Veteran comedian and actor reflects on his remarkable life and times

With apologies to Kevin Bacon, one could just as easily play Six Degrees of Billy Crystal: Over the past four decades, the actor/comedian has gotten to know a remarkable bunch of folks from the worlds of showbiz and professional sports alike. Along the way, he’s made a sizable mark in popular culture through a diverse assortment of movies and TV shows for all age groups, from “The Princess Bride” (1987) to “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) to “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) and “Monsters University” (2013) and his autobiographical one-man Broadway show and HBO special, “700 Sundays.” Oh, he also hosted the Academy Awards nine times between 1990 and 2012. Accompanied by actress Bonnie Hunt, he’s bringing his two-person show “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal” to the Long Center on Monday night.

Crystal, 68, started doing stand-up routines as early as elementary school but didn’t achieve wide public recognition until playing Jodie Dallas, one of the first gay characters portrayed on American TV, on the soap opera parody “Soap” (1977-81). Some may feel his style is a bit sentimental and tame, but he’s consistently come across as warm, affable and genuinely interested in people, all of which he was in a recent chat over the phone. Crystal can also boast of one of the most solid marriages in Hollywood: He’s been married to his wife, Janice, for 46 years.

American-Statesman: You describe your current show as “Stand Up and Sit Down.” Can you go into a little more detail about what that is?

Billy Crystal: Sure. It’s basically a concert show that’s framed like a talk show. In this case my guest is Bonnie Hunt, who had her own talk show, and she’s a Second City veteran. It takes me all different kinds of places in my mind and on stage. I stand up and I sit down a little bit, and we talk and I’m up, and I’m down, and we show clips. It’s really a very intimate kind of evening where the audience feels like they’re the ones asking the questions, sitting across from me at dinner tables or in a living room. It’s a wonderful format to perform in.

You never had stage fright, you’re always comfortable up there?

Yeah, yeah. It always feels like the right place for me to be.

Your public persona is a kind of everyman, a stand-in for the audience, in a way — and I definitely get, both from your memoir and your TV and film work, that when you get to hang out with all these movie stars and baseball players, you never stop feeling that sense of awe — “I can’t believe I’m friends with this guy.”

I always do.

Whether it’s Robert De Niro, Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali or Sid Caesar. Do you still look at these people with the eyes of a fan, even though you got to be good friends and colleagues with so many of them?

Oh, yeah, every time. A lot of the people you mentioned I tell stories about, and I think if you ever lose that wonder, you might as well just pack it in. I’m always amazed that I’ve gotten this far, and I’m thankful that I still have the passion to do more and keep thinking of new things to do. It means so much to me because I’m really just talking to people about what I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of, with so many amazing people. I’m sitting in my office at home and I’m looking around at all these pictures and going, “Wow, look at that!” It’s been a fantastic journey that I love talking about, and I take people on the ride with me, and that’s what the night’s about.

As a stand-up comedian it might be fair to say you’ve been influenced more by the generation before you — Alan King, “Your Show of Shows,” Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks — than people like George Carlin, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. In other words, you don’t seem like an angry guy.

Um … well, spend some time with me (laughs). No, we have different ways and, you know, I was brought up in the living room of storytellers. All my relatives had stories that were funny or challenging, and they just spoke to you, and I loved that about them. To me, Carlin was perhaps the most prolific of our stand-up comics; I knew George pretty well, and I just have so much respect for how he evolved into what he evolved into. I’m a storyteller, and there (may be) tinges of things that are upsetting, but I’m not coming out there and screaming, you know, “What’s going on here?” That’s sort of the roots of what I was from. I loved Sid Caesar, I loved Mel and Carl, and I just look for the truth and the humor and try to find my own point of view in it.

In your private life, it’s no secret you’re a fairly liberal Democrat. You hosted a Broadway fundraiser for Hillary Clinton last October, but as far as I know you don’t talk about politics much in your normal set. Do you feel any obligation to be a little more political in the Age of Trump, or is that not what you feel is your strong suit?

