Interview with Billy Crystal, coming to Cobb Energy Centre Dec. 16-20, 2009

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

This was posted on December 8, 2009 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Billy Crystal began his standup career at age nine. He cracked jokes in front of his family inspired by a Borscht Belt comic he had just heard in the Catskills.

He killed. He knew right then and there he wanted to do comedy for a living.

Problem: his mom blanched at punchlines featuring private parts and urine. But his more sympathetic dad set him aside and advised him, “Know your audience.”

For the next 52 years, Crystal has honed that skill with precision, be it in film (“When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers,” “Analyze This”), TV (“Saturday Night Live,” “Soap,” Oscar hosting) and now, the stage.

His Tony-winning one-person play “700 Sundays” comes to Atlanta for five days starting Dec. 16 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

For Crystal, Atlanta is like a second home. He has dozens of cousins and other relatives here.

In fact, he purposely chose Atlanta for this current tour so his aging aunt could see it. Unfortunately, she passed away six months ago.

“It’s going to be a bittersweet return,” he said. “But I love Atlanta.” He recalls attending Atlanta Crackers minor league games in the 1950s and visiting Stone Mountain. “But what I remember most is the loving family I have there. I’m looking forward to seeing them.”

Indeed, family is the crux of “700 Sundays.” The title stems from his dad, a musician and record shop owner, who worked two or three jobs at a time so Billy and his brothers only got to spend quality time with him on Sundays.

Jack died of a heart attack when Billy was just 15. In Crystal’s estimation, he spent 700 Sundays with his father.

But the play is more than just about his dad. He tells stories about his life growing up in Long Beach, N.Y. His Uncle Milt founded Commodore Records and nurtured the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. His wacky Uncle Berns helped Crystal hone his comedy skills. He cherished visits to Yankee Stadium to watch Mickey Mantle swat home runs.

And of course, his loving mom kept the family together after his dad passed. He said her death soon after 9/11 shook him to the core as much as his dad’s.

“It was obviously a big moment that makes you think, ‘Oooh… now I’m an orphan,” Crystal said in a phone interview earlier this month. “Another favorite relative had died a month before. It became a time of self examination. I kept thinking of that Grimm’s fairy tale ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ This creature turns straw into gold. I had to turn something that was tough in my life and make it into something funny, moving and honest.”

So 370 performances later, he said, “it’s been the most remarkable experience in my life.”

While Crystal wouldn’t define each performance as therapy, spending a couple of hours paying comedic homage to his family is therapeutic, if not cathartic. “It’s very freeing to exchange these feelings that I was going through with a theater audience,” he said. “ ‘700 Sundays’ is my story but it became their story. I’ve gotten thousands of letters thanking me for putting a face on the grieving process.”

Indeed, since his childhood home was where he perfected his craft, the stage is designed like his old living room. “So I’m always home,” he said. “I’m literally there. I try to be an intimate performer. This group of stories lends itself to that.”

He took some time off from doing the play but when Uncle Berns died recently, he decided to revive it. “He was the spirit that kept me so engaged in my life,” Crystal said. “He was the most inspirational person you can imagine. He could sing opera. He could paint. He was a Renaissance man who was still drawing when he died at age 94. I talk about him more now than when the show first opened.”

Crystal’s natural ability to connect with people (without offending the Hollywood elite) made him an ideal Oscar host and arguably the most popular in recent history. He’s done it eight times but not since 2004.

“I’m very flattered after every show that audiences still want me to be the guy,” he said. “That means a great deal to me. But at some point, I say to myself, ‘What else can I do with this?’ It’s sort of a thankless job sometimes.”

But he said he might host the Oscars again with one caveat: “You can only do things when you want to do them.”

Here are some other tidbits:

On the 20-year legacy of "When Harry Met Sally": "It's really charming. It's inventively done, with the couples as witnesses. It's the chemistry between Meg [Ryan] and me. It's the supporting cast with Bruno [Kirby] and Carrie [Fisher.] It's a great director. It's New York. It's Gershwin. It's tough to beat it. It got many big laughs. You want them to get together in the end. It's well earned that way. People who were toddlers then, a new group of people are now falling in love again. It becomes their movie. It's getting passed down like a favorite family heirloom."

On the old Yankee Stadium being torn down: “It’s very sad for me. Because that was my place. It’s a religion. Besides church or synagogue, that’s your ballpark. You have many spiritual moments at these places. I went to my first game there… The new park is beautiful but now I can’t see where I used to sit when I went to my first game. What a great way to christen the new place as world champions. And the essence of it is there. But once they tear down the old ballpark, that’s going to be a very sad thing. When they level it, I think that’s going to be a weird thing for people.”

On advice for aspiring comics: "Jack Rollins, who was my manager, he kept telling me the same thing: 'Leave a tip when you're on stage.' 'What do you mean, Jack?' 'Leave that little extra that's from you. Not just be funny. That's fine but give of yourself so they know something about you.' That's the thing I took to heart when I first started out. I was doing a lot of impressions. I did a lot of jokes not in the first person, not how I felt or what I wanted. I think it's important to make that transition so people get a sense of you, that the work is honest. Be sophisticated in your work. Don't stoop just to get a laugh."


“700 Sundays” starring Billy Crystal

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre

2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway


December 16 to 19, 8 p.m.

December 20, 5 p.m.

$30-$175, the Cobb Energy Centre box office, 1-800-982-2787

Here he is gabbing about “700 Sundays” when he went to Australia in 2007:

Here is Crystal playing the first openly gay man on primetime TV in “Soap”:

To show how bright this man was, here he is helping a contestant win a boatload of money on “Pyramid” with an incredibly fast time of just 26 seconds. It’s quite amazing to watch if you’re into this type of stuff:

Here’s Crystal doing a music video for “You Look Marvelous.”

This is his 70th Academy Award opener in 1997, the year “Titanic” won:

Here is Crystal’s spring training Yankee at bat last year in Tampa. He struck out but did make contact on a ball that went foul. “My goal,” he told me, ” was to survive. I was so thrilled and scared and nervous at the same time. I stay in great shape. I was 59 years old. I have a batting cage at my home. I was a good player. I got great coaching fro a couple of weeks. I got six pitches. I fouled one off. Just being there for a couple of days, that was a gift I can never repay. It was extraordinary I was able to get through it. I felt like I belonged. It was great.”

And the iconic scene from “When Harry Met Sally”: