Fresh Blood Podcast Episode Guest - Bruce Vilanch

Intro Banner of Bruce Vilanch
Intro Banner of Bruce Vilanch
Intro Banner of Bruce Vilanch
Intro Banner of Bruce Vilanch

Bruce Vilanch talks about the impact Bette Midler had on his career, his experience with adoption and his various projects in Hollywood and on Broadway. Bruce is a comedy writer, songwriter, actor and a six time Emmy Award winner. Bruce is well known by the public for his years on Hollywood Squares as a celebrity participant. Bruce was also the head writer for the show, he wrote for the Academy Awards and he was the head writer for the Oscars from 2000 to 2014. He has been a reporter, a columnist, a songwriter, published a collection of his writings, and he’s written jokes for the likes of Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal, Rosie O’Donnell and Robin Williams. Not to mention appearing on Broadway in Hairspray, in a variety of TV shows and writing and performing off Broadway in his self penned one-man show, Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous.

Bruce Vilanch talks about the impact Bette Midler had on his career, his experience with adoption and his various projects in Hollywood and on Broadway. Bruce is a comedy writer, songwriter, actor and a six time Emmy Award winner. Bruce is well known by the public for his years on Hollywood Squares as a celebrity participant. Bruce was also the head writer for the show, he wrote for the Academy Awards and he was the head writer for the Oscars from 2000 to 2014. He has been a reporter, a columnist, a songwriter, published a collection of his writings, and he’s written jokes for the likes of Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal, Rosie O’Donnell and Robin Williams. Not to mention appearing on Broadway in Hairspray, in a variety of TV shows and writing and performing off Broadway in his self penned one-man show, Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous.


Bruce Vilanch - Comedy Writer, Songwriter, Actor and 6 time Emmy Award Winner

 [00:00:00] Jolie Downs: Today, we are speaking with Bruce Vilanch. Bruce is a comedy writer, songwriter, actor, and a six time Emmy award winner. Bruce is well-known by the public for his years on Hollywood squares as a celebrity party. Bruce was also the head writer for the show he wrote for the academy awards. And he was the head writer for the Oscars from 2000 to 2014, he has been a reporter, a columnist, his songwriter, a  published a collection of his writings.

[00:00:30] He has written jokes for the likes of Lily Tomlin, Billy crystal, Rosie O'Donnell and Robin Williams. Not to mention appearing in a variety of TV shows and writing and performing off-Broadway in his self pen one man show Bruce relaunch, almost famous. I can't wait to hear more. Bruce. Thank you for joining us.

[00:00:55] Could you tell us a little bit more about your story? And getting to where you are today.

Bruce Vilanch: in hairspray. I thought I'd mentioned that I did. I shaved my beard of 32 years. What was her name? I shaved so I could become the mother and the Turnblad on the road. And then on Broadway for a year. My story is mostly sad to leave the practically everything.

[00:01:21] 1930. What's my story. I was. I was adopted at four days old and parish, New Jersey by a lovely Jewish couple. My father was optomotrist. My mother was a show girl and she did a lot of fundraising and I would dance and sing and carry on in front of the mirror. And they recognized that I was happy when I was doing that.

[00:01:42] So they enabled me. I became a child actor. I was never a child star. Or we'd be having this conversation in rehab. They don't turn out well by and large, but I was always acting and I I was, I used to say I was born 40. I looked older. I was heavy. So I was always up against actors who were legitimate.

[00:02:08] And I've realized, I thought I'm being authentic. Why do you say that? What do you mean by that? They were the right age and they were they were the right while they were the right age, basically. They looked more like some, I played Joel Grey's father when I was like 14. Oh, wow. Okay. Okay.

[00:02:24] And he was about 20 years older. It was it was like that, I looked like a kid dressing up, like when you look at the high school play, you were truly acting. You were really busting.

[00:02:38] Even the overacting. But I was also writing, I began writing about my adventures and I was wrote for the school paper and my parents encouraged that. They said you could go to journalism school. At first. I thought I would be, they wanted me to be a trial lawyer because they said, we went to go see a compulsion on a movie with Orson Wells.

[00:02:58] And and I sweat. Yeah, no, I'd rather do it on the stage where they applaud. I would wrap it, that's more fun, more gratifying. I began writing and I went to Ohio state and I had a journalism degree and a theater degree. So I never, I was doing both. I was writing a lot about theater and I left there and took a job at the Chicago tribute, writing, being a feature writer.

[00:03:21] And early on I met Bette Midler. Who was on Broadway and Fiddler on the roof. And she'd gotten a nightclub gig in Chicago. And I knew the guy who was managing her at the time. And he asked me if I would go write about her. And I went to see her and she knocked me out to hope opening for Jonah Jones, not Jonah.

[00:03:41] Jonah was opening for Jackie. It was a deadpan comic. That when I was a kid, I was unwanted. Now I'm wanted in 13 states that kind of and I thought she was great. And I wrote a story about her. I reviewed her and wrote a column and she called me and she said, that's a funny column. You're a funny writer.

[00:03:59] And I said you're funny. You should talk more on stage. And she said, you got any lines? And I began writing for her in that. 50 years ago. Isn't that amazing if the digitalis such it began and it hasn't stopped, we keep going. And then we discovered many years later, not that many years later, there was some time later when my parents were watching her on Johnny Carson, my father's bed, she looks just like a girl.

[00:04:25] I dated. Who's that . So what happened to Ruth? She eloped you married chesty Midler, and then moved to Hawaii. I said, excuse me. And then we found out that we are both from the same path. She was born in Honolulu, but we were the families are both in the same town. They all knew each other.

