Get Bruce!
directed by Andrew J. Kuehn
(Miramax, 1999)

Which of these pairs actually appears in the same movie? Whoopi Goldberg and Bette Midler? Florence Henderson and Steven Seagal? Raquel Welch and Roseanne Barr?

If you're comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, you can get all these stars together and more. Get Bruce! -- a cry that's heard throughout Hollywood whenever there's a big event on the entertainment calendar -- is the title of a 1999 documentary on Vilanch, joke writer to the stars.

If you've never heard of Vilanch, you can be quite certain (even if you were pretty sure already) that you're no entertainment world bigshot. If you've laughed at Robin Williams, Midler, Billy Crystal at the Oscars, the Emmys, Comedy Relief or a host of other galas/ceremonies/television specials, chances are, the person you're really laughing at is Vilanch.

The comedy writer "with Muppet hair" is larger than life in almost every way. He's become indispensable to people who need some material "punched up," and has become a trusted friend to many of them. He's a mix of humility and showbiz, all wrapped inside an imposingly large frame that is, no matter the occasion, decked out in a T-shirt. More often than not, that T-shirt has some ribald picture or risque motto plastered in XXXX-large letters. He's mildly profane, not given to kowtowing to stars, understands why some of them need to be divas and flexible enough to work with just about anyone.

Some of that's obvious in the interviews with celebrities like Midler, Williams, Crystal and Paul Reiser. Some is obvious in footage of those stars performing Vilanch's material. And some is even more obvious when Vilanch is on-camera, either at some fund-raising event or just in everyday life, piling up some of the 60 newspapers and magazines he reads to get a gleam on some weird slice of life. Writing a joke for someone, he says, is like costuming them: It has to be a good fit, have the right shape and color for their style.

The best moments in Get Bruce! are the behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the man works. He gives his mother, who raised him in New Jersey, some of the funniest lines, and she delivers during her interviews with the deadpan accuracy of a pro.

"Bruce was the most difficult birth that anyone ever went through," she says. Pause. Pause. "Of course, he was adopted, but be that as it may...." Ba-dum-bum!

Watching him craft an Academy Award opener with Crystal, hearing the jokes that didn't make it, following the process, is a fascinating trip. As a straight-and-sober documentary on Vilanch, it would fall short: We learn he was an overweight kid who made jokes to earn some popularity, worked for the Chicago Tribune right out of college and then headed west to break into showbiz. And some of the funniest moments, we can't see: There is, unfortunately, no footage of this comic at his first L.A. writing jobs -- for The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and The Donny and Marie Show.

But at its core, Get Bruce! is an affectionate celebration of the man whose words, spoken by the stars, make those stars shine.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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