Laugh Now, Laugh LATER

Billy Crystal needs no introduction. Entertaining us for more than four decades, he’s now become a ubiquitous presence on the American comedy scene. Multiply that number of years by more than 35 film roles, his co-hosting of the highly successful Comic Relief HBO specials, awards including Emmys and a Tony, and his hosting the Academy Awards a whopping nine times (bested only by Bob Hope’s 19 turns), and the sum total is of a life spent in the public eye and pop cultural radar.

If anything, the 68-year-old Crystal has now become a peer of the very old-school show biz heroes to whom he’s often paid tribute in his act. But over the course of his impressive career, Crystal has created own his public persona that’s based purely on being himself, a kind of insightful everyman with a healthy dose of New York sarcasm and outrage thrown in for good measure.

Yet Crystal’s star always shines brightest onstage. After decades of standup gigs, in 2004 Crystal took the show to Broadway. His two-act, one-man play 700 Sundays chronicled his family life in Long Island. The show hit a nerve with theater-goers, winning Crystal a Tony Award, followed by a book of the same name and an HBO filming of the show after its 2014 second-run onstage.

Now Crystal has aimed that same candid focus on his greater life and career. On Jan. 25, Crystal brings his Spend The Night With Billy Crystal to the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts’ Moran Theater. A kind of live memoir, the production features film clips of Crystal’s storied career, along with his ruminations on his life.

Over the course of a 20-minute phone call, Crystal spoke with Folio Weekly about his life and the upcoming show. What follows are some excerpts from our conversation.
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Folio Weekly: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Mr. Crystal. Should I call you Mr. Crystal or Billy?

Billy Crystal: Oh, no … you know what? Call me Tim. [Laughs.] I always wanted to be called Tim.

Well, this is a definite honor, Tim. As I child of the ’70s, I watched Soap religiously and then followed your career in a non-stalker, Mark David Chapman regard.

Well, thank you, I appreciate that. [Laughs.] And thank you for not stalking me.

You’re welcome! So tell me about this upcoming Spend The Night With Billy Crystal tour. From what I read, it almost sounds like an onstage memoir.

It is very much so. And I love doing it; the audiences have been phenomenal towards this approach. It’s really a standup show about my life and career, with films clips and all kinds of stuff that support it. And it’s very freeform. I did it in Australia over the summer to get a feel for it and it couldn’t have gone any better. We call it “Spend The Night” … and that’s sort of what it is. If we were having dinner together, it would be the conversation. So it’s very spontaneous, very loose, and I just have a great time doing it. The audiences seem to feel like they come away having a great conversation with me and to me, that’s the difference between doing a concert show and having this approach. It’s been really refreshing to do.

From growing up and seeing your comedy specials, to me it seems like your comedy in particular is really steeped in storytelling and long-form narrative; you’re telling stories first, with the jokes embedded in them. When you were growing up, did your family tell stories after dinner or during holidays, that kind of thing?

Well, I did come from a great group of storytellers. Their stories sometimes weren’t that funny because it wasn’t funny how they got out of Europe. [Laughs.] It’s not funny when you’re running for the border. But they loved embellishing as they would go — because when you’re five, you hear the story, when you’re seven, you hear the same story but with a couple of different lines in it, and so on and so forth. But I found them so fascinating and loving that way so that’s been my approach. When I did 700 Sundays on Broadway, it pretty much is one story with a lot of tributaries to it and I’m very comfortable in that. This show has a great many stories but there are also pockets of standup that infiltrate it. So to me, it’s who I am and what I’ve evolved to and at this point in my life and my career, I’m very comfortable performing this way.

You’re a pretty candid storyteller. Over the years, has there ever been a problem going to that kind of vulnerability on stage?

No. You know, once I started to hit my stride and get comfortable onstage doing standup in the late ’70s, the work became more personal. It became more about talking about myself. I was never really that much of a current events guy because by the time you’ve developed something, the news has changed. And then you have to develop something else. So I’d rather talk about people and the experiences that we all go through. I love when I see the audience nodding their heads. Or a wife elbowing her husband, saying, “That’s you.” [Laughs.] … or him doing the same thing to her. I’ve always found that with 700 Sundays, which is much more a play than what I’m about to do, again the approach has broadened and I don’t have to honor the pain about what that show was about: losing my parents. This is pure: where I’ve been, where I’m going. I hope to bring the audience along for the ride.

You’re a comedian but you’re also a published author and writer. Are you the kind of writer who locks themselves in their office for eight hours, regardless of whether or not they feel inspired?

No, more when I’m inspired. When I wrote my last book  [Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?] which some of this is drawn from, I had a great discipline about it, mostly because I had deadlines. [Laughs.] But I also had a spot in my life, as I started writing that when I was 65 … how old are you?

I’m an old, immature 44.

[Laughs.] Trust me — you’re just a kid. But you know how you hit certain signposts in your life; you start to realize, “Well, I want to talk about this. I know about this now,” or “I’ve been through that too and I know that I’m an expert on guilt.” [Laughs.] Whatever it may be, over time I found I had much more discipline. For this show, I don’t sit down and write it out. It’s just come over the years and I organize it — if that makes any sense.

Absolutely. It seems like for many writers, artists, whatever, and barring maybe sociopathic narcissists, in tandem with creating a work, for some there can be a voice of doubt assuring you that “you suck.” I know I still have that voice talking sometimes when I work. But for decades, you’ve been in the crosshairs of critics, people who literally make a living by saying, “you suck” or “you’re good.” Do you ever feel that kind of added pressure or do you even care?

