This Week's Guest: Bruce Vilanch
Have you ever surprised yourself with what you were able to get away with? This week's guest is writer and comedian Bruce Vilanch, who's been slipping sly queer jokes into our entertainment since before some of us were even born. Starting out as a writer for great divas of the 1970s and then moving on to variety shows, the Oscars, and a notorious holiday special, Bruce provided a subtle queer infusion into American showbiz for decades. And this week we'll talk about how he managed to get away with it.
Bruce's big showbiz break came when Bette Midler came to town. As an arts reporter in Chicago, he reviewed her show -- and was surprised to get a call from Bette thanking him for his coverage.
"You should talk more," he told her.
"You got any good lines?" she asked. He did, and she hired him.
From there, it was on to Hollywood, where he was delighted to slip subtle gay innuendo into programs like The Brady Bunch variety specials. The Star Wars Holiday Special was a particularly bizarre assignment, coming to him with outlandish requirements that he did his best to accommodate and that have now elevated it to cult status.
"Did you feel exasperated that you couldn't say gay?" I asked him during our chat.
"It was challenging," he replied. "It wasn't frustrating because it hadn't been done. ... That was a couple years off."
Nevertheless, he still delighted in the sly gay references he was able to place in shows like Hollywood Squares. "It was 'inside,' we called it," he said. "The ones who get it will laugh and the ones who don't will say 'what was that?' Because you knew that, you had to apportion what you did, you had to pick where you did the jokes."
This Week's Recommendation: Rose's Turn
Thanks again to Bruce for joining me for what was an extremely enjoyable chat. I recorded this interview on a brief trip to Los Angeles, a city that has a reputation for conversations that are not always entirely straightforward. So I really appreciate how unguarded and open Bruce was when we spoke.
Personal honesty of any kind can be a challenge -- especially when taking stock of your whole life. For this week's recommendation, check out Bette Midler in the 1993 version of Gypsy -- and pay particular attention to the show-stopping song Rose's Turn, the culmination of a life spent repressing desires. Without giving away too much, Gypsy is, to me, a show about women with dreams that aren't always apparent to those around them, and the different ways that those woman answer or refuse the call of those dreams.
When Bette belts out her meltdown in Rose's Turn, it comes with a fury of having spent a lifetime denying herself, breathlessly realizing that denying herself has been torture not just for her, but for those around her who are ultimately driven away.
There are various ways that different productions of Gypsy have concluded: some bleak, with Rose's growing madness, and others optimistic with the possibility of reconciliation. The Bette version is my favorite, I think because it suggests that there's power in catharsis, in honesty, and admitting out loud the things we've always been scared to hear ourselves say.