Nearly 38 years since his breakout role on the spoofy sitcom Soap, Billy Crystal returns to series television in FX’s The Comedians (Thursdays at 10/9c, beginning this week). It’s a clash of generations, egos and comic sensibilities when he’s forced to work with Josh Gad—both playing fictionalized versions of themselves—in a late-night sketch show, something Crystal knows all too well from his days as a Saturday Night Live regular in the mid-’80s.
Of course, his résumé is also loaded with iconic movies like When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, Analyze This, The Princess Bride, Throw Momma From the Train and Mr. Saturday Night. He has hosted the Academy Awards nine times, winning three of his five Emmys for writing or emceeing the Oscars, and he won a Tony for his one-man Broadway show 700 Sundays.
So what enticed Crystal back to TV? He explains as he reminisces about four stellar decades in show biz.
“For me, it started early. It’s the old joke, the light went on in the refrigerator and I did 20 minutes for the leftovers.”
Why was this an offer you couldn’t refuse?
When I was sent the Swedish version of the show, I was bowled over in the first five minutes. I said, “I could like doing this show.” It was such a beautifully constructed situation to pair a veteran comedian with a younger comedian. It just seemed like such a great format, and they had these wonderful sketches. It felt like a total package to me. I get to play an extended version of myself, which is great. I get to do live sketches in front of a live audience. I get to do these film pieces. I get to have crazy fun like that and work with incredible people.
At this point in my career it’s like a blessing to have this show because it reinforces and reinvigorates everything that I started out doing and have loved to do my entire career. I’ve been in front of people since 1974 or so as a comedian, before Soap hit in ’77 and I think people have a certain assumption of me. They feel like they know me. And as an actor and a comedian, it’s fun to play with that. It’s bold, and I love the challenge of it for all of us in the cast.
Much of The Comedians is about the generational differences in comedy. Have you experienced that first-hand?
It’s a point of view more than anything else. There’s an assumption that once you hit 50 or 55 you’re done. “Why listen to this guy?” But I’ve never been like that. In the show I have to perform for a young audience and bomb for them, which was the hardest thing I had to do in the 13 episodes. I’m approaching my 67th birthday. Am I going to go out and talk about dating? You talk about what you talk about.
Who are your comedy heroes?
I was watching the greatest comedians on television in the ’50s and early ’60s so for me, it was Phil Silvers, the amazing Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Howard Morris, Imogene Coca and Ernie Kovacs. The great standups to me were Richard Pryor, Robert Klein. My dad had a record store so he’d bring home these albums, Nichols and May Live on Broadway. I can do Stan Freberg’s This is America word for word. I’m very good friends with these people now. Mel and Carl I see all the time. Mel is hilarious on the show coming up [Episode 4].
Then there were the people in the Soap cast—the late Richard Mulligan, Cathryn Damon who played my mom, Katherine Helmond, Bob Mandan, Robert Guillaume. They were the seniors on that cast and they made sure to support me and teach me, and I appreciate so that they took that extra time with me. So I always do that with whomever I’m with.
When did you realize you were funny?
For me, it started early. It’s the old joke, the light went on in the refrigerator and I did 20 minutes for the leftovers. I always was drawn to it. I had a joyous house, a lot of relatives always. It was a performing room. You got up and you’re funny. And I loved it and I was hooked, and I’m still doing it.
You played the first gay regular character on network TV on Soap. What was that like for you?
It was very difficult at the time. It was a different time, and yeah, it was awkward and it was tough. But the producers and the amazing cast of that show supported me and helped me play those scenes with some sort of courage, in a front of a live audience.
When fans come up to you, do they quote one movie or one character more than any other?
Over the course of the last few years it’s changed. I get a lot of Mike Wazowski, Monsters U kids coming up, which is fun. I’ll get kids calling me Farty from Parental Guidance. I still get “You look marvelous!” all the time. I get a lot of “Have fun storming the castle” and I get a lot of “What’s the one thing” from City Slickers. Occasionally, to be a very esoteric, somebody passing me in the airport or in a restroom and he’ll wash his hands and go, “Mime is money” from This is Spinal Tap.
What do you watch on TV?
It’s a very short list: Homeland, Anthony Bourdain, a lot of news. I never miss The Daily Show.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
This is the future. I’m living in it now. I love what I’m doing. The last couple years have been some of the best years of my career. I’ve been as busy as ever, between Broadway and Monsters U and my book was a bestseller and now this show. It’s been hot like crazy. I keep myself in great shape and thank God, I’m still healthy. I’m blessed to have this show. It feels a lot like doing SNL again.
What’s the secret to keeping on top of your game?
You work with really great people. For me, what’s exciting is I feel like I’m just starting to really get to understand how it works after all of these years. I’m still finding new ways to be funny, and it’s thrilling.
Photo by Frank Ockenfels/FX