Making Things Crystal Clear: Billy Crystal on All Things Comic
Making Things Crystal Clear: Billy Crystal on All Things Comic
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because honest laughter is the best kind of genuine.
By Eugene S. Robinson
If there were a Mount Rushmore for comedians and comic actors, Billy Crystal’s head would be prominently displayed for all and sundry in the know to marvel at. Well, that and a career that’s cut a significant swath across television, film, and stand-up comedy with some of the best and brightest, marks him as a world wonder if for no other reason than his . . . timing. So join us while Crystal regales The Carlos Watson Show with decades of comic genius. You can find excerpts below, or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
F Is for . . . Fun?
Carlos Watson: What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on set? Was it a TV series? Was it a movie?
Billy Crystal: Oh, wow. I’ve been so fortunate to work on movies that were fun to make, whether they ended up good or not. City Slickers was really fun because it was so out of my wheelhouse to become as good on a horse as I became, which is a crazy story. In 1975, Janice and I come to California together for the first time, thinking about moving here from New York. And we’re driving around near Palm Springs, it’s a place called Joshua Tree National Park. It’s quite beautiful and very cactus and rock formations and stuff.
I pull over because I’m having some sort of panic attack, which I’ve never had before. And she says, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “I’ve been here before. I know. I’ve been here.” And I was doing this kind of stutter, this Hugh Grant kind of, “I’ve been here, I know this place.” And for two or three days, I was thinking, “I knew it. I had been on a horse there.” And it was a terrible feeling of beyond déjà vu, it was terrible.
So, flash-forward to 1990, and I come up with the idea for City Slickers. I wrote this quick little outline, and I called it City Slickers — three friends go on a fantasy cattle drive, trail boss dies, they have to bring in the herd, metaphor for life and family, secrets friends have, something like that. And I pitched it to my company then, Castle Rock with Rob Reiner, and I bring in Ganz and Mandel who were great screenwriters. And I pitched them the story and they said, “Let’s do it.”
So now, we’re writing the script and we’re coming up with this rescue scene by the river, and they had come up with the Norman idea, the little calf. And I said, “The calf gets swept away.” I said, “Yeah. Then I could ride alongside the bank of the river and try to rope him, and then I take a fall.” And they go, “You can do that?” I go, “I will. The stunt man will fall, I’ll do the riding.” But I’ve never been on a horse except for like hotel horses back when I was like 10 years old in the Catskills.
So, now we get to go ahead to make the movie. And our technical adviser is a man named Jerry Gatlin, who was John Wayne’s double. He was a crusty old cowboy who taught the three of us, Bruno Kirby and Danny Stern, how to ride, and how to do everything we were going to need to do in the film. So, he gives me this horse that was a slow horse at first, and I was getting OK. And then we stepped up to the horse that I would use in the movie, who was a phenomenal rodeo horse. And now I’m getting really good on it, and I’m doing very complicated things, and now I have to start the roping process.
And as I’m doing the first day with a calf, it releases a calf and I chase him down. Whoop, whoop, whoop, do the rope, get them around the neck, pull it, jump off the horse, and then pick them up and put them down. And I went, “Oh, my God.” It just happened. And he looks at me and he says, “Whoa, you must have been a cowboy in your first life.” And I went, “Oh, my. Oh, how weird was that?” Going back to that déjà vu in Joshua Tree, 15 years before that. It was crazy.
So, that picture was so much fun to make.
The Origin Story
Watson: In my memory, you not only were coming up yourself, but I remember you as part of Saturday Night Live. I remember you as part of all of those young lions who were trying to make it.
Crystal: I know the failed part too. There was those nights when I first started where you’d make that drive home from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and you get on the New Jersey Turnpike finally, and it didn’t go well and you’d go, “What? That was bad, that hurt,” listening to the tape and the cassette of what I had done. So, you know those moments, but it takes great skill to play a comedian on film, has not been done well, successfully, very often. It’s harder to play a bad comedian.
Watson: How did you get into comedy in the first place, Billy? Were your folks comedians, or were they actors, or were they on stage or screen in any way?
Crystal: No, my mom was very funny. My mother had a great sense of humor but wasn’t an on person; she just was naturally funny. My mom, in the late ’30s, was the voice of Minnie Mouse in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the parades, when the float would come down Fifth Avenue, my mom was in the float someplace, singing whatever the song was. I remember one was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and then the big float came down. There’s a recording of it someplace, maybe Macy’s has it. My dad produced jazz concerts and had a great sense of humor. You know, Carlos, the thing about my father, he was witty, but he had great comedy taste.
So, I grew up the youngest of three boys. My older two brothers are still hilariously funny, and we would perform for the relatives and I was always the closer. My older brother Joel is really funny, so is my middle brother. We would steal the great routines of the day and then do them for our relatives, who were mostly Russians and Eastern Europeans, who had no idea that a major theft had taken place, nor did we.