[00:04:41] It was truly bizarre. Isn't that? Yeah. You guys were meant to meet at some point. And then I found my birth mother really? Wow. She passed about six years ago, but it finally happened after spitting in a cup, the first cousin surfaced. Wow. What was that like? It was bizarre because I it was like a joke.

[00:05:05] You know what I mean? I had a friend who was adopted, who was very busy on finding his family and I'd never really. I never really a wanted to, because I was not looking for that kind of magic. I was, I had the proper amount of rage of my parents and And I was adjusted that way. And I didn't think that finding my birth parents would do anything for me, particularly because we'd always been told they were teenagers and it was a backseat boogie.

[00:05:30] And and they, I got into trouble and they were two Jewish kids. And that was what they wanted the Jewish baby, which was solid of the. And I also was out in Hollywood squares six nights a week. And generally when you get famous or almost famous and you have a history like mine, the people who were hiding surface, generally they come to you for money.

[00:05:58] No one came. So I figured they were gone. It was over. And I spit into the cup as a joke. And, we would get for six years, I would get these reports so that your six cousins with and so it was that people, I didn't know anybody, and there was nobody, no name, lurched up out of the thing to say, oh my God, I'm Hillary Clinton's cousin.

[00:06:16]And then one day, a couple of weeks ago, somebody showed up and they said, she's close enough to your biologic. And she's your first cousin to your birth parents or one of your birth parents. So we pursued it and I reached out and it turns out that our stories matched and that everything was bad. And the only reason I mentioned it now is.

[00:06:39] My mother's name, my birth mother's name was Delores mermaid bet. Midler, Zack, Dolores. I just think it's like kismet. First. I find out that her father, my father dated her mother. In high school, my adopted father. And then I find out that my real mother's named Delores. I love it. It's like it's rod Serling.

[00:07:05] Writing's part of my life. It's that, so another crazy.

[00:07:13] This is all fresh. This all just happened. So how are you feeling about this? I was delight well, I'm feeling great because I met them. We did a zoom call and they're delightful people. They are really funny. They're out here. They're lawyers in the valley. Oh, how great. And and then we had my, I have two or three siblings, three half siblings, and it was one of them was having a birthday show.

[00:07:34] I. To the valley with my visa and we had a birthday brunch, and I got to see everybody in first DCIS and the nephews came, I, not, I was an only child, so I never had brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews. I was never an uncle. I was an aunt in drag. So that's all like new and exciting. And the lucky part of it is they're all really interesting people.

[00:07:59] And nobody seems to be, crazy.

[00:08:05] And that's just a whole new. It just opened up for them, it answered a an answer to a question that they'd been carrying around for 70 years about this baby that their mother had 10 years before she married their father and had them. And it was always like, yeah, I had a baby a long time ago.

[00:08:28] I had or I had a secret, I have a. And there were other relatives who were of her generation knew the shape and would quietly share it as they became adults. And so finally the mystery has been solved and the, of course the deal breaker was when they sent me a photo of her. And we are, we look identical.

[00:08:51]Identical, that's awesome. Say the same hair and the same. And they said, she's struggled with weight her whole life

[00:09:02] and it's, and she had a great sense of humor. She had a great sense of humor. They sent me a picture of her gravestones though. It says Dolores Greenberg, Friedman Thin at last.

[00:09:16] So they said, so you didn't fall too far. Genetically.

[00:09:25]Jolie Downs:  That's fantastic. I, oh, I'm sorry. You didn't get to meet her, but I think it's wonderful that you are connected. This new side of family that you can explore. That's beautiful. Yeah. Oh, and isn't it. Isn't genetics. Interesting. 

Bruce Vilanch: Oh man. Yeah. And there are other stories, know friends of mine who were, I have a lot of friends who were adopted just by chance.

[00:09:50]It's not like I sought out adopted people, as as the stigma of adoption, Went away because when I was a kid, they kept saying, don't tell people you're adopted. And now, whereas, it's like there were TV, special favors to people. As I've gotten to know more of them, I've gotten to realize then how lucky I am and that that there's weird.

[00:10:09] There's so much so much strangeness out there. So it will now tell me, so meeting Bette Midler and that relationship did that open up, is that how you went to Hollywood? Is that yes, it is. I started writing for her and I was also writing for the trip and people were coming through town and I would do stories on them and they would say you're the guy who writes for bet, Midler, Midland.

[00:10:30] I would start writing for them. And so I had a collection of deeper Lily Tomlin and that George Carlin, Richard Pryor, David Steinberg, and all of the people who started with that because the Barry Manilow was her piano player and her first backup singers were Melissa Manchester, elusive Androse.

[00:10:47] And then later on Jennifer Lewis, Katie Seagal. A lot of people became famous who had, who she started with her and she was like the mothers. And and so after, among them, she had a dresser whose Pfister, whose sister, who brother that started the Manhattan transfer. And we put their act together and they got a bet, got them an album deal and a record deal and Beck them.

[00:11:16] A gig. And we put together a show and CBS picked them up for a summer replacement series. They used to have when there was variety of television, there used to be summer shows. Remember this, but we did. I came out here in 1975 to write the Manhattan transfer TV show. And I never looked back. Had your bags packed the day I met you.

[00:11:41] Jolie Downs: Ready to go. You found that, that sweet spot, right? Yes. And now how did the Hollywood squares come about? 

Bruce Vilanch: I've been out here 20 years writing for people and and I've been on a couple of TV shows as a talking head on the midnight special, late at night, on Fridays on NBC. And they asked me to be the head writer, but then at the end, Latest iteration there.

[00:12:05] The third version of squares, there was the one with Peter Marshall that was ran 14 years with would call in. There was the one with John Davidson with Joan Rivers in the eighties. And I wrote for all of them, and then there was this one with Woopie and when they got what they, she said, oh, I think Vilanch should host the show.