It can be a strong suit, but the sense I’m getting from people is they’d love to get away from it and be entertained. The first weeks of what we’ve entered into has been very polarizing to people, and yes, I’m a liberal Democrat, but I’m more conservative than I thought I would be (with) certain things. I’ll talk about (politics) if I feel like I have to that night, (if) I just can’t hold it in anymore, but this night’s not really about that. To me, I’m helping (the audience) get away from that. I don’t want to polarize an audience, I’m not there to get into fights with anybody. My goal is just to make them laugh as much as they can. Listen, if something happens, if I’ve got to talk about it then I’m going to talk about it, but never to the point where someone’s going to get pissed off and get up and walk out. That doesn’t do anybody any good.

Getting older really is the greatest joke, isn’t it? Inside you don’t feel any older than perhaps 30, but the mirror says otherwise. You delve into this phenomenon a lot. One day you’re not the kid anymore, you’re the elder statesman; younger people come up to you and thank you for being a part of their childhood. Is that rewarding or annoying?

No, it’s fine. When I see someone who’s 60 and they’ll say, “I grew up with you. …” (laughs) “I’ve been watching you since I was a kid.” That kind of stuff, you know … listen, at this point it’s all fine. We do meet-and-greets (after shows), and people flew from New Orleans to Biloxi to see me, and they had named their son Max for Miracle Max in “Princess Bride.” So many “Harry met Sally” people — “We got married, we used your speech from the movie as wedding vows.” There’s some beautiful things about it. And then the reaction to “700 Sundays” has been very touching, when they tell me it helped them deal with the loss of a parent, or other sad moments in their lives. That’s tremendously satisfying. Anyone who gets annoyed with someone saying “I’ve known you since I was a kid,” I think they’re missing the point.

I don’t much like the term “bucket list,” but is there anything at all that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

I’m glad you don’t like the term “bucket list,” because it means eventually you’re going to kick it.

You want to delay that as much as possible.

Well, I don’t think that way. I don’t know. I know I want to direct more movies. I’d like to get that chance again to do that. The last one I directed meant a lot to me, which was called “61*,” about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. I just want to just stay healthy and happy; that’s really the goal now at this point. I’ve done (so many) things that if I had to say, “That’s it,” I’m fine, but the goal right now is to be able to put my socks on without one of those devices that they give you in those stores.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Austin360

This week’s music picks: Jimmy LaFave tribute, Julien Baker, Steve Earle
This week’s music picks: Jimmy LaFave tribute, Julien Baker, Steve Earle

[youtube=] Monday: Jimmy LaFave Tribute with Eliza Gilkyson and friends at Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Gilkyson has played the annual holiday shopping event many times, but this year is different: She’ll lead a cast of locals paying tribute...
The inspiration you need to get dinner on the table
The inspiration you need to get dinner on the table

Take that, o keepers of page views: Print cookbook numbers are up, in sales and total number published, as they were in 2016. In some years, certain cuisines and trends produce a stack of interesting, niche-y cookbooks. This year, oddly enough, that was not the case, with the exception of one-pan cooking. The heaviest presence on the table has to be...
‘SNL’ crew trims Christmas tree with Trump’s ‘haters and losers’
‘SNL’ crew trims Christmas tree with Trump’s ‘haters and losers’

“War is over, if you want it,” John Lennon sang in “Happy Christmas.” Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump character had a new twist to an old song. “The war on Christmas is over,” Baldwin’s character said to open “Saturday Night Live” on NBC. “It will soon be replaced by the war with North Korea...
Drinks, dogs and more holiday cheer on tap in Austin
Drinks, dogs and more holiday cheer on tap in Austin

Nightlife Holiday Gin & Tonic Mixology Class at El Chipirón. Are you hosting family at your home this holiday season? Wow them with authentic Spanish gin and tonics you can make in your kitchen. El Chipirón, a Spanish restaurant in South Austin, is hosting a workshop demonstrating how. The class will include three different kinds of Spanish-style...
The coolest way to serve coffee at dinner's end
The coolest way to serve coffee at dinner's end

I can put together a decent dinner party. But when it comes to the end of the meal, I have never been at ease with making a cuppa for my coffee-drinking guests, because I only do tea.  My new plan is to serve this whiz-bang-simple dessert, which offers all the coffee flavor with precious little bitterness - and a mild buzz of caffeine, if you...
More Stories