Even in the age of Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, there is something both retro and refreshing about Billy Crystal’s class-act comedy.
On a recent Thursday night, nearly 600 people packed into the Directors Guild of America Theater — at $60 a pop — to hear Crystal’s mesmerizing mix of menschy, (mostly) clean humor and spot-on celebrity impersonations. Crystal was doing the rounds to promote his new book, “Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” which is part memoir, part meditation on turning 65. His fellow sexagenarian, stand-up comic David Steinberg, was on hand to interview him for the salon series Writers Bloc.
“Why a book?” Steinberg asked the seasoned screenwriter, joke writer and sketch writer.
“Well,” Crystal began, “funny things were happening to my body, funny things were happening to my memory, and gravity was happening to my [male sexual organ]. I thought, ‘While I can still remember everything, I should write it down.’ ”
Declining memory was one of the evening’s big topics, with Crystal recounting all the various names, faces and ways he forgets, in addition to his chronic habit of “nodding off” during movies and Broadway shows. “The only thing that keeps me awake in movies are the shmucks who text,” he said, adding of Broadway: “I haven’t seen anything all the way through in years. I’ve seen ‘Death of a Sales---’ and ‘The Book of Mor---.’ How many people liked ‘The Book of Mor---’?”
To stay alert, Crystal said he has tried sitting closer to the stage, but during a performance of “Fences” starring James Earl Jones, he realized why the first three rows were clear. “I got spat on,” he said, demonstrating how sticky sheets of mist roused him from his slumber. “But I stayed up the whole time.”
Versatile, theatrical and inoffensive, Crystal’s shtick still holds sway with his sweet-spot boomer crowd, even as younger generations have traded up old-school storytelling in favor of more salacious snark. And despite the fact that Crystal has aged out of playing romantic leads, as he did in the ’80s and ’90s with “When Harry Met Sally …” and “Forget Paris,” his comic appeal remains.
“If you didn’t have at least 100 belly laughs, you weren’t there,” one female member of the audience said, suggesting a title for this column.
Crystal really is on a roll: This fall, he will revive his Tony Award-winning one-man show about his childhood, “700 Sundays,” on Broadway; after that, he begins shooting the FX pilot “The Comedians,” with Broadway “Book of Mormon” star Josh Gad.
Part of Crystal’s staying power is rooted in his knack for nostalgia. Throughout the evening, he reflected on the formative events that shaped both his personal and professional lives. He recounted, for instance, the circumstances leading to his first television interview, at age 25, with Muhammad Ali; his lifelong obsession with baseball; the early loss of his father; his awe of celebrity influences like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr.; even his crush on Sophia Loren.
“We had a three-year torrid affair,” he said of his lust for the Italian screen siren. “We made love in so many unusual places — sex you cannot imagine!”
Then, he added: “I was 13. She had no idea I existed.”
Borrowing a page from the Philip Roth handbook on sexual repression, Crystal devotes a short chapter of his book to sex. In it, he constructs an imagined dialogue between two characters, “him” and “her,” which takes place first at age 25, and then again at 65:
Her: I love to feel your heartbeat through your shirt.
Him: Every beat is for you.
Her: Maybe it’s your pacemaker.
Him: Call 911, I’m having palpitations.
Despite the obvious downsides of getting older (“I Worry” and “Take Care of Your Teeth” are two other chapter titles), Crystal said that, at 65, he is more open, comfortable and secure in his skin than ever before (though his current look suggests he is not averse to augmentation). Rather than hide his vulnerabilities, he now chooses to expose them. In the last chapter of his book, Crystal writes about going with his wife to pick out cemetery plots and nearly having a nervous breakdown.
When the funeral director suggests a plot near a lake with a view, Crystal is exasperated. “WHO GIVES A F--- ABOUT THE VIEW? I’M DEAD!” he writes. That was the moment he realized that all he really wants (besides not to die) is a simple funeral service, “for it to be funny, for Janice to be stunning and charming as she always is, for my friends to tell great stories,” and for his kids “to be strong and make people laugh.”
He ends the book by imagining himself in heaven, which begins on the happiest day of 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.”
What’s the secret to such a great marriage? Steinberg asked him at the end of the night.
“Easy,” Crystal said without missing a beat. “We see other people.”