[00:12:22] Cause I had been writing for her for. And they thought she was nuts, but they didn't want to piss her off that early. So they tested me and here this one one's for the wind and the waves. And they said we're looking for the data's board main stream, but they put me in a and I was next to Woopie we asked if that's possible here.

[00:12:43] The only Hollywood squares that existed in my world. So I didn't see the previous ones, because even this one it's been 20 years now. And so it was, it's gone from, I used to, I watched you on TV too. I watched you on TV with my mother. I watched you on TV with my grandma. And when the great-grandmother's, I think that's when I sell.

[00:13:05] Yeah. I was a latchkey kid. I loved all of the game shows. Me too, but when I go back to, the O G what's my line, I've got a stupid name. With the clock. These were all the early that are all being rebooted and squares, but there's a thing called hip hop squares, MTV on MTV.

[00:13:31] With rappers because rappers are so funny. I had no idea that Flavor Flav is the breakout star because flavor is funny, but the rest of them are like, dead serious. That's their, yeah. They can't, they're just too serious. They can't allow themselves to be, yeah. It does not go that one. It, then they reboot, it had been rebooted, like the, tell the truth and match. I've never been successful in reboots. This is the first time they haven't been successful. I don't know. Maybe the mood wasn't right for that kind of thing. I think a lot of it now is reality TV helped because people are more attuned to watching television, not for scripted material, as much as for.

[00:14:21] Reality stuff. And and streamers, of course, they're taken up the slack people now binge on Netflix and Hulu and a show will come up and they'll spend the weekend watching all eight hours of it. That's why Netflix is the network of the the shiny object. Every Friday, they have to drop something new.

[00:14:41] It's they re it's like you're in the theater, the movie business. And like every Friday they have to change the. That's taken up a sack. So there's room. And also that, that kind of programming is so much cheaper than at the end, the big bang everybody was, they were all getting a million dollars a week, and so it costs you like $8 million to turn the lights on just to pay the actors. And you were definitely was financed. And the only way you could ever make any money on that is in syndication and showing this thing over and over again, and having no production costs. Compare that with, to tell the truth where you have a host, like Anthony Anderson or the Steve Harvey who gets a big salary and then guest actors.

[00:15:25] And it's so much less than. Actor on the big bang theory. Yes. You really can make money off of it. And if it is demonstrated that people will watch it, why not watch that? They'll watch the match game. They'll watch. There are

[00:15:46] many, it started 20 years ago when we did squares. The number one show on television was who wants to be a millionaire with regions. And at that part of the reason the squares went on was because there was a thirst for game shows. It was felt that people really loved competition. And our show is more of a comedy shows than a game show, but what eventually killed it was they tried to raise the stakes to make it more of a game show.

[00:16:14] And really that's not what it was about. Yeah, it was about you won money and you gotta love it going away, present. And you got to have the interaction with these nine lunatics who were up there now. Some good laughs. Yep, exactly. Now how did you become a writer for the Oscars? I've been writing for individual people like that on the Oscars.

[00:16:36] And eventually in 1989, a producer named Alan Carr. Who's no longer with us who I had been working with for years. He managed Dan Margaret and I worked on her stage act and a bunch of other clients. He asked me to come right to show he got the job of producing the show. Close to a movie producer.

[00:16:56] And so I came on and I wrote, I started writing in London so much to write that I brought on, we brought on Hildy parks who was a wonderful writer from New York who was married to Alex cone who produced the Tony awards. And it was the big Broadway show. So we wrote it and and it was an Allen brought in some other outside elements, including the snow white number.

[00:17:17] And it became famous for the snow white number because Disney sued over the use of snow white and they had no legal standing, but they were, they wanted to pick a fight with the academy and it became notorious and partially it was because. Two weeks after the lawsuit, the Rob Lowe sex tape, Pablo dance with snow white.

[00:17:42] So every time they mentioned Rob Lowe seen recently on the disastrous no white number of the academy awards. And so bill just mentioned the worst show in history and miraculously I was hired back the director and I were the only surviving. Yeah, it was cast into the alien corn. And I w and we came back parser that's because Billy crystal came in with the new producer was Gill case.

[00:18:10] And he brought in really the host and then it was smooth sailing, a lot of the ideas. Had remained with the show. I need a little tweaks and things that helped. And a lot of it, the the way the show is actually produced. Alan, turn the, change it around, change it, a lot of different things at backstage.

[00:18:31] That we're actually going to, but he had, he, he had a huge personality and made a lot of enemies doing all this. And he was one of those, the karmic the karmic station wagon rolled over him. This happens. Ready for us now I'm curious because we haven't even touched on all of the things that you've done.

[00:18:49] You've done a lot in your career. What do you feel has been one or two of your greatest successes and why? The Oscars and squares and Bette Midler. I certainly them and then hairspray, which was. Because when you're on TV every night you get offered things. I wrote a book of essays and put them in a book because there was no time to write a book which was nominated for an award.

[00:19:13]It was not I for the land of literary, which is. Yes, sir. I'm very good and Jewish and gay, I have minorities. I didn't know. I had white privilege, I it's cause I had so many limitations being Jewish and obviously, the world was much more open than it was to other minorities, but it never occurred to me that that I had white privilege until somebody told me I did.

[00:19:39] At first I denied it and then I began to realize yeah, I guess I understand it's a point of view that you see the world, that's your white privilege, that you were able to do certain things, or you didn't have challenges. It was your whole worldview. And and once you addressed that, it's not the worst thing in the world.

[00:19:57]It's not the worst thing to have to. To get you to realize, yes, I do think a certain way. It's not racist, but as you do think, you just as a friend of mine said to me, you've never, it has never occurred to you when you leave the house and get into your car that you back be pulled over by a cop and murdered.

