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banner Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 14:02 GMT
Whoopi's gag man
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By the BBC's Peter Bowes

Writing jokes for the Oscars show carries a heavy burden of responsibility.

To some, the event is the most serious night in Hollywood where the great and good gather to honour the finest film-makers in the world.

To others, it is a live showbusiness spectacle waiting to implode when something goes spectacularly wrong.

Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg
Goldberg: Reluctant to present the awards again

Whether it be a speechless celebrity, a presenter clutching the wrong envelope or wobbly scenery which steals the show, the ceremony is rarely short of comedic moments.

The task for head writer Bruce Vilanch is to make sure the gags he dreams up for the show's presenter, Whoopi Goldberg, get the biggest laughs.

"I guess I'm a thrill-seeker," he says.

"It's the thrill of flying by the seat of your pants. This is the biggest live show there is.

"If I were a football player I would want to be in the Super Bowl - it's the biggest football game there is," he explains.


Vilanch is a celebrity in his own right. He is the subject of a Miramax documentary, Get Bruce, and is a regular on the US quiz show Hollywood Squares.

He is also the programme's full-time writer and has also written for a string of other awards such as the Emmys, the Tonys and the Grammys.

Film-maker Elia Kazan winning the Golden Bear in Berlin
Award-winning director Kazan: The audience gave him a cold reception

For the Academy Awards, Vilanch is in charge of writing lines for all the celebrity presenters, although his main focus is Goldberg.

The actress is hosting the Oscars for the fourth time, although she was initially reluctant to come back.

She last presented the ceremony in 1999, the year the controversial film-maker Elia Kazan was honoured by the academy.

"The audience was ice cold," recalls Vilanch. "When she came out it was hard to coax them to laugh."

He explains that Goldberg resorted to some rather blue humour "to try to shock them."

If a joke revolves around a brand name that's always a big concern - they're more concerned with that kind of stuff than they are with actual vulgarity

Bruce Vilanch
"It's like a basic comic instinct, but that scandalised people so she was kind of reluctant to come back," he adds.

Vilanch says he finally persuaded Goldberg, who is a friend and a co-star on Hollywood Squares, that presenting the Oscars after 11 September would be an uplifting experience.

"Everyone wants to laugh and I think she thought that was really a good idea," he says.


Vilanch notes that many of the nominated movies this year are about weighty subjects.

"A lot of people went to the movies after 11 September and saw a lot of serious pictures and were more disposed towards those films than they were towards light-hearted things."

In The Bedroom
In The Bedroom is one of a number of weighty films up for awards

He says films like A Beautiful Mind, In The Bedroom and Iris pose a particular challenge for a comedy writer.

Jokes don't come easily about schizophrenia, parents coping with grief and Alzheimer's Disease.

Vilanch says he is aware that these are delicate subject areas.

But he adds: "There's nothing funnier than a dysfunctional family, you just look on the other side of these things - there's something very amusing about all of that."


Vilanch has been writing for the Oscars for the past 14 years.

He says it is important to strike a balance between jokes the live theatre audience will appreciate and those which will go down well at home.

He is also aware that this is Hollywood's biggest night and one which will be closely watched by the critics.

A hit movie like Titanic often draws a big audience

"It's the Oscars - it's going to live with you forever. The stuff you say on the Oscars will be remembered," he says.

"There are lots of committees. There's the network programming people, the network standards people, the censors and the academy has to look over everything," he explains.

"If a joke revolves around a brand name that's always a big concern - they're more concerned with that kind of stuff, with corporate stuff, than they are with actual vulgarity."

Vilanch admits he gets irritated by celebrities who say "I told them that wouldn't work" when a joke falls flat.

In fact, he concludes: "You can't win. You do a fabulous show and you discover it had the lowest rating in 120 years.

"Then you do a show which was okay and it's the highest rating - because Titanic won best picture."

The Oscars ceremony will be broadcast live on BBC Two on Monday 25 March from 0045-0500 GMT and reported live on BBC News Online.

Links to more Oscars 2002 stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Oscars 2002 stories