Comedy Is His Calling: The Brilliance of Billy Crystal

In his one-man show, 700 Sundays, Crystal interweaves the bitter and sweet—growing up Jewish in Long Beach, being the token Munchkin on the school basketball team—and reminds us what great comedy is.

Carol Rosegg/HBO

We were all born to tell the stories of our lives; the problem lies in scaring up an audience. Billy Crystal is one of an elite that can draw throngs just by talking, and he gets a chance to prove his story worth telling and worth hearing in 700 Sundays, the one-man show taped for HBO during its recent Broadway run. It premieres tomorrow night, and yes, Crystal’s life easily merits two hours of yours.

This isn’t a “my greatest hits” revue in which Crystal reprises his best-known comic inspirations, although he does note in passing his immortal tribute to cockamamie castings of Hollywood: Edward G. Robinson as a disgruntled Israelite in The Ten Commandments, invoked by Crystal with a gangster-ish growl of “So, where is your Moses now?” It is legendarily funny.

So is much of the reminiscence in this multimedia autobiography, illustrated with slides and films and vintage family home movies, all of it projected on a set resembling the house on Long Island where Crystal grew up. Growing up is hard to do—was then, is now—but Crystal skillfully interweaves the bitter and the sweet. The upshot is, you can expect to be touched, even to the point of tears, as well as moved to chortles and guffaws. Don’t expect a “laff riot”—more a nice laff dinner.

Pauline Kael referred to That’s Entertainment, Part II as Gene Kelly’s memorial service for Gene Kelly, lavishly mounted in Kelly’s lifetime. It takes nothing from one’s profound affection for Mr. Kelly and his magnificent body of work to agree with Kael’s assessment. So it could be said that with 700 Sundays, Crystal has convened a tribute to himself, and even managed to make a penny in the process. That becomes immaterial, because you’ll have too good a time and be too gratified by the experience.

If you grew up Jewish in the ‘50s in the community of Long Beach, if your father was a mensch who ran a record store in Manhattan that became a celebrated hang-out for jazz greats, if you had a gravel-voiced Aunt Sheila or a grotesque-looking “Uncle Picasso” (so nicknamed for his extremely asymmetrical face) or a fantastically flatulent grandfather known for his “wonderful Austrian optimism” or another auntie who was lesbian or you were the token Munchkin of your high-school basketball team—if any or all of those things happened to you, the show will be especially meaningful, but it will be just as meaningful if (as is more likely) none of them did.

We all have an Aunt Sheila, Crystal reminds us—mine was named Aunt Hazel—and we all had our hearts broken at 15 by the girl or boy who liked us “but not in that way,” and if we didn’t all imagine at one point in our lives that we could tap dance like nobody’s business, we suffered some similarly benign case of self-delusion. Crystal is into a commodity you don’t hear much about in the age of specialization and digital cloning—universality. The stuff that makes us, for lack of a better term, human beings, all stuck in essentially the same existential quagmire: it’s a great life, will it never end? Or, it’s a horrible life, couldn’t I live it just a hundred years more?

Remember the Woody Allen riff about “what terrible food, and such small portions” at a Catskill Resort? Crystal visits the Catskills, symbolically, in the show, but his humor is far from the whiny Allen mentality. You didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s (rye, of course) and you only have to be breathing to love Crystal. So he really hasn’t convened a testimonial dinner to himself so much as chosen just the right moment to sum up a career and a public persona we may all have been taking for granted.

Every Crystal visit to the Letterman show, after all, has been a gift (somewhat the way every Don Rickles visit to the Carson show was), and every Crystal stand-up gig has been, unless he was having a really “off” night, a pleasure. And if not every Crystal movie was quite a triumph, he did pretty well for “a comic.” That term can take in so much territory; Shakespeare was a comic, wasn’t he? Well, kinda? Billy Crystal stretches the term “comic” very, very far.

Even though he spends most of his two-hour show down Memory Lane, he mostly avoids the trap of “everything was better then, everything is worse now.” And yet who of a certain age will not be able to share the tremendous sense of loss, personal as well as cultural for Crystal, when hearing how his dad’s midtown record store—the one with two listening booths to sample new platters, the one that did double-duty as a meeting place for such outright royalty as Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong—succumbed to changing times and had to close?

It closed because the big chain discount stores like Sam Goody’s had moved into town and were squeezing the boutiques out, a moment for mourning. And now here we are, some of us anyway, looking back with syrupy nostalgia to the Sam Goody days! Damn, can’t we at least go back there? What we vilified then, we exalt now. Or to put it another if equally inadequate way: Whatever comes next, sucks. But come it does, and we can’t stop it.

So now there are no records, no 78’s or 45’s or LP’s, and even CD’s seem to be on the endangered list, and “music” enters our computers from clouds. People listen to it on tinny cellphone speakers that are entirely inferior to what they had in lo-tech times of yore. Such progress!

Little in the way of adapting-for-television has been done to Crystal’s stage show, except for film inserts of the star roaming through his now-empty childhood home, but of course on TV we get to see his face in close-up as well as the slide show in wide shot. It’s hard to think of Crystal as old, though at times he bears a facial resemblance to that veteran New Yorker, Joe Franklin (whom Crystal does a near-perfect impression of, though not in this show). As his hairline receded, Crystal’s face got bigger; it’s become a more in-your-face face, which for comedy works fine.

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Speaking of which, sort of, other great comic minds of our time were involved in the production, including Alan Zweibel and David Steinberg, both of Crystal’s generation, both executive producers.

Some of the theatricality of the show suffers in the translation to an intimate medium, and some of the pseudo-musical repetitions in Crystal’s palaver creep very close to irritating. But any problems with this show are minor. It’s a huge pleasure, these days, to encounter something so deeply felt. Almost anything deeply felt is refreshing now, but 700 Sundays is not “anything.” Though the title refers to time Crystal spent with his father, incidentally, you may be surprised to learn who Crystal says deserves the title of “the greatest hero I will ever know in my life.” Watch and find out.

Like any child of the ‘50s should, Crystal remembers television as part of his growing up. Mostly he remembers the great comedians—Kovacs, Caesar, the giants, and Alan King on The Ed Sullivan Show. Crystal is up there with them, the organic entertainers for whom comedy was much more than a mere career choice. And while there’s no reason to regard “Sundays” as signaling some Crystal farewell tour, we have so much anxious melancholy in the air now over change, and changes—in the culture as well as everywhere else—that just as one despairs at the thought of life without Letterman, one cringes at the notion of a world without Crystal. Great comics seem so scarce now, great laughs ever scarcer.

700 Sundays, HBO, Saturday April 19, 9pm