[00:20:16] And if you were black, that would be a thought that would happen to you every single time you went into the garage. I said, that's white privilege that explains it in a nutshell. That is what it is. Exactly. I have a different conversation with my son when he gets in a car, then I would, if I were a black woman talking to my black self and that is white privilege and there's a whole different thing.

[00:20:41]I was got lost in my profundity,

[00:20:46] so I got offered stuff. And one of the things was they asked me to come in and audition for Hairspray, and I did, and I wound up doing it for two years and that was, I'd always wanted to be on Broadway star and a big musical and be a part of that whole, of that community, that performing community for two years, a year on the road than a year in Berlin.

[00:21:07] Was fabulous. I would do it again, but and there've been some false starts with other shows, but what did you learn from that experience from doing that from? I learned that I have a certain kind of OCD that doing the same show eight times. And I can wait, how did that come up for you?

[00:21:23]I, every day I would go in and I said we're doing it again. And the audience was always different than you always got cues from the audience and all that. And I, and, but you have to do it a certain way, the way you've rehearsed it. But and they left a little window for me to improvise something.

[00:21:38] And it was really, it became because it was after a number of when I started hairspray, I was heavier than when I finished. And. It was so I could catch my breath. I gave me an ad-lib that other than that moment, the rest of the show was as it was every night. But I'd always thought I had some kind of OCD,, but it didn't seem to get in my way.

[00:22:00]But this, let me prove to me that actually it was beneficial because a lot of people talk about they won't do long runs. Nathan language said, and I say, how are you doing? He says, I'm trapped in it. I'll do the same thing. He's a consented actor. But he, he had to do the same thing every night and it would be like it was just like a running gag.

[00:22:24] It's yeah, that's the good, there's good news and bad news, but you got to keep doing it, but you have to have, I think that thing that allows you to go do it and view it as fresh. Yeah. So that OCD helps you in that? I think it does. I think I'd be a fool to say it doesn't because I think it would be, it would take too much work, to go, ah, it's Wednesday and I drank last night.

[00:22:48] I'm like we have to do it in the afternoon. That's the things that we have. They benefit us in a variety of ways that all we have to do is open our eyes to see how they can do that. OCD it'd be like Marion Sal's is, who's a fabulous character rack. And she was in deathtrap, which ran for six years.

[00:23:08] And she was in every, she never missed a. And she was a famous story about Marion is she came in on a Wednesday and somebody else in the cast who was. Tracking, they're checking in, looking at her balefully and she said, they're wonderful. We get to do a twice. Today. She was totally serious. And this poor kid is how come?

[00:23:35] Why not? If you're going to have to do it, that's the best way to look at it. I get to do it. I did it to your bucket list. I want to do this play. Time's not, I'm sorry. A hundred times. Tell me, what about the flip side? What about a really big challenge? What was a big challenge that you've had to deal with in life?

[00:23:53] And how did you overcome a big challenge? I suppose being gay, I was very lucky in that I'm in, in a. In a world that encourages eccentricity and rewards flamboyance and your courage to be unusual. And then those, with the talent. At the other hand, you are living in a homophobic society.

[00:24:14] And even in showbiz, as everybody who's below the line is very macho. Especially the women and everybody who's above. I think that was allowed to be crazy people. And so the challenge was going to work in that environment. I have to confess it. Wasn't a huge challenge for me cause I had never had, I'd never, I was never afraid of being exposed.

[00:24:35] I never had to be in the closet. Clear about who I was. Oh, wow. That's wonderful. Nobody ever cast me the part where I had to kiss the girl. And to your family, like they, it just, it was always known and accepted and you never had to have that long. It wasn't spoken up, but it was I think they, they were aware of it, but I was a trickster.

[00:24:56] I kept them guessing I was a real bisexual,. Until I was about 25, but I think most bisexuals are. And then they finally choose something that really they liked. But that's a very , unpopular opinion. And and I it doesn't mean that I think that if you identify as bisexual, great, and I, you should have every right accorded and you shouldn't be a second class citizen in any of the above.

[00:25:20] But, I, this is my personal field, personal feelings. Yes. Completely understand. But when I was younger, I was madly in love with girls at my parents were always afraid. I was going to look with my Myra Greenberg. Myra, who's not related to Dolores Greenberg, Myra Greenberg, who married my actually one of my best friends, married him.

[00:25:42] They just had their 50th wedding anniversary. But I just kinda kept them guessing and I had in my twenties sides of. Any woman who I was that invested in, who I wanted to marry and have children deserve better than a guy who's going to slink off to the Greyhound station to find a an accommodating sailor.

[00:26:03] And I realized that was what I really liked. And so I my authentic self was gay. And so I just said that's it good fans. And, I've. I've had actually I had relationships now and again with women, with women, but. Less after aids came in because they were scared, but that was okay because at that point, my life was like, fooling around.

[00:26:25] I commend you though for, especially at a young age for realizing that and being able to stay true to your authentic self and embody it because a lot of people stuck. So I, yeah. Yes. Thank you. But so my parents always knew what was going on and it came to a head when I was drafted because I was, it was eight, I was 18, it was Vietnam.

[00:26:46] And I was drafted.. We had a lottery and I didn't have  a high number but it was moderate enough to get drafted. And you had to go register that didn't meant me. They would call you. But he would register. So I had to go down and register and there was, you would, what was called checking the box.

[00:27:05] There were a series of boxes and one of them said, are you are you gay? And you would check the box and they would ship you into a psychiatrist's office right there. Wow. And the shrink would say, are you a practicing homosexual? I said, no, I've got it.

