Excavating Billy Crystal

Okay, this literally just happened five minutes ago: I was eulogizing Conrad Janis, noticed that he was in Mr. Saturday Night (1992) and remembered that I’d been meaning to do a post on Billy Crystal and went, “When’s his birthday?”…and it is TODAY. It was clearly meant to be. Nowadays Crystal (born 1948) is nearly as old as Buddy Young Jr, and his career goes back nearly a half century, so it merits a little stock taking.

Yes, I said “nearly a half century”, and I was a fan of Crystal’s (or knew of him, at least) from just about the very beginning — nearly a decade BEFORE his 1984 casting on Saturday Night Live, which boosted him to another level. In fact, I’ve already blogged about the earliest TV shows on which he was a regular: Keep on Truckin’ (1975) and Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell (1975). He was on the latter show of course because of his KILLER impressions of Cosell himself and Muhammad Ali (both of which he performed on the Dean Martin celebrity roast of the latter in 1976). In addition to being a very funny stand-up comedian, Crystal is a killer impressionist. He grew up around show business: his father and uncle (songwriter/producer Milt Gabler, whom we’ll be writing about in a few weeks) represented jazz acts, produced concerts and operated a record label and a music store founded by Crystal’s grandfather. He met famous performers when he was a kid growing on Long Island. Later he attended NYU and HB Studios and performed in comedy clubs.

Ha! “Inconceivably Funny”

But honestly, Crystal was constantly on TV starting in 1975 not 1984, which made it infuriating when everyone acted like they were “discovering” him a decade later. Is it possible that not everyone watched six hours of TV as I did? In 1977 he was cast as one of TV’s first gay characters on Soap — (kind of a cop-out performance, I thought. There was no hint of anything resembling either male desire or effeminacy in his performance; he may as well have been playing a straight guy. It’s one thing to break stereotypes; it’s another not to base your characterization on observation, either. Particularly if you’re an impersonator of genius). Soap ran until 1981, so there was much else up til then, notably the starring role in the Joan Rivers film Rabbit Test (1978), in which he played the world’s first pregnant MAN. During these early years you could also see him on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, SNL (one early booking in 1976), Dinah!, The Mike Douglas Show, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Hollywood Squares, The Love Boat, etc etc etc, as well as TV movies like SST: Death Flight (1977) and Enola Gay: The Men, The Mission, The Atomic Bomb (1980).

So I was kind of pissed when he and other people who were ALREADY established celebrities of one sort or another, Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, etc were hired by Saturday Night Live. Yes I found him very funny on the show, one of the funniest people on it at the time, with his impressions of Fernando Lamas, Joe Franklin, and others as well as original characters like the old vaudeville comic Buddy Young Junior. But it seemed a bit unfair somehow, kind of below his weight class, if I may follow through with a boxing metaphor.

Crystal was only on the show for about a year, and then he became a major movie star. Unfortunately he entered films just as Hollywood was slipping into a rampant mediocrity from which it has never since recovered. I’m sure I’ll bum out many readers when I tell you point blank that I don’t like ANY of these movies. So that you won’t make the mistake of attempting to cite exceptions, I’ll articulate the ones I have no time for: The Princess Bride (1987), Throw Momma from the Train (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989) City Slickers and its sequel (1991, 1994), Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and Analyze This and its sequel (1999, 2002), etc. Honestly, I’d rather clean the toilet with a toothbrush than watch any of these lame movies. To be absolutely clear though, I’d rather watch the movies than later use the toothbrush. To my astonishment, Crystal has been making movies right along — he just made one last year! Who knew? (I do like Rabbit Test, though).

On the other hand — when Crystal hosted the Oscars and the Grammys, when he does a stand-up special, when he’s a guest on a talk show, I watch him avidly and with relish. He is a great lover and appreciator of show biz lore. To watch him kid around with other comedians, or entertain an audience with just a mic, I’m there. He’s just who I’d want to see in Vegas or Miami, or someplace, a baby boomer heir apparent to Alan King (a clear model for Buddy Young Jr), which is not intended as the insult you may perceive it as. I just mean: respect for where it’s due: 40 stanky movies seem not to have made him any less funny when he’s in front of an audience. (For just one example: I will NEVER forget his ad lib at the Oscars one year, when they were honoring 100 year old Hal Roach. I mean, that’s one reason never forget the night right there. But then when Crystal acknowledged him, Roach began to make an impromptu speech, apparently unplanned and unmiked. All we saw was a very old man in glasses moving his lips. And then Crystal goes, “You must remember, ladies and gentlemen, that Mr. Roach got his start in silent pictures.” Or something to that effect. Brought down the house. Frankly I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an extemporized joke to top it.)

You want to see Billy Crystal in front of an audience? Good! He’s returning to Broadway in two weeks in Mr. Saturday Night, along with David Paymer, Shoshana Bean, et al! Previews begin on March 29; opening set for April 27. Get your tickets here.

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; for more on classic comedy, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.