Pressure Gets Serious as Oscar Writer Searches for Right Humorous Material

By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Staff Reporter

ABC has a lot riding on the work of a man many people recognize as that weird-looking guy on Hollywood Squares.

Bruce Vilanch, known for his curly mop of hair and trademark T-shirt collection, is head writer for the 74th Annual Academy Awards in a season in which when ABC desperately needs a ratings winner.

There's also the added pressure of trying to revive the show's 2001ratings its worst viewership numbers in years in. None of which seems to faze Vilanch, who has spent the past 30 years writing for celebrities and awards shows.

"If you were a football player, you'd want to play the Super Bowl. Even though that's the highest pressure game, that's also the biggest one in your league," he said. "This is the biggest show in my league so the pressure goes with it and it's actually kind of fun."

Sitting in a darkened room in Hollywood's Renaissance Hotel amid a jumble of lights and cables, Vilanch appeared as serious about the task ahead as the "Picked Last in Gym" T-shirt he wore for the day's Academy Awards junket. He has written for 13 other Oscar presentations and several other awards shows, including the Emmys, Grammys and Tonys. In the past three decades, everyone from Billy Crystal to Robin Williams has used his material.

"I take Lamaze about nine months before (the Oscars). We start with the breathing," Vilanch joked. But he conceded that once the Academy Award nominations come out in February "it's six weeks of lunacy."

Vilanch and his crew of writers, which includes actress Carrie Fisher and comedians Carol Leifer and Rita Rudner, began working weeks ago on the script for the March 24 show. Much of the material will be changed or rewritten up until the last minute to keep current. Even during the broadcast, Vilanch will be in the wings and other writers will be nearby to feed host Whoopi Goldberg new material.

"You have to keep the thing on the bubble," he said. "(The hosts) have to keep firing. They can't run out of ammunition."

To keep presenters loaded with jokes, Vilanch combs through dozens of magazines and newspapers and studies the nominees and presenters. With the nominees including "A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge" and "The Lord of the Rings," Vilanch has plenty to inspire him.

"It's hard to ignore hobbits, hard to ignore can-can dancers. Schizophrenia is having a big year. Hollywood loves to reward schizophrenia but, this year, they're going to give it some Oscars," he said.

This past weekend, Vilanch was a presenter at the Writers Guild Awards. Sitcom writer Tim O'Donnell, who produced the show at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, said Vilanch is in demand because his material is both sophisticated and funny. "He's ironic and witty in a way that most comics aren't today," said O'Donnell. "He's like from a different era."

Some topics will get somber treatment, most especially the terrorist attacks. "Obviously, you can't make jokes about it. Fortunately, the show doesn't have to be about that. I mean, we're not like the Emmys, which were canceled twice," Vilanch said.

He admitted that jokes don't always come easily to him and he believes "panic is the mother of invention."

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