ON THE SCENE
Where it counts the most — in life, on stage — Billy Crystal may well be the Jewish Count Basie of jazz comedy.
He's got the music in him, playing the stage as inner instrument for its soul sounds and insights, with riffs and rolls that reflect the hands of an artist and airy ambitions of an angel.
With hometown Long Beach, N.Y., a long a time ago in memory yet au currant, Crystal's comedy is muse and music — a nod to the Jazz Age that was not the '20s but his teen years, growing up with the loss of his beloved father, a prominent jazz concert promoter who died at the age of 54 when his young son was only 15.
From "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) to "700 Sundays" — his one-man show of a million "Faces" (the name of one of his most cherished jazzed characters) and memories opening a two-week run starting Sept. 30 at the Merriam Theatre in Center City — exists a time-line of tummler and tumult that showcases the Emmy Award-winning Oscar ceremonies showman's many talents and all the jazz in between.
Of course, long before he portrayed Buddy Young Jr. — the Catskills killjoy of a comic in "Mr. Saturday Night" — Crystal was already up to his Borscht Belt in comic relief: From portraying the first openly gay character tossing comic cashmere bouquets to the crowd on network TV in "Soap" to his inimitable mimicry and character creations on "Saturday Night Live" — hey, man, like can you dig what he did with, like, the bling-littered Sammy Davis, peace, man; or how he opened up Fernando's hideaway for all to mahvelous effect — to the many movies he produced/starred in ("When Harry Met Sally …") to the day he met his dream, at age 60, as a boy of summer and honorary New York Yankee … Crystal swings big and misses out on little in life.
"Memories of Me" — only good — is "700 Sundays," limning the countless ways that he enjoyed every day with his father while commemorating a Mom who never coddled, but cajoled with heart and honor.
"Tremendous parents, really funny, smart people," he reminisces of Jack and Helen Crystal, big boosters who helped rocket his confidence to the high heavens.
"You need such confidence when you're little," says Crystal.
Little doubt that those early Passover performances — take my Haggadah, please! — were indicators of a pyramid power of playfulness that little Billy would build on.
Living room as play room? "It provided a great comfort zone," he replies.
Theater is now his playpen, where Crystal — about to finish up an SRO run in Washington, D.C. — is that cozy-comforting comedian with an air that's arrogance-free, yet redolent of rites of passage.
"Brisket and bourbon" — what better aromas for a holiday haiku that is "700 Sundays," as feast meets fast with the tug of heartstrings and family dynamics. He is both city slicker and country cousin, and there is no expiration date on pinchable cheeks.
"700 Sundays" with a cherub on top?
Dig in, or as Faces would 'fess up: "Can you dig that? I knew that you could."
"I channel all of their cosmic spirit," regales Crystal of his family, not just his dad, whose jazz influences he felt when serving as host of the Grammy Awards. "I hear and feel all of them."
Reminiscent of the … Kennedys?
What theater-goers hear is a salute dowsed in seltzer: "My younger uncles were great guys," he recalls on stage. "Picture the Kennedys , except they're eating flanken and playing mah-jongg. They were the Jewish Kennedys.
"I always thought the Kennedys would be more fun if they were Jewish … Think of them around the table, during the holidays: 'Momma Rose, this lobster bisque is fantastic. What a novel way to break the Yom Kippur fast.' "
Indeed, Crystal's best-selling book based on his play reads like a novel, with a touch of Mark Twain twisted in.
Huckleberry Crystal? Not far-fetched as he did win the Pulitzer Prize of Punchlines: The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2007.
What Crystal prizes most and possesses best is memory: The accent is on anecdotes of aunts and uncles — Uncle Milton Gabler was founder of Commodore Records, which commandeered early attention with Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" — and some come equipped with better accents than others.
Take, for instance, Aunt Sheila, whose broad-brash of a style Crystal brings to larger-than-life on stage.