[00:27:22] And he then asked you a series of Morad intimate questions about sex practices to separate the straight guys who were faking it from the real guys. And the questions were good. Do you feel like they were really gonna absolutely. I think he straight was slightly embarrassed to ask. But it was a way to discern and he, I was disqualified ethically and I went back and I.

[00:27:49]I said to my parents, I'm checking the box. And they said that'll be on your record, which was that filling phrase record on your record. And I said, the odds that I'm ever going to have to work for somebody for whom this will be an issue or a slight and B, I wouldn't want to work for them anyway.

[00:28:08] Exactly. So I might as well just be honest about it and live with it. This is who I am. So they said we always thought that, but you really had us going there for a while with Myra. Your parents sound really cool. Yeah. They worked, they were great. They were great. They were great.

[00:28:26] My father died when I was 30 and my mother was a very controlling person, but she was fabulous. But she was in charge and it was, we had all the usual kind of contention. I had nobody to share her with, when you have siblings, if you live in the hope that you can fall off, oh, you deal with her.

[00:28:46] Yes. I dealt with her last Passover. You deal with it this time, three story. It was never that hard. Yeah, I would never do that. We all have those moments. Look, I'm a mom. I have those moments and figure that out. Yes, exactly. I'm curious, what would you say is your personal definition of success and based on that, what do you feel is key to having continued success throughout.

[00:29:13] I, my personal definition is professors is being happy in what you do and not being tied up in knots about what you could have done. There's a line from gypsies shoulda, woulda, coulda that shows. And so I've always I've met now. You don't get to weigh 250 pounds by not caring. You tend to act out on food.

[00:29:35]So I can't deny that, but I think that, that's what success is. And it doesn't mean that you've made a gigantic pile of money or. That cushions, whatever you're wanting to do. So it's not, that's not a bad thing, but I have a cousin from my adopted family. So she's always been my cousin.

[00:29:53] He was just passed yesterday and cheat as she was older, she was about, she was always an I, and she. Live for years and Woodstock with her husband who was a sculptor, but he was not a famous sculptor and they raised two kids and they have a farm. And and so it wasn't like they were the money, they were not like people who have a farm in south Hampton or vineyard, they were like, they weren't latter day hippies.

[00:30:24] But they're happy, if they weren't at Woodstock because of Woodstock, they were there because they found a good form for it. A nice piece of change. And and she was happy. She was, that was that there was not the life that her parents envisioned for her clearly, but when she wanted for herself, you live that life that satisfies.

[00:30:45] Authentic life. Yeah. That's probably that's success living your authentic life and making a go of it. Yeah. Making a go of it and just making it work because it just feels good. So now what about, have you ever felt stuck in life? So what stuck? Yeah. I actually, yeah, I did act right before I moved out to Hollywood I felt.

[00:31:09] I think right before I moved out to Hollywood, I was riding for the trip. I'd been there five years and I was tired of chronicling the achievements of others and th and the malfeasance of others. And I wanted to do something. I didn't want to sit there and become the city room cynic.

[00:31:28] I was surrounded by city rooms. The next day were big drinkers and the younger ones were big. Cause that was just coming in and I that, I felt like that I didn't know what I was going to do. And then the Manhattan transfer came along. So I was like, okay, I'll go into LA. Cause I've always wanted to live in Hollywood and I've always wanted to be part of that and see how it works.

[00:31:49] Fortunately, I had a job at an agent, which are two important things to have when you arrived by or in New York, which are the two. In this country, where you go and for what I wanted to do. And and I, once I was there, I realized that this was it. This was the next step. And so I got out of the stock, get out of the stack.

[00:32:09] You made that move, identified what it was and made the move. That's great. But it was, the old expression is. Luck is opportunity meets preparation. And in that I was very lucky. Yeah, you have to step through the book of sense, the mystical sense of luck. And I was lucky in that I was prepared and an opportunity happened.

[00:32:34] And you took the step to go to the opportunity. A lot of people fear that's got them. So you didn't let fear stop. You. You took that step into the unknown and you went for it. That's right. They hit the brick wall behind you

[00:32:49] is a wall full of shows on done. Had I known when the pandemic hit that I was going to be in front of this wall for the world. I, might've not, I'm going to put some different shows. I love David Copperfield and I've worked with him for 40 years. I bet. And he can add, forget Bruce, the movie they made about me, which is there, which is, 20 years ago and all that I would have had festive, probably hairspray posters in French.

[00:33:17]But speaking of the pandemic, what got you through? I was  again, lucky because writers you're writing and the revenue stream don't dry up. There was a lot of development. So you sit at a keyboard at work and zoom in, as long as you don't stand up and do a Jeffrey to.

[00:33:32] You're okay. Yeah. The live performance all went away and a lot of my friends suffered because that was gone. But that was a part of what I did. And I would do a lot of podcasts to exercise that performance muscle like this, because, as Mike Nichols said, interviews are performance has master rating it's conversation.

[00:33:54] He was very wise. He also said, I just love quoting him on this when he was doing the bird cage. You fed homosexuality used to be the love that dare not speak its name. Now. It's the love that won't shut up.

[00:34:11] You've worked with a lot of big names throughout your career. So many I, I'm curious, is there someone that you learned at the most. That I've worked the most from the most. I would be crazy if I didn't say Bette Midler, because we learned together we grew together. And, but I did, and she changed my attitude.

[00:34:31] We joke about it in the movie 20 years ago, she said I was very, I was angry when she met me and I probably was cause I wasn't doing what I really wanted to do. And and I got happy as I started doing the kind of stuff I really wanted to do. I learned that, but you learn from everybody.

[00:34:48]It was and some of it is global stuff and some of it is just It is just a practical, when I did, I wrote the Donny and Marie show and one of the guests was Lucille ball and I, and she was the guy I wrote the last thing she ever did, which was with Bob hope on that first task.

