“Coming out L.A., it was 40-something when I left yesterday,” Billy Crystal says from San Antonio. “It was one hot walk around the Alamo.”
The almost-69-year-old, Tony- and Emmy-winning comic actor is on a 30-plus city tour called Spend the Night With Billy Crystal, a conversational glance back at a career that’s brought him from the Oscars stage to Yankee Stadium by way of a famous pastrami sandwich and some mutton that’s nice and lean.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How is the tour proceeding?
It’s been fantastic, the crowd has been great. A creative experience on stage. I love performing this show, which changes every night. Working with Bonny Hunt has been great, and people are really loving this talk-show format. It’s a concert performance show, but it’s centered in this conversation that I have with her. I’m on my feet 95 percent of the time. She grounds the show and keeps it moving — and is really funny herself. It’s been a terrific pairing.
You say the show changes nightly. Is that by a very large percentage, or is it the same basic stuff, shifting organically?
A little bit of both. We were in Santa Barbara Saturday, and it was a terrific show, and on Sunday we were in Phoenix — it was like 30 percent different, which is a huge difference. It’s just fresh, and it keeps moving in a different way each night, I love that about it. She surprises me, I surprise myself. What’s nice about it is it feels very intimate, and I think the audience would ask me a lot of the questions she does. In that way, they get it much more of a — I’m going to use the word intimate again — than if I was just doing a stand-up night?
Everyone has seen you host the Oscars and they’ve seen all your movies, but maybe not everyone has seen your stand-up, Is it stand-up format, or multimedia? You said you’re on your feet.
There’s a lot of media in it, clips, really cool photographs, video pieces, films and stuff, to support the conversation. It’s a lot of fun to take a funny trip down this memory lane.
Do you consider yourself an comic first and actor second, or other way around. Or maybe a retired baseball player who does comedy to pay the bills?
I’ve always been a comedian first, but always the act always had some element of theatricality in it, right from the beginning. The fist piece I did on SNL as a guest was a bittersweet monologue of an old jazz musician. It wasn’t an out-and-out funny thing. I’ve always sort of brought that along with me, the little piece of theater inside the stand-up — but at my core I’m always been, hopefully, a funny person.
The very first episode ever, in 1975?
No, I was a guest in ’79. I was bumped in ’75.
When you’re on the road, do you have any rituals?
There’s pre-show stuff. When you’re on a hitting streak, you sort of do the same kind of things, at the same time. I definitely had that when I was on Broadway. I try to get as much rest as I can get because the show is over two hours. So, especially when you’re doing back-to-backs — which we’re doing tonight and tomorrow, in Houston — I just try to eat right and just get as much rest and keep my mind positive and go over my notes and write a little bit. I might get into the theater about two or three hours earlier and walk the stage and don’t get distracted — if that’s a ritual, that’s an important one for me, is keep your mind on what you have to do.
I see that Carol Burnett dropped by.
It was awesome, she’s been great to me over the years. When I was hosting the Oscars regualrly, I’d always get a telegram — when there were telegrams — and she’s always write the same thing: “You were the best one.” I mean, I’m the only one! That’s what she said to me: She came backstage. I so respect her, she’s such a fantastic person on top of it. We all loved that she came to the show.
Your career has brought you in contact with a mind-blowingly large number of people, and a lot of Bay Area people. Obviously, you worked with Robin Williams on Comic Relief, and he’s something of a secular saint in San Francisco.
I miss him. I miss his brotherhood. The performing, of course, was great — amazing and fun to do. But he friendship, the love we had between us — and our families as well — can never be duplicated. I talk about him a lot in this new show, and I’ve been up to the Bay Area three or four times. You feel him around town and it’s just — I don’t even know what to say, except to tell fun stories about us together, which I will do.
Do you find that as celebrity evolves generally, do people come up to you more and act like they’ve always known you, quote lines from the movies back at you?
Yeah, it’s very nice, actually. There’s some people — you can sense they’re a little hipper than others from the quotes that they use. Some people come up and say, “Hey, mime is money,” which is from Spinal Tap, and some people find an obscure line from The Princes Bride. Instead of “Have fun storming the castle,” they’ll go for “The mutton is nice and lean.” The tomatoes, you know — they’re very perky. Once in a while, you’ll just get someone who’ll say, “An hour, a good hour.” And that’s so obscure in that movie! With the chocolate magic pill that Cary [Elwes] gets: “You shouldn’t go swimming for an hour, a good hour.”
Doesn’t bother you when strangers come up when you’re ordering coffee and they’re yammering in your face?
If you get bothered by that, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. If they come up to you and they’re nice, it’s OK. I’m not inviting that, but it’s OK. People have been wonderful to me.
Spend the Night With Billy Crystal, March 1 at the Fox Theater in Oakland, and March 2 in San Jose at the Center for Performing Arts. Tickets.