Actor, writer, director, producer, author, award show host, singer, dancer – there’s hardly a creative role longstanding comedian Billy Crystal hasn’t taken on in his sparkling multi-decade career.
On Saturday, February 18, at the Arlington Theatre, Crystal will look back on his illustrious life in a part-interview, part-performance special with co-host Bonnie Hunt in “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.” I spoke with Crystal about the show, hosting ceremonies, and the strangest thing a fan has sent him.
How is the ‘Spend the Night’ tour going, and what inspired it?
Well, first of all, it’s going amazingly well. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s grown and the way it changes, and it’s so much fun to do. It started in the summer, in Australia, I did seven weeks there with this experiment of doing a concert performance in the talk show format. I had a really very witty Australian personality named Andrew Denton, and it worked great.
We decided, let’s tour the States, and I asked Bonnie Hunt to join me. She’s a great performer and a Second City veteran and has been in Jerry McGuire, Jumanji, The Green Mile, and we knew each other a little bit.
It’s really a concert performance; I’m on my feet 95 percent of the time. The structure of this interview, it’s very intimate, and what I love about it so far, Richie, is people come away feeling like they had dinner with me. That’s the approach. There’s a lot of film clips, it’s living documentary, in a way, but it’s so much fun to perform.
The last time I toured with my Broadway show, 700 Sundays, it touched on a lot of sad moments; this is just freeform me, having as much fun as I’ve ever had on stage.
Did Bonnie come up with the questions, did you give them to her, or did you two talk them through?
Yeah, we talked through things, of stories and anecdotes I want her to lead me into, and then left a lot of it to say, “Okay what do you want to talk about?” We formed an outline that changes every night, depending on audience and where we’re performing.
Looking back on your beginning days, are you seeing them in a new way with this tour retrospective? Um, I don’t know if it’s a new way… I talk about them a lot, and I’m grateful for them, and grateful for the energy that I still have — but the passion that I had when I decided to do this, when I think back about it, nothing really has changed. 40-something years into your career, you still feel that way about your work. I’m not ever getting close to saying, “Ah, that’s enough.”
Remember when Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby? She was in her 70s, and said, ‘You have no idea encouraging this is.’ It’s so invigorating, so wonderful when I walk out, how audiences greet me. It’s a spectacular feeling that they’re out there, it’s really awesome.
Do you have any old jokes from your start as a comedian that you still use? Oh yeah, I do them, but they’re stories now. I’m not telling them in the moment, but as reflections, looking back on my work, it makes it relevant all over again. Surprisingly a lot of them do hold out – I’m like my grandfather, ‘Don’t throw anything out.’
You’ve taken on the master of ceremonies role at all kinds of occasions, not just the Oscars but funerals too… What qualities in you do you think brought this role to, or what qualities do you think makes a good master of ceremonies Well, I don’t know… it just sort of happened. It started, I guess, in school. I was always the one who would be a narrator in the show. I could improvise at a really young age, in high school and junior high, and I always had the ability to sort of make sense of things. As time went on and I started to do things like Comic Relief, I had Robin [Williams] on one side and Whoopi [Goldberg] on the other, and I kind of became the voice of reason in the middle, and that led to being trusted with the Grammys, and then that led to the Oscars… I think I had that ability to hold things together. As far as the funerals go, that’s a sad point in my life. I’ve given two publicly that I wish I’d never had to give, for Robin and for [Muhammad] Ali, but they were my closest friends. The fact I was trusted with that responsibility, one, by the Academy, and two, by Ali himself and his planning of his own memorial, were awesome responsibilities, but very difficult to do.
The Oscars have been undergoing some criticism and self-questioning with regard to who and what is nominated in recent years… How do you feel about that? To me, it was always about, well, what’s the best performance? And with that, you can’t get into the mind of anyone voting, and I wouldn’t even dare to go there. I think the nominees are terrific nominees. You know, we live in such awkward times, and I use the word awkward because that’s how it feels. I don’t think anyone feels good when they wake up, it’s like, ‘What am I going to read now?’ This feeling of, this isn’t right, something’s off, the whole country needs a chiropractor to put our spines in shape, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t feel right, it’s dissent and it’s finger-pointing and fear and hatred. I hate that, you know. That’s why I love doing this show. I get people away from it for two hours, there’s no agenda here. … As far as the Academy, I don’t really venture an opinion about it other than it should be about who gave the best performance.
Odd question, but what’s your relationship with crystals? Crystals the stones? I actually have a few that I get sent every now and then, saying, ‘This is for your health, keep this by your bed’… those kinds of things.
What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever sent you? I guess when I was doing Soap, there were a lot of women who would send me very various articles of their underwear, saying, “I can change you.” … That’s the strangest thing I can think of.
I know you’re proud of your work in Soap, which was a very pioneering show for its time… Are there any roles you’ve had in your later years that you’re similarly proud of or feel was also pioneering? Oh, I’m proud of everything I’ve done, even the things which people go, ‘Why did he do that?’ I look back — and this show is a lot of looking back — of things I feel get overlooked. I was the first American comedian to perform in Russia in the Soviet Union, it’s an HBO special called Midnight Train to Moscow. Gorbachev was still in power, the Wall had not come down yet, and HBO trusted me to do a standup special. The fact that we were able to do that before a predominantly Russian-speaking audience with the degree of difficulty there was to make people and not get arrested… I look back on that one, and I’m really proud of that. I’ve done so many different things I’m proud of, but the most important thing is, I’ve got amazing kids and grandkids, and it’ll sound like a cliché, but that’s really what it’s all about. The career is one thing, but the fact Janice and I have led our lives and raised our kids the right way, that’s the real work that you leave behind.
Does the comedy trickle down? Are they funny people too? Oh yeah, they all seem to — I talk about them a lot in the show, they all seem to have little bits of me somewhere, and seeing them developing their own kind of stuff they do themselves is really delightful.
You’re a month away from your birthday. How will you celebrate? I don’t know yet. We block that time off. My wife Janice’s is two days after, I’m March 14, and my grandson, who is 65 years younger than me, we have the same birthday. So I will probably be in a plastic ball place in Chuck E. Cheese.
How you feeling about coming up to Santa Barbara? I love it up there. My daughter was married up there, and my wife and I sneak up there a lot. I did a bit with Steve Martin and Martin Short and that was great fun at the Bowl. I’m just looking forward to playing to an amazing audience I’ve never played to before.