[00:35:06]But I did several, I wrote several things for on different shows and the first one was on Emory and she came out, I'd met her as the journalist years before, and she came on the thing and she was walking. Walking around and she was looking up at the lights and she went over and she stood in the darkness and she said to anybody who would hear I'm in an alley.

[00:35:28] And there was lots of clattering, and a light went on over. What I learned was. They'll say you're difficult when you do stuff like that, but that's not the difficult that's being professional. And she had gotten tired of having to pretend. That it was okay. That you did not know your job.

[00:35:49] And so she was just cut to the chase, fix this. She had gotten, she'd grown tired of a nicer cheese. And this came from growing up at MGM and the studio system and RKO and all those places where people didn't know what they were doing. And and she was a beneficiary of it. But I learned that it's not the worst thing to do.

[00:36:08]And especially when it's, I learned that when it's riding on you and ultimately you're the only one who's going to be affected by somebody else's incompetence, you have to call them. And fix it. That's a big lesson. It's not a bad thing to do to be called difficult. That's big right. Learn from, I learned from Lucy.

[00:36:25] I like that. It's not a bad thing to be called difficult. That's big. Now what do you think has helped you throughout your life? As far as your greatest lesson, what has given, what has served you the most. But there's a waiter at Joe Allen's. I don't mind telling you he could serve.

[00:36:50] Let me rephrase. What life lesson have you learned that has served you and that has helped you the most throughout your wow. Does anybody know the answer to that? I will say one thing. Again, in, in line with the Lucy story, Neil Simon told me, never get up without never finished something and get up and walk away, always leave something left to right.

[00:37:15]Never put yourself in the position of facing the blank page. And that tells you how long ago he told me, cause today it's a black screen. It was a blank page. Then he said, I always leave something. So when I come back, I can immediately pick up on the work and I don't have to sit there and think about what a schmuck I am, because I don't know what he was.

[00:37:38] He was the most prolific playwright and the most successful prolific playwright in American history. So those are, those were apt words. So that made, but that's I guess that's a life lesson. They say leave nothing undone, but then you have to start, you're starting back at ground zero.

[00:37:55] You're starting at, let's take it from the letter a as the musicians. Top study every time. Is there anything that you're working on now? Is there anything that you feel is unfinished or that you want to take? I'm developing, I'm working on a musical that involves Dolly Parton's music.

[00:38:14] Awesome. And we're workshopping it and it'll be unveiled sometime next year. And that's a favorite we've done online. It's, pretty wonderful. I We did, I did, we did go into New York. Workshop for ourselves to put it on its feet and also, so we could tape it and show it. But I'm writing a bunch of stuff.

[00:38:35] I'm not, I'm always, writers are always in development. I got nothing to plug when I, when the book is done, I'm writing a book about how I wrote the worst television shows in the history and lived. It's a different way in this book. And then this. I've not never Marlena Dietrich got a lot of money for her memoirs.

[00:38:56] And when she gave her memoirs, the publisher called her up and said, Mara lady, there's no sex in this book, but I'm not going to put that in. They're not going to pay any of that. So she's, she gave him the money back, never been published. It's never been published. And they said we can't publish a book about what, one of the world's great sex symbols and not have any sex.

[00:39:19] It's odd because she was famous for telling stories about the people she didn't want to. That's interesting if they had a great story about having sex with Jack Kennedy and having sex with Jack Kennedy's father. Not in that order, not in reverse, I think in story. Yeah. And that's the grant and she told that she liked to tell that one.

[00:39:41] Not in the book, I don't know. She doesn't want to go. I, and I don't know when this was, it may be Jacqueline CA NASA may still have been alive. Jackie Onassis may have been the editor of the book because that's what she was doing. She was a Viking for years. She had, she was Michael Jackson's editor.

[00:39:56] She brought him in. She may have been the editor who actually commissioned the book. I don't know.  I'm curious is, are, do you have any habits that you feel have helped you in your own success or in doing your work? Probably I tell in our family, you weren't allowed to be sick unless you were really.

[00:40:11]I couldn't get up and say, I don't feel like going to school today. Let's get dressed. My parents were both like that. And my father was a doctor and he kept ours. And my mother added, my mother was raised in boarding schools. So she was also very on the clock. And so I became on a clock and I stood me in grade school.

[00:40:35] I, and I work with a lot of people, who, if their hair doesn't turn out right there, they're in bed for three days. And that's, I think that's an old joke from Lilly's all back that. From a Lilly as a teenager. Yeah. Something like that. But I do know people who were, they it's forever for them to accomplish anything.

[00:40:58] It's just like forever. And that's, that comes from a different kind of insecure. And it may be this, some of them were raised the way I wasn't are in rebellion. As I am about closing. I've been in rebellion my whole life because my mother made me dress and I was a fat kid and nothing ever fit.

[00:41:13] And I had toddlers and ties and I hate, and I vow. But once I was out of her castle, I was going to dress, whatever. However, fortunately, that's when hippies, hippie them came in and you could wear anything you could, did you go full hippy bell, bottom pants or they could stand up in the corner by themselves?

[00:41:31] Yes, I haven't done to see one of those pictures. Hippy, Bruce hidden somewhere lost in a flood. They're in a box somewhere. I would put money on it. No. What about, has there been, is there been a movie or a book that you've read or a talk that you listened to that had a really big impact on your life that you think other people should watch or listen to or read?

[00:41:56] Wow. They've been a million movies, but I don't know that there's any one thing. I was never drawn to a ask or any of that stuff that instant weekend where you don't go to the bathroom and you learned about what it was the son of a bitch. You are. I would say therapy helped.