I don’t care about them as much as I care about the audience who I’m about to play to. You know, I want people to come and enjoy it and come away with a new perspective. I want them to come away saying, “That was worth it.” And if someone doesn’t like it, that’s one person’s opinion and that’s what it is. I’ve been praised, I’ve been knocked … it all comes with it. I just really worry about the 2,000 people in front of me. I’m just worried that the people in Jacksonville are going to have a great time because I’m going to have a great time with them.

I think you’re a pretty “clean” comedian in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever heard you throw some “F Bombs” onstage. Has your standup act always been that way or are you simply just not a vulgar person?

It’s always been that way. I always try to be mindful of my parameters of where I want to go. And if you can say it without using an expletive just for the shock value, you know I’d rather do that and be witty and craftier, than relying on doing that. But you know sometimes you can make a point by being crass, too. Let’s face it: It’s a pretty crass world we’re living in. And that’s concerning; so I just try to keep reaching for integrity.

Speaking of crass, do you have any interest in talking about the election? We don’t have to.

Not really. [Laughs.]

That’s fine with me. [Laughs.] I’m happy talking about your craft and writing. I’m trying to deny all of it. I’m still in the stages of grief.

[Laughs.] Yeah, you and me both. I will say it’s a very concerning time for all of us: the possibility that a foreign country interfered with an election. Our cyber vulnerabilities. The amount of distrust between people and the lack of civil discourse. The rampant racism that’s been in our country forever highlighted in Obama’s presidency and definitely this election as well. It’s very concerning and scary. But, you know, that stuff is “out there.” What I try to do is take that pressure off people for the hour-and-a-half or two hours that they’re going to be with me. And we’ll probably talk about some of these things but it’s never in an attacking way. It’s just in a way to get away from all of it for a while. I mean, it’s been a numbing two years and you don’t know what to think or what to feel. But sometimes you just shake your head and go, “This is our America?”

You are an admitted and legendary sports fanatic. And I think that for many, and I’m not saying this sarcastically, sports becomes like a religion. Why do you think that you’ve had such a lifelong love of sports?

Yeah, all true. It started when I was a kid. My dad was a wonderful guide into pro sports. He was a very good athlete himself. I’m the youngest of three brothers and we constantly played, so I always had playmates in them. And also not just the playing of the sports but the imagining of being in sporting events, too, like kids do. You know, we would be the announcers as well as the players. We’d do the pre-game shows for our stickball games or whatever. [Laughs.] And I was very competitive, I was a very good baseball player and I played on a basketball team, where I wasn’t the tallest of guys, so it made me work even harder. And I just loved the feeling of being able to compete with anybody. I’m a big Clippers fan, big Yankees fan … I played for the Yankees in 2000.

Yeah, how was that?

It was the greatest thrill. You know, I’ve hosted the Oscars nine times, I’ve hosted the Grammys three times, we did nine Comic Reliefs.  I’ve had great, great moments in my career … nothing compared to the fact that I can say that I led off for the New York Yankees. It was so bizarre.

You were a very close friend of Muhammad Ali’s. Do you think there are any current athletes who have the potential to not only excel in their careers at that level, but also possibly become a kind of similar global leader and human rights icon?

[Pauses] No. I see great athletes. But nobody that came along at the timing that Ali came along in with the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, with this perfect storm of America going through what it was going through, and without Bobby Kennedy, without Martin Luther King, without JFK … what voice was there to speak with young people? And set an example: “I’m giving up everything for what I believe in.” I don’t know of any athlete that would do that. The only one with that kind of integrity is Kareem [Abdul-Jabar], in the role that he’s grown into now. But the current players? Muhammad was just a phenomenon … a cultural phenomenon.

I think that it’s a sometimes lesser-known milestone that you portrayed Jodie Dallas on Soap, who was the one of the first, and surely most memorable, openly gay characters on primetime television. That was a huge milestone for the LGBTQ community and the larger community in general. Back then, what was the response to that role professionally and personally?

Well, personally, it was difficult at the time. It was seemingly a different America, well, 40 years ago now. It came on the air in ’77 and the responsibility to get it right was tremendous and it took a little while to settle the character in. Some groups of people didn’t like it at first and we were very conscious of it and you could hear their complaints. And I modified to work with the producers and writers to make him a real person who just happened to be gay and that started to work for us to the point where, after a little bit of time, I started to feel good about what we were doing. There was, you know, name-calling on the street and stuff like that. Oddly enough, it was always with no hatred, but a good sense of humor about it. But you could feel self-conscious at times doing tapings, where the actor I was playing with, who was actually an Olympic-medal-winning pole vaulter named Bob Seagren. He played an NFL quarterback who was closeted. And when Bob and I would do scenes and I’d say, “I love you” or he would say he loved me, the live audience would laugh, because it made them nervous. And I would get angry, where I wanted to stop the taping and go, “What is your problem? What is wrong with you people?” And I think the real measure of it was maybe during the end of the third year, when Jodie had fathered a child from a one-night stand, since he’d gone through periods of confusion about his sexuality. There was a custody battle in court about who was to get the baby. And ABC did a poll of the viewing audience, and it was like three to one, that Jodie should get the child. And I thought that was the greatest victory of all. I still have very proud feelings of what we did 40 years ago.

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