We grew up watching Sid Caesar, which meant we’re watching the late, great Carl Reiner and Howard Morris and Imogene Coca, The Honeymooners. Steve Allen was a huge influence because he had an … You’re probably too young, or I hope you’re too young. The man on the street, which was Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Bill Dana, “Oh, my name José Jiménez.”
Remember? And they were amazingly funny. Ernie Kovacs was visually stunning and hilarious. Then, every afternoon on WPIX of New York, the late Chuck McCann had a Laurel and Hardy show where he would show Laurel and Hardy films and play them with two puppets of Stan and Ollie.
So, my dad turned us on to all of those things. It was never the Three Stooges, it was Laurel and Hardy, it was W.C. Fields. And then, of course, every Sunday night was Ed Sullivan, and they had a great stand-up comedian on almost every Sunday. That was a different taste because those were mostly punch-line guys, because you had to score in five minutes, they weren’t conceptual guys. So, there’s Alan King, it was Jackie Mason, it was Myron Cohen. So that was the Borscht Belt kind of feel of those communities.
So, I was getting a dose of all kinds of funny. I was just drawn to it. I could imitate, pretty early on, the sounds that I was hearing of my relatives. In 700 Sundays, my Broadway show we talked about, they spoke mostly Yiddish, which is a combination of German and phlegm. So, you would hear these accents and I could do them and they were great audiences, so that’s where it started.
And When It All Fell Into Place
Watson: Did you think you were going to make money in it? Did you think it was going to be your job or were you . . . This is just what you love to do? Like some kids love to play sports or do other things. Or, did you actually think, “No, I’m going to be able to”—
Crystal: First of all, I thought I was going to make money at sports. I thought I was going to be the second baseman for the Yankees at some point. I was a good baseball player in high school and so on, but I also was doing comedy. I don’t think you think of your future until you have a success at it. I was with this comedy group after college, I graduated from NYU Film School in January of 1970, where my film production professor was Marty Scorsese. Marty, I know . . .
Watson: Come on, are you serious?
Crystal: Totally true. Martin was a graduate professor, production, at NYU. So, when you’re making these little student films and learning how to use a camera and then cutting your . . . The machine was called a Moviola. It was a little machine with a screen that was about that big, so the film would run and you’d see the film on the screen, and your soundtrack would be on the other side, and you control them with these foot pedals so they’d run in sync. If you wanted to make an edit, you had to stop, put the brake on and then put white gloves on or make a grease mark, then there’s a razor blade that cuts the film. You make the cut, then you make your sound cut.
I mean, it was so hard and I was so new to that. Mr. Scorsese would be behind me sometimes . . . This is 1968, so Marty had a big beard and granny glasses and hair down to his shoulders, like, who didn’t at that time? He was intimidating because he was so knowledgeable, even then, but he spoke so quickly. He would be behind me going, “Why would you do that? I don’t understand, why would you use that? That’s a bad cut. That’s a bad cut, you should go wide. I would hawk so why don’t we shoot a wide shot first? Then you come in, then you go.” One time he spoke so quickly he disappeared. He just disappeared. So, that was what I was doing.
I left there and I formed this comedy group with two friends, and we were traveling what was then called the coffeehouse circuit, which you would play in colleges. Sometimes you do a one-nighter, and they would always have a coffeehouse after hours in the cafeteria, or they’d have a little theater or something like that. Sometimes you’d stay on campus for three days and you’d live in a dorm and you would do two shows, sometimes three shows a day. It was our vaudeville, but it got to a point where now I was married and already had a baby and I’m going, “What am I doing?”
And if you thought my panic attack at Joshua Tree was big, I was having such anxiety. I was now 25 and I thought, “I’m way behind. Why am I hiding with these guys? I love them, they’re my best friends, but I’m hiding.”
I’m writing most of the material, I’m even using my car, and I have a responsibility to my wife and my baby daughter, but to myself, I’m hiding. So, my wife, who now of almost 51 years . . . I was not making any money and she said . . . my daughter, Jenny, was 6 months old. She made the most unselfish move of all time. She said, “I’m going to go back to work, let’s change places. I have a great job I can go back to.” She was the assistant dean of theater at Nassau Community College, which had health benefits and a good salary.
“You’ll take care of Jenny all day. Then I’ll come home around 17:00, we’ll switch places and we’ll see. Go off with the group and then do the clubs and so on, but we need to do this and it would be great for you.” So I was Mr. Mom before it was time, this is 1973.
So, I’m feeding Jenny and I get a call from an old high school friend saying, “Listen, do you know anybody who does stand-up? I need somebody who could do like 15 minutes at a ZBT party at NYU. Do you know anybody?” And I immediately went, “I’ll do it.” And he went, “What do you, what?” “Well, no, I’ve been doing stand-up on the side and I could give you 15 minutes, easy.” Easy? Fifteen minutes would take six months sometimes to get. And he says, “Really? Well great, great. Friday night, 20:00, ZBT, Mercer Street.” I said, “I’ll be there,” and I hung up the phone and I looked at Jenny in the high chair and I went, “We’re going into show business.”