"My relatives had a definite way of speaking," he muses now. "And," says the occasional clarinetist whose writing has a lilt and lyricism to it that encouraged writer Kurt Vonnegut, upon seeing "700 Sundays," to hail Crystal backstage as "a great musician," "there is a musicality to it all."
Comedian, author, Hollywood hero, philanthropist — besides co-creating "Comic Relief," a major fundraiser, Crystal serves as onscreen video host, welcoming visitors to the genealogy section of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles — perhaps his most prized and positive role has been that of "bat man."
Bruce Wayne of the broken-bat single? In the beginning there was his love of the Yankees; in the big inning of his mind was May 30, 1956, when his father took him to his first big-league game at Yankee Stadium.
"Every time I walked into that old stadium," in the years after, "I always felt his presence."
Perhaps the biggest present the Yankees could honor him with was the one they presented last year all tied together in pinwheels and pinstripes — signing the NYU grad to a one-day exhibition game contract when he turned 60.
But Crystal, mighty Billy Crystal, struck out. Yet, he'll be the first to remind you, he did hit a wicked chopper that landed just foul beyond the first-base bag on his way to working a full-count.
What else is in his bag of memories about baseball? The legendary Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record of 60 in 1961, which formed the basis and bases of exec producer/director Crystal's grand-slam of an HBO movie, "61*," the asterisk signifying Maris' record-breaking achievement, diminished when done in a season longer than Ruth had played so many years earlier.
Get yer red hots and a red-hot director: If those days herald the forever smell of franks and popcorn — "a sense memory I'll always have with me" — Crystal still gets that holiday feeling when revisiting his bubba's bag of tricks and treats. "Her homemade gefilte fish always got me," he says.
Those aromas wafted around him even during the shoot of "Mr. Saturday Night."
Don't ask; just smell: "I wanted those same aromas, smells, in a scene that we were doing, so we called the deli and got briskets and chopped liver and garlic and smeared them all over the doorways, and that scene," he sniffs, "smelled just like my grandmother's house."
That house was a very, very nice house, but what Crystal's show shows is that it doesn't matter whether you're crossing Abbey Road or Delancey Street — family is family up and down under. "When I toured Australia with it … it doesn't matter where you go: All families at one time or another sit at the table and eat together."
Even in Russia (maybe especially in Russia) — where Crystal played the ultimate Borscht Belt. His 1989 movie of "Midnight Train to Moscow," a blintz of a blend of jokes-nost andglasnost — was no red herring. "Originally, I was making this [HBO] movie as a concert film, but the purpose shifted when I decided I want to find my relatives still living there."
Bring out the blinchik, the boychick's in town: "I found 35 relatives," he says of the warm-hearted homecoming. It hits home now, too: "Most of them are now living here" in the States.
Maybe Crystal is a homer, too: After all the odysseys, it's said in Hollywood that the mere mention of his name evokes the ecomium of "mensch." For this is "700 Sundays," not "Sindays," and the comic has always been Crystal-clear on the importance of family in his life.
Married marvelously for nearly 40 years to his own princess bride, the former Janice Goldfinger — an odd-job of a fact in a business where separation anxiety seemingly seeds broken marriages before the broken glass even hits the rug — Billy the kidder has kissin' kin with kindred talent: Daughters Jennifer and Lindsay are actresses, and Lindsay's 2004 documentary on "My Uncle Bern" — whose own artistic talents once influenced Crystal to state his favorite role of all would be to play Picasso — won major critical acclaim and quite a following on its own HBO screening.
If Billy's bulging bio is shot through with so many awards, honors and achievements, maybe he's just doing what his Mom advised him to: "She always told me, 'Give it your best shot.' "
And, now at an age when some consider retirement the 401(k) thing to do, Crystal, as always, doesn't do it by the numbers.
He is most alive on stage, in movies — "Tooth Fairy" is due to be released in 2010 — writing, regaling and rocking: all that jazz that keeps this one-man band able to face the music and smile, all on his own terms, at the magic age: 61.