[00:42:13]After my father died, I went into therapy only because a friend of mine suggested that it would help me grieve that I was carrying around. I was angry. He died I just, as I was beginning to become somebody and I was mad about that I thought and so I went into therapy and I was in therapy for about five years.

[00:42:31] Yeah. I, that really helped my therapist. I have a very compliant patients. You can hear them. I think because I grew up as a doctor's kid and the doctor says do this, and yes, I didn't understand that's coming from a place of wisdom. And so I assimilated a lot of the stuff in therapy and that helped a great deal, but there wasn't, I don't think there, there wasn't a.

[00:42:57] A particular broker. I People ask me what was the first movie you ever saw? And I said, that's the greatest show on. Which goes by, there's no business like show business. So do you see a pattern? And I was very little when I saw that, but I remember them and I think it just it informed everything I did after that I wanted to be in the circus or any Showgirls.

[00:43:22]I have to agree with you on the therapy. That is, it's a very important. And when you're grieving, it makes a huge difference. I know I went into therapy after my mom died as well, and it was needed. I, it's a big it's a big thing to process. It was when I was a kid, was, it was it was something eccentrics did as something that people who were really in trouble, that it wasn't something that normal people did.

[00:43:41] And my mother used to say, Ah, then they're going to blame the mother for everything.

[00:43:51] But at the same time, she wasn't entirely. I kept saying who has more influence on a mother? The mothers is the O G but that phrase then, but the mother is the original gangster. It all starts with the mother. I've been dealing with this with my teenager Bruce.. Let's screw up the mother it's the mother is bad.

[00:44:13] No, it's. The bottom line is follow. We also follows it must follow we're human. We do our best. And I, when I w there is a woman who told me that. Pregnant with my first Sussan. And she was just like, ah, what if I'm going to see what if I screw up this kid? And she's you're totally going to screw up this kid.

[00:44:39] Every parent there's no parent that doesn't screw up. Their kid just love them and support them. Yeah. I've never had them. I've been a godfather 43 times, but I've never had them, but it seemed clear to me. That you don't stop being a human being because you're a parents, a lot of the things that are part of you as a human wind up being part of you as a parent, whether you like it or not, you just have to say to yourself, this is going to happen.

[00:45:07] I'm a nervous queen and I'm going to transmit some of that. Even though it's coming from a place of, I don't want anything bad to happen to the kid. It's if it's the nervousness it's going to transmit itself. Yup. Yup. You're absolutely right. You can't, you just, you have to be mindful.

[00:45:22] That's the best you can be is mindful. Yes, it is. No, this has been great, Bruce. Thank you so much for your time before we go. I want to ask you my final question. Final jeopardy. What are you sure about. What am I sure to lyric isn't rainfalls from this guy? And father-in-law, what am I sure I'm I'm sure if you're, if you are kind, you will receive kindness or that it would be wonderful to say.

[00:45:56] Yeah, but what about Hitler? I understand, but if you don't take a quite so globally, if you've written it down to here, so your interpersonal relationship that it is something I'm feeling sure, there's too many times for it to be. I agree when you said that it gave me little chills on my arms. It's very true.

[00:46:15] Very true. Thank you. If anyone wants to take a look at your work or learn more about you I'll we can use, so the easiest thing, there's a website. We got Perfect. Which came after an a guy, a fan manages it and I go there to see what I'm doing and it's off of the movie. Okay, good job fan.

[00:46:39]That's high praise. Yeah, I know. It's a great fan. Wow. So is there anything I didn't ask that, that you would want to bring up Jim? I know my phone number, but you're very thorough. Okay. This ride has 40. Just to pay, just to be pick your brain because I really enjoyed this, Bruce. Thank you so much for your time.

[00:47:02] Thank you. It was fun. 

Jolie Downs:  

I had so much fun talking with Bruce. 

What I loved about Bruce is that it appears he has been living as his true authentic self for the majority of his life. This is truly phenomenal as the majority of us have stumbled through life figuring out how to find and stay true to our authentic selves that have buried underneath the layers. Bruce went after his passions in school, getting degrees in journalism and theater and leading to a coveted job at the Chicago Tribune. 

The job was a great experience for Bruce, he learned a lot and met amazing people, including the fabulous Bette Midler, but eventually he found himself feeling stuck. He was tired of what he was doing, he felt surrounded by cynics but didn’t know what he should do about it. He started to grow unhappy. When an opportunity came along to write for the Manhattan Project, Bruce decided to make a change and moved himself to LA. Once he was there, he knew he had made the right decision and he got out of the stuck.

I want to take a minute and talk about this – this is a really big deal, making the decision to take a new job and move was a huge catalyst of change that sent Bruce on his upward trajectory leading to him building a life long career out of his greatest passions. What would have Bruce’s life looked like had he not taken that new role? Had he not made that move? 

So often fear of the unknown can leave us rooted in the spot. Even if we are unhappy. I had this experience the other day that gave me insight as to why. 

I was at a concert festival, there were two stages with bands going back and forth. At one point, my husband and I find a spot close to center stage and take root. We decide not to move so we can have a great spot for the final performer. It was 4 hours until the final performer. We’re having a great time but slowly this spot where I’m dancing, this spot that felt perfect and ideal that I had staked out, it becomes tighter and tighter and tighter. Eventually it starts to feel difficult to breathe. By the time the band right before the lead performance comes up, I’ve find myself surrounded by tall people on all sides, completely hemmed in. I can’t dance without bouncing off someone in each direction – and I love to dance, it can feel painful for me to stand still during good live music – but that’s where I found myself. In a tall people box, unable to move and I hated it. I couldn’t fully enjoy myself. But I was told by others that there was no way I would get back if I were to move and I had stayed for so long just to watch the final performance in this – what I had believed to be, amazing - spot. I tried looking around, but I couldn’t see, I couldn’t see anything past the heads around me. And I was scared, I had put in so much effort to be there and I had sacrificed my bathroom breaks and drink refills and I could tell my husband wanted to stay, what if I made him move after holding on for so long and it was just as bad? So I stayed. And I stewed and I silently screamed in my head and even during the final act, that performer I had waited so long for, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy, I wasn’t able to release the pressure that had been building from being in a situation that I was unhappy in. I was not listening to myself. 

