Billy Crystal Brings It Home

When Billy Crystal recently announced a gift of $1 million to his hometown of Long Beach, he couldn’t refrain from adding a joke: “Don’t spend it all in one place.” The money he helped raise for Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts was specifically slated for the city where he lived well into his young adulthood because, he told Long Island Pulse in an interview soon after the event, his roots on Long Island are deep and they are important to him. “That’s where I lived. That’s where I grew up,” he said by telephone from his Manhattan home. “I became funny there. I lost my parents there,” he added. One of his two older brothers, Joel, still lives in Long Beach and the house where he grew up “still stands,” though it no longer belongs to his family.

A few days later, Crystal stood before an exclusive audience of 300 people at New York University, his alma mater, reading from his new book. And again he was getting laughs—from a few ad libs and from the comedy in his book, a quasi-memoir titled Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? He took the stage slowly and to great applause—most of the audience having paid $100 to $250 to attend. The event raised money for a scholarship honoring his mother and it was being recorded to include in the audio version of his book.

He wore a dark suit over a buttoned-up polo and a fancy pair of sneakers with three tones of black, white piping and white soles. Were the snazzy shoes a throwback to Long Island couture or a reflection of Los Angeles style, where he now has a home with his wife Janice in addition to their place in Manhattan? It’s hard to tell. Once on stage, he immediately imitated the pose shown on his book cover, a blow-up of which was prominently displayed on the podium he would eventually stand behind. But first, the pose: He stood sideways, put a hand to his forehead and looked downward with a crinkle-eyed expression that could be interpreted as amused—or maybe a little worried about the travails of turning 65, both of which are major refrains in his book.

The pose got a big laugh and he repeated it several times during his reading, usually at the end of a chapter. It extended the applause, too—a great trick. No wonder the man was asked to host the Oscars nine times. And, of course, the prose was funny too, in a way that would appeal to his fellow Boomers. “At 60, I could do the same things I could do at 30, if I could only remember what those things are,” he read in his signature dry style. Later, during one of his tamer sexually-themed musings he said, “When you’re 65, you’re surprised by what now turns you on. You look at Dame Edna and think, “You know what, maybe.”

In a mix of the funny and serious tones that he used in the interview, he described an incident in which comedy and tragedy touched. A turning point on his way toward becoming a performer, he wrote, came during his sophomore year. At a Long Beach High School variety show, in front of nearly 1,000 people, he delivered a routine he transcribed from a Jonathan Winters album. “I executed it perfectly and it just killed. Well, of course it did—it was Jonathan’s material.”

His father Jack was there, “and taking a bow and seeing him smile up at me from his seat is something I will never forget, because I only got to see it once.” The next fall, when Billy was 15, his father died suddenly, “and my childhood came to a screeching halt. I never felt young again.” His mother died in 2001.

In one of the passages in his book, Crystal describes living in Long Beach, in a tiny apartment in the house he grew up in, and taking care of Jenny, the first of his two daughters, there. This was during the early part of his career, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1976.

He started as a member of a comedy trio with two friends from Nassau Community College, which he attended before enrolling in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Then he struck out on his own as a solo stand-up comedian, all the while hoping to break into television. He had a near-miss in 1975 at the launch of Saturday Night Live, though he later became a regular. He caught his big break as one of the first gay characters on tv in ABC’s Soap in 1977 and went on to star in such hit movies as When Harry Met Sally… (1989), City Slickers (1991), Analyze This (1999) and, in his directorial debut as well, Mr. Saturday Night (1992). His most recent hit, earlier this year, is in a voice role in the animated Monsters University. He is currently working on a pilot for a possible FX series titled The Comedians and he also stars in tv ads for the City of Long Beach in which he urges “come see us” for what he calls “just another day in paradise.”

It was during the early part of his career that he played a “Mr. Mom.” Crystal would drive back to Long Beach from Catch a Rising Star comedy club in Manhattan at 2am. Then he’d get up with Jenny three and half hours later. “I’d try to keep her entertained all day while also dealing with the household chores. And then Janice would come home” and take over the parenting duties. At one point he even “had been interviewing at some Long Island high schools for possible teaching jobs, which would mean a deferment [from the Vietnam War draft], but in my heart I knew teaching wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”

Crystal explored the 700 Sundays that he and his father got to spend together in his 2004 one-man play on Broadway; he won a Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event and it was later a book. He’s bringing it back to Broadway starting November 5 for a nine-week run that, he said, will probably be the last time he will perform the show.

Meanwhile, he’ll continue touring to promote Still Foolin’ ‘Em. “I’m having an incredibly wonderful time,” he said of his East Coast sojourn.

A book tour is fitting, because the work started out not as a memoir but as a stand-up routine, he continued. “When I first started writing the book, it wasn’t a book. I thought it would be fun to do a tour of 20 cities or so with these standup pieces. But every time I finished one, it felt like a chapter in a book.”

After he had written eight chapters, he met with publishers and landed a $4 million deal. The idea of a live performance as part of the audiobook version was particularly exciting to them, he said. “They went crazy. Their eyes lit up.” Although he worked hard to make the printed words sound like his voice (which they do), saying them out loud adds a dimension. “You have to interpret it. You have to bring it to life for the listener,” he said. While he was still on the West Coast, he spent three days in a studio recording the entire book, largely because he didn’t think he—or anyone—could keep an audience’s attention for close to 300 pages. He even recorded the chapters he planned to read at NYU, in case some parts didn’t turn out right.

Some of them would be a challenge for him to deliver because they are personal and intimate. He was willing to dive into them wholeheartedly however, because “you want the audience to have as good an acting and emotional experience as they can get.” And he was right about the emotional experience. He choked up while reading a passage in which he hopes he dies before Janice (who sat in the audience) “because I don’t want to miss her.” Members of the audience seemed to start tearing up a bit as well. And then Crystal fumbled the iPad from which he was reading and nearly dropped it. He also lost his text from the screen and needed help from a technician to find it again. “This is why I miss paper,” he blurted—another quip appreciated more keenly by aging Boomers—which helped to ease the tension.

After he regained his composure, he finished reading the chapter: “I’d like to think there is a heaven and it starts from the happiest day in your life. I’ll be eighteen and Janice Goldfinger will walk by me in a bikini and I will follow her and it will start all over again. I’d really like to think that.”

When asked during the interview why so many other comedians hail from Long Island—Rosie O’Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock, among others—Crystal said, “I don’t know. Maybe people with good genes live there.”

Billy Crystal will be starring in 700 Sundays starting November 5th

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.