Billy Crystal takes his charm on the road

Billy Crystal attends the Samsung Studio at SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas, in 2015.
Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung

Billy Crystal is back on the road. The six-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, director and writer — most recently of a book of essays, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys” —  is touring the country with his new show, “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.” In the Washington area, he’ll stop at the Theater at MGM National Harbor on April 29 and 30.

The show promises to feel like an intimate chat with the audience — a blend of standup with a “sit-down” interview with Crystal, moderated at many shows by comedian and actor Bonnie Hunt. Crystal, who lives in Los Angeles, will tell stories, talk about the world as he sees it, reflect on his life and show some film clips from his long career.

Of course, the popular nine-time Oscar host has numerous iconic films and roles to choose from: The title character in the quintessential rom-com “When Harry Met Sally;” the grouchy “miracle worker” in “The Princess Bride;” Mitch, a New Yorker heading toward a midlife crisis who goes on a cattle drive with his buddies in “City Slickers;” and in “Analyze This,” a shrink to Robert De Niro’s mob boss.

But before he was charming millions, Crystal, 68, was entertaining his family and friends while growing up in the quaint beach town of Long Beach, N.Y. Crystal’s early childhood, in the 1950s, was filled with music and laughter. His mother, Helen, was a talented tap dancer and singer. His father, Jack, worked six days a week at two jobs — as a jazz promoter and manager of the family’s popular New York City record store.

Crystal and his dad would spend most Sundays together watching baseball games. Their relationship was chronicled in Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show “700 Sundays” (also adapted into a book and HBO special), named for the number of Sundays he spent with his father, who died of a heart attack when Crystal was 15.

You seem to be a celebrity who wears your Judaism as a badge of honor.

I do. I mean, I still make fun, but it’s not about Jews — it’s about my Jews, it’s about my relatives. It’s not generalizations.

What are some of your favorite parts about being Jewish?

You mean, besides the circumcision?

You remember that, huh?

Yeah, oh yeah, that’s why I’m an insomniac. I’m waiting for that guy to come back in the room.

What else do you love about being Jewish?

The storytelling, the warmth, the sense of humor. My dad was strict about the holidays. We honored them, we went to temple. I like the ritual, and the caring for our planet that’s written into so many of the works I read in Hebrew school.

How do you compare when you were just starting out in showbiz 40-plus years ago to touring with your new show today?

It all feels the same. I don’t think I’ve stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage, when I was on Broadway, felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It’s that same energy of confidence, a little bit of nerves … The moment you go out, you release and say, “OK, I’m ready, here I come.” It’s kind of an intoxicating feeling to go out and entertain people.

That’s why, after all these years, I’m going back on the road with this show … At this age and this point in my career, to still have the hunger I did as a young man is a great feeling.

Besides signing to a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, what’s another of your proudest professional achievements?

I was the first American comedian to perform in the Soviet Union back in 1989 in an HBO special called “Midnight Train to Moscow.” It was a Russian-speaking audience [with] some Americans. Gorbachev was in power, the [Berlin] Wall had not come down yet, and [I felt honored] that HBO trusted me. I found all these relatives that I didn’t know I had there [in Russia]. But performing there and being an ambassador, if you will, for American humor in that country is something I look back on with great pride.

What did your father teach you during those “700 Sundays,” before he passed away?

Besides teaching me a love for comedy, a love for reading, a love for baseball, he also taught me about doing the right thing. My dad was a civil rights giant in his own quiet way, in that he was one of the first promoters to integrate jazz bands. So the house, yes, was filled with Jewish relatives with stories, but sitting next to them was Zutty Singleton, who was a great jazz drummer, or Tyree Glenn, who was Louie Armstrong’s trombone player, or any of these other great musicians. They were all just friends. My family label — Commodore Records — produced “Strange Fruit,” which is Billie Holliday’s epic song about lynching. It took a Jewish family to produce that record, to write that song.

How did your father’s premature death shape your life and your relationship with your mother?

I was 15 and was dealt a bad hand. You can’t help but be angry, and I was angry and had to learn to live with that, and to deal with my mother, who was suddenly widowed and forced back into the workforce. [Being] back home alone with her, while my brothers were away at college, made me grow up really fast. I admired her strength — at the age of 50 she was suddenly back in the workforce. Three sons in school and we all graduated college because of her. You watch that and learn what parenting is really about, and what being a son is really about. My mom sent me on a path of trying to do the right thing in my life and also valuing every moment that you live.

Billy Crystal will perform at the Theater at MGM National Harbor on April 29 and 30. Tickets are $54-$506, on sale at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000. 

Cindy Sher is the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News.

—JTA News and Features

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