A successful comic who's not seen rehab is as rare as a celibate in a whorehouse.
Or a cleric who's never gone to church.
Yet, here's Billy Crystal, a paladin of modern American standup, coming across in real life so emotionally balanced he could crack one-liners crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, a 65-year-old grandfather who's so successful at living he's the last on the planet who'll ever need Dr. Phil or Judge Judy, a veteran of self-deprecating humour who is gently moving into old age with such acceptance that mention prostate to him and he'd take it you're talking not of a thoroughly unpleasant exam but describing his afternoon nap.
And therein is the problem with Crystal's memoir, Still Foolin' 'Em.
While the title suggests Billy might suffer from an inferiority complex -- it seems to infer him saying, "Don't people realize I'm really not that talented?" -- his real life is not the painful and Byzantine uphill climb to success and tragedy that marked the likes of Lenny Bruce and plagued Richard Pryor (who stopped breathing at the age Billy is now.) Rather, Crystal comes across as so warm-hearted and uncontroversial it hurts to say it: his book as autobiography is pedestrian.
There simply is nothing star-crossed in Billy's 269 pages about himself. His one-and-only wife he still loves with the same ardour as when they met, his kids are successful, he adores being a four-time grandpa, he's got a small army of supportive friends, he's proud to be an American, and his boyhood was a pleasant test tube for the refinement of his comic talent.
Hell, he's such a well-adjusted Jew his mother likely couldn't have cared less when he didn't become a doctor.
After all that discouragement, his take on his life will still appeal to a mass of people, and particularly fans, just because he is such a nice guy.
And Crystal is engaging when talking about his one time at bat for his beloved New York Yankees, his home renovations, disposing of his remains, his experiences in four good movies -- The Princess Bride, Throw Momma from the Train, City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally (remember Meg Ryan's orgasm-faking scene in the deli?) and his reminiscences of playing the first gay man on mainstream TV in the groundbreaking sitcom Soap in the late 1970s.
For lovers of standup -- particularly for those who enjoy the fabled Borscht Belt Jewish humour on which Crystal was raised in the last days of its popularity in the Catskills outside near his home on Long Island, N.Y. -- the first 100 pages is a machine gun of jokes, an explosion of shtick on self-deprecation, aging, insomnia, marital bickering and everyday complaints. In other words, Jewish jokes even gentiles will understand.
As well, unlike many of today's comedic headliners, in both his writing and his routines, chicken is about the closest to foul Crystal will ever come. He does employ some four-letter words, but Pryor used more in 20 seconds than Crystal does in 269 pages. Not being bombarded with profanity is bound to be a refreshing relief for many.
Growing up for Billy was a magical adventure in imagination (that turned him into something like a creative Kid Superman without the tights) because his dad ran a family-owned record store, saw how young Billy loved to be funny and encouraged him very early on by bringing home comedy albums for him to enjoy and study and develop his own routines.
His father died when Billy was 15. In 2005, he won a Tony Award for his solo Broadway play about his relationship with his father, 700 Sundays, which he later published as a book. (In fact, he'll be performing it in Minneapolis Oct. 22-25.)
Crystal was just 21 and still going to college when he got married. One of his teachers at New York University was none other than film director Martin Scorsese. He and his "amazing" wife, Janice, had no money. Billy occasionally was a substitute teacher and more often a full-time babysitter for their first daughter as Janice worked.
Crystal, who had begun doing standup gigs at 16, started playing the Catskills (like Jerry Seinfeld) and other comedy gigs across the U.S. The more he worked the more work he got.
On his way up he played the then-popular Playboy clubs ("McDonald's with cleavage"). He became Jodie on Soap in 1977 and played Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He became a lovable movie star in the late '80s.
Good advice early on helped him. The dean of comedy managers, Jack Rollins, told him he was working "too safe" in his routines and should not be afraid to bomb. "Put you in your material," he was advised. "Like what it's like to be a father, be married, feel about politics."
And from the legendary Bill Cosby: "Just talk. Don't let them see you're working."
From there Crystal went on to brilliantly demolish the adage that nice guys finish last. He has been an actor, comedian, producer, director, writer, nine-time Academy Awards host, six-time Emmy winner and recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
No rebel and no cause.
Just an unpretentious and classy guy.
Barry Craig is a retired Winnipeg gentile.