The Middlebrow

Billy Crystal

The comedian as grief counselor.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

In his new one-man show, 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal reflects on the death of his father, Jack, who suffered a lethal heart attack when Crystal was 15 years old. (The sum of their time together, Crystal figures, was about 700 Sundays.) Crystal slumps at the shoulders, locks his hands behind his back, and trudges across the stage, looking smaller and more fragile than he does at the Oscars. He’s hauling a metaphorical “boulder,” he says—the burden of his father’s passing. That pain is followed, when we jump forward 38 years, by the death of his mother, which Crystal says made him a 53-year-old “orphan.” Our hero’s unrelenting sadness, which spans two acts and two and a half hours, has already tallied an astounding $10 million in advance ticket sales. “You would be hard-pressed to find a Broadway show with a more artfully calculated comfort factor,” noted the New York Times—an odd tagline for a show about the death of a man’s parents.

But this, in a nutshell, is Crystal’s comic genius: He has made trauma fun again. 700 Sundays, like most of Crystal’s work, is a balm to middle-aged sadness. In Crystal’s movies When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, heartbreaking midlife tragedies—emotional crises, ruined marriages—are sweetened by his one-liners and comic Yiddishisms. After 20 years in the movies, Crystal has made himself into something more than America’s most officious comedian. He’s become a national grief counselor.

Crystal wasn’t always a mope. Just the opposite: He was a high-spirited, profane boy wonder. He was born on Long Island—the set for 700 Sundays is an identical replica of his boyhood home, down to the street number—to a Jewish family with famous friends. As proprietors of Commodore Music Shop, his family mingled with some of the greatest jazz acts of their generation: Louis Armstrong stopped by for Seder, and Crystal watched Shane at the movie theater while perched on Billie Holiday’s lap. Crystal’s comedy career began when, as a young boy, he spent a night watching a wild-eyed Catskills comedian “prowling the stage like a panther.” He memorized the comedian’s routine and flung the dirty jokes at his aunts and uncles. His career took off in 1984 on Saturday Night Live, where he tried out joyous impressions of Sammy Davis Jr. and enshrined comic creations like Fernando (“You look mahvelous!”). His comedy album Mahvelous!, released in 1985, has the raunchiness of a child handed his father’s tape recorder. Its first track, “I Hate It When That Happens,” has Crystal playing Willie the Masochist and contemplating gruesome self-mutilation, like stuffing a meat thermometer in his ear and pounding it with a ball-peen hammer.

Over the years, the boisterous Crystal transformed into a great comedic mourner. This isn’t to say his movies were unremittingly sad—most had happy endings. But Crystal seemed to sense that the shortest path to fame was giving his audience a homeopathic dose of realism. If you’re mildly depressed and middle-aged, you’ll inevitably recognize yourself in one of Crystal’s movie parts. For example, a 30ish, lovelorn divorcee would probably have a lot in common with Harry Burns, Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally. A married man enduring a midlife crisis would be Mitch Robbins, from City Slickers. Your elderly father fading away? Abbie in Memories of Me. Mickey Gordon, Crystal’s character in Forget Paris, is a triple-word-score of boomer angst: Mickey buries his father and faces an unhappy marriage and faces a midlife crisis.

Crystal’s magic is that he can lightly wear the mask of tragedy—it never gets in the way of a one-liner—and then, near the end of a film, whip it off to reveal a man who never seemed unhappy to begin with. There’s something pleasing about watching him endure a crisis. He seems just wounded enough to make the problem real, and energetic and loose-tongued enough to make the audience feel unreasonably hopeful; in 700 Sunday he minces almost as much as he trudges.

Comedians like Lenny Bruce built comedy out of tragedy by tapping their own reservoirs of pain. That’s not Crystal’s MO; off-screen, he has lived a life of domestic bliss (or so he insists) with his wife of 34 years,Janice, and their two daughters. (He wrote a book for his unborn grandchild called I Already Know I Love You.)But Crystal seeks a psychic connection with his audience, and perhaps he thinks re-enacting the traumatic signposts of adulthood is the fastest way to achieve it. Few comedians go about making common cause with an audience with as much fierceness as Crystal. In 700 Sundays, he looks at the graying patrons of the Broadhurst Theater and begins to tick off some of the iconic cultural moments of their lives: the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. There’s no joke here, just generational outreach—and the audience I sat with let out an audible gasp with each mention. Crystal’s shtick is boomer-friendly—it brims with cautious provocation; he’s just blasphemous enough. Crystal to Jesus: “Oh, I didn’t recognize you with your hands down.”

It is often said that Crystal is a peaceful man in a world of wild-eyed, schizophrenic comedians. In 700 Sundays, he makes a single gesture of insecurity: a nervous, toothy smile in which the corners of his mouth curl toward his ears. It’s his trademark face—what rolled eyes were to Rodney Dangerfield—and it almost always follows a moment when he has gone a shade too dark. It’s the smile of the Catskills comedian Crystal so richly admired—a worried grin that communicates angst. But Crystal’s smile is so mechanical by this point that it glows with assurance—that no matter how tragic his material, his audience will give in. He unleashes it, and the laughs wash over him.