Billy Crystal has earned the right to be choosy. After nearly 50 years in the entertainment industry — from roasting Muhammad Ali to being a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” hosting his own variety show and helping to modernize the romantic comedy, even serving as the contemporary ideal Oscars host, and that’s just the funny stuff — Crystal has hit comedic milestone after comedic milestone.
He’s also starred in some of the box office’s biggest hits, hosted the Grammys, directed four films, won six primetime Emmys, plus a Tony and a Mark Twain Prize. He even got to be friends with his childhood hero, Mickey Mantle, after directing HBO feature “61*” about Mantle and Roger Maris’ quest to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. It’s been a good run, and it’s not over yet.
While Crystal’s resume isn’t exactly lacking, there is one area in which he’s been less than his usual prolific self: going behind the camera as director. After directing the stand-up-centric “Mr. Saturday Night” in 1992 and the winning rom-com “Forget Paris” just three years later, Crystal took a break; he didn’t direct again until “61*” in 2001. Twenty years later, Crystal is finally back in the director’s chair with “Here Today,” a gentle dramedy in which he stars alongside fellow comedic star Tiffany Haddish.
The film, in theaters this week, was loosely inspired by an experience his co-writer and long-time friend Alan Zweibel had years ago and had detailed both in the short story “The Prize” and during an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” that Crystal actually watched live. A lunch with Zweibel was the “prize” in a silent auction, with the meal turning both hilarious and bizarre when his companion had a terrible allergic reaction and the writer found himself embroiled in her health crisis.
“Here Today” starts with that conceit — Crystal plays former comedic megastar Charlie Burnz, sent off on a lunch with kinda-sorta fan Emma (Haddish), who falls ill during their meal — and spins it off into emotional territory. For Crystal, who said he’d long been looking to make a film about the platonic bond between an older man and a younger woman, “Here Today” fits that bill, while also speaking to some of his usual obsessions: New York City, the inherent emotion in humor, and even the ins and outