Creating Oscar’s write stuff

Vilanch and co. take care of the kudocast dialogue

Whoopi Goldberg had just picked up her American Film Institute Star tribute award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., on Saturday and her head was anywhere but on her upcoming hosting duties for the 74th Oscars.

“I haven’t been prepped, nor have I picked out my dress yet. All I know is that Harry Winston is making some jewelry for me, and that Bruce Vilanch and his staff are taking care of everything,” said Goldberg.

“Everything” being her monologue, the presenters’ dialogue and the opening show prologue.

While screenwriters may be scorned on movie sets, the Academy Awards is a television show, and on TV, writers rule, even on the bigscreen biz’s biggest night. Oscar scribes are the backbone of the Academy Awards ceremony, the shoulders on which the host and the presenters lean.

Oscar writers work for scale and gift baskets. Their work schedules are sporadic; initially grouping together on weekends and eventually building into a grueling final three-day dress rehearsal. At the end of it all, most of the material is rewritten.

But ask any Oscar scribe and they’ll say: Writing for the Academy Awards is as grand as an Oscar trophy itself; an honor, a boost to one’s resume and a master’s class in comedy.

Selecting the writers begins in September. Soon after the Oscar producer has been chosen, they bring Vilanch onboard. After the host is hired, the writing staff is assembled from the host’s and Vilanch’s suggestions.

If Goldberg’s your boss (this will be her third time), work starts soon after the noms are announced in mid-February. In the years when Billy Crystal hosted, work began right after the new year.

This is Vilanch’s first show as head writer, a title last conferred on Hal Kanter during the 55th Academy Awards in ’83. In years past, Vilanch’s creative clout fluctuated, depending on the host. With Goldberg, he’s putting the words in her mouth. In the years when Crystal hosted, he was principally responsible for presenters’ patter and was one of the team of writers for Crystal. Last year, Vilanch tended to the presenters and made sure Steve Martin accentuated his absurdist humor. As a 2000 Oscar writer under Billy Crystal, Jeffrey Ross says that Vilanch is the constant amid the kudocast’s changing guard of producers, hosts and writers; an encyclopedia of Oscar history.

“If Bruce wasn’t there,” Ross says, “the producers would have to start from scratch.”

Vilanch’s Oscar punchline platoon this year includes conceptual thinker Dan Boone from “Hollywood Squares,” where he regularly writes jokes for Goldberg; sardonic joker Carol Leifer from “Seinfeld” and Ellen DeGeneres’ recent sitcom; current event savant Jon Macks from the “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”; standup comedian Rita Rudner; and brassy sketch scribe Wanda Sykes from “The Chris Rock Show.” There’s a chance that more writers will be added prior to March 24.

Writing teams

In the past, writing staffs have run anywhere from 10 to 14 people. Macks and Boone are former alums from Crystal kudocasts.

“These are comedy writers who are good in a room,” says Vilanch.

Their mission this year: make Whoopi, whoopee. Vilanch explains that Goldberg prefers the material to be topical. “She has a unique view of the world, having been raised a black Jewish woman.”

The details of Goldberg’s material at this year’s ceremony are almost as confidential as the Oscar voting results. Still, expect Goldberg to surprise with an ongoing gag. Last time she hosted, in ’99, one of her constant riffs was dressing up in the outfits from the best costume nominees.

A change for the Oscar writers this year is that they’re all on one team. In past years, they were usually separated into two groups: one responsible for presenter patter, the other strictly wrote the host’s lines. In Crystal’s case, the second group also worked on his opening film montage and contributed lyrics to the opening musical number.

Those extra elements in Crystal’s shows required additional prep time, which is why his writers were called in at the end of Christmas.

“It’s one thing to keep a talkshow going,” says Crystal’s manager and co-Oscar writer David Steinberg, “but when you host the Oscars, it’s like pacing a film. You want the audience to follow your story throughout.”

Vilanch recalls that the best Oscar hosts are performers from the Hollywood community. “It’s best to have an insider who the live audience is comfortable with. You don’t want them to feel like this is a person you jobbed in,” says Vilanch.

Vilanch says he favors the style of the late-’90s Oscarcasts; hip shows that were a throwback to the late ’50s when Jerry Lewis was throwing a party onstage. Vilanch notes that the Oscars went through an identity crisis during the ’60s and ’70s, when old and new Hollywood clashed.

“You’d have Bob Hope hosting from the right wing, and Jane Fonda accepting from the left wing.”

Vilanch began writing for the Oscars in ’89 (the last time the Academy Awards didn’t have a host or team of hosts) when Bette Midler required one liners for her walk-ons.

Comedy writing, particularly for TV, is rewriting, and that’s what happens as result of the notes and comments from the host, the producer, ABC internal censor Susan Futterman and presenters who stumble over their lines.

Original material

Most of the writers’ material is fresh to the extent that it’s never been performed in front of an audience. The seasoned staff bounces much of their material off the production crew and Academy employees that are around. Last year, Steve Martin practiced bits of his monologue in front of the Academy Award office staff and interns.

But the true test is the final exam: in front of the live audience.

As the show plays out throughout the evening, “the laughter starts in the back and then rolls forward,” Boone points out.

Unlike the nervous nominees up front, those in the back generally have no direct stake in the outcome and so are better able to enjoy the show.

“We know jokes are hitting in the front section when someone like Tom Hanks comes backstage and says that everything is going great,” Boone says. “It’s very reassuring for the actors to acknowledge us.”

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