minutes of the evening,” Vilanch says of the unpredictable live telecast, “then you take it and run with it.”
The classic example came during the 1992 Oscars, when Jack Palance celebrated his Best Supporting Actor win by doing a few one-armed push-ups. That sparked a night of priceless quips from host Billy Crystal, many written on the fly by Vilanch (“Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood Sign”).
With his Elton John eyewear, kooky T-shirts and trademark blond tresses on display, Vilanch might recount that story in delicious detail when he appears Saturday, Aug. 31 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos. The event is billed as “An Evening with Bruce Vilanch.”
As this JCC performance shows, Vilanch is not just a behind-the-scenes funny man. He starred in a Broadway revival of “Hairspray” and currently stars in an off-Broadway hit, “Rubble.” He’s acted in films and for many years he was a familiar X and O on “Hollywood Squares.”
But his role as a writer for awards shows such as the Oscars and Emmys has given him his widest notoriety. Somehow, in a town famous for eating its young, Vilanch has lasted 23 years at the Oscars, serving up jokes for hosts great (Billy Crystal) and not so great (James Franco).
The New Jersey native credits the great Jewish comedians of old for his sharp wit. “I was exposed to so many of them as a kid,” Vilanch recalls. “I was a rabid fan of Henny Youngman and Alan King.”
He also salutes his mother, who was a master quipster like her son.
Vilanch tells the story of how his mom used to keep the living room furniture covered in plastic most of the time. Eventually she decided to reupholster the well-preserved pieces, and when Vilanch asked her why, she replied, “I’m telling people it’s because Sonny Bono died.”
The Vilanch family belonged to a local Conservative synagogue. Little Bruce attended Hebrew School three times a week, was a member of United Synagogue Youth, and was bar mitzvahed.
After college he gave journalism a try, but when Bette Midler met him in 1970 and offered him a job writing jokes for her, the comedy die was cast, and a lifelong personal and professional relationship began.
A move to Los Angeles led to staff writer positions on variety shows, and hired-gun joke-writing jobs with stars such as Lily Tomlin and Joan Rivers.
He made his premiere as an Oscar writer in 1989, eventually becoming head writer in 2000. Once asked if he wanted to keep working on the show after so long, he replied, “It’s the greatest show on Earth. It’s like asking somebody ‘Hey, would you like to play in the Super Bowl?’ ”
Long before it was cool or commonplace, Vilanch, who is gay, was a major activist for LGBT rights. He says the social progress made on that front in the last two years has been “absolutely staggering.”
But now he has turned his attention to Russia, which recently instituted harsh anti-gay laws and has seen an uptick in anti-gay violence.
Says Vilanch, “All of a sudden comes [Russian president] Vladimir Putin, fresh from a midnight reading of ‘Mein Kampf,’ and he decides to make gay people the new scapegoat in Russia.”
It’s a rare solemn moment for Vilanch, who prefers to make light of most situations.
And though he’s far from the first person to note the long, powerful link between Jews and comedy, Vilanch has his own theory as to why it’s been such a fruitful association.
“Any people who are oppressed find humor as a way to deal with it,” he says. “African Americans have, gay people have. It’s a common thread, and the Jews are really good at it.”
“An Evening with Bruce Vilanch” takes place 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. $15-$20. www.svjcc.org or (408) 358-3636.