Finally, near the end, I could take no more and made a break for it. The people around me cried out, why are you leaving, it’s almost over! But I kept going and amazingly, I found a wonderful spot not far away with space to breath and room to dance and I thoroughly enjoyed and sucked the marrow of happiness on those last couple of songs. I was so disappointed in myself that I hadn’t made the move earlier. 

I couldn’t help but reflect on the experience for the rest of the weekend. This micro moment had everything we experience when we are stuck in the macro moment of life. Sometimes in life that job or relationship or that situation that you worked so hard for, ends up not to be right for you. The longer you stay in a situation that is not right, the tighter life feels, the harder it is to breathe freely, the more difficult it becomes to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and yet, so often, even while you are slowly suffocating, you don’t make a change. You stay. Because you worked so hard to get there. Because someone else told you there is nothing better out there. Because it’s what you know. Because you are scared that if you make a change, it could turn out to be worse. So you silently scream inside your head and you forget how to have fun and enjoy because You are not listening to yourself. If you were listening to yourself, you would realize, you are already in the worse. You are already in that place of unhappiness and this, this is not the way. You are meant to be happy and fulfilled, if you are not feeling this way about your life, then it’s time to make a change. 

Ask yourself some questions. 

In what areas of your life are you feeling unfulfilled? 

Is there anything you can do to change that situation? If there is nothing you can do to change the situation, then ask yourself, what can I change about myself so I can find peace with the situation.

Take the time to stop, evaluate and listen to yourself. Once you figure out what you want, start making the steps to get you there. 

After all how can you find true success, happiness and fulfillment if you are not listening to yourself?

As Bruce said, luck is when opportunity meets preparation. This is your preparation, finding your own internal knowing. And when the opportunity presents itself, don’t let fear stop you, take that step and walk through the door. 

Walking through the door led to an incredibly successful life in Hollywood for Bruce, because throughout it all, he’s followed his passions. His followed his passion with writing through writing his essays, his play, writing for the Oscars and Academy Awards, writing for the likes of Lily Tomlin and George Carlin and he followed his passion for performing with Hollywood Squares, HairSpray, TV shows and off Broadway play. And he continues to follow those passions, successfully, year after year. 

Bruce learned early on that when you pursue work that utilizes the best parts of yourself, you end up lit up from within. When you’re feeling that good about the work you’re doing, you won’t give up and you can’t help but give it your all, leading to success.

I loved Bruce’s beginning story, meeting Bette Midler and building a relationship leading to working together. For so many, that could have been the end of the story. If Bette had been another kind of person, she could have worked with Bruce and not shared with anyone else where her content was coming from. Perhaps if she had been that kind of person, Bruce would have remained stuck for longer at the Tribune. But I was so happy to learn, that Bette Midler has a beautiful soul in additional to that incredible talent. Bette Midler took Bruce’s hand and lifted, she introduced him around, sharing his talent and helping him elevate his life. It sounds like she’s done this over and over again throughout her career. It is impossible to comprehend the impactful ripples created when you live your life as someone ready and willing to help lift others. Let’s all be inspired by the impact Bette had on Bruce and look into our own lives for ways we can help others. Where can you make a difference? Who can you help? Be someone who helps others rise. 

I enjoyed Bruce talking about Broadway and what it’s like when your play is a success. As he shared, Nathan Lane would say, he was trapped in a hit – which I’m sure most can relate too, but Marian Sol, she would say – We get to do it twice! 

I find this powerful because your mindset can take the same situation and either make it painful or make it exciting. Marian knew this, she chose to make it exciting, thus the – we get to do it twice! 

We are all absolutely capable of this. 

I have a simple solution to help shift your mindset when faced with something you don’t want to do. 

 First step – create an active bucket list – if you don’t have one, I don’t care your age, get on making one today. Create a note in your notes app titled bucket list and anytime something strikes your interest, add it to the list. Use it. Second step – anytime you are faced with something you don’t want to do, add it to your bucket list. 

You make it an opportunity. 

And it works. 

For example, dreading going on a 3 mile hike in the monsoon wind and rain with 30 5th graders? Add it to your bucket list. Make it an adventure. All of a sudden, I GET to go on a hike in the monsoon wind and rain. How many people get to do that? 

Doing this shifts your energy from ugh, why,– to – alright, let’s do this –monsoon hike - CHECK! Performing the same show twice every day for a year – check! 

Changing your perspective changes everything.  

Finally, I absolutely loved Bruce’s definition of success. Success is Being happy in what you do and not being tied in knots about what you could have done. Yes. It doesn’t matter what your life looks like, as long as it’s the life you want to look at. And living free of regret, is another important aspect to that feeling of success. Do you have regrets? If you do, is there anything you can do now to remedy that regret? Can you do that thing or say that thing or travel to that place now? If you can, please, do it, say it, remedy that feeling so you can move forward in the best way. If you can’t remedy that regret, then what can you learn from it? What can the experience teach you to help you be a better person or live a better life? Spend time reflecting, learn what was needed and then let that regret go knowing that that experience was there to teach you something important. Learn the lesson and then forgive yourself for the regret. You’ll move forward feeling light and free. 

And that is my wish for us all, that you are happy and satisfied with the life you are living while free of all regrets. 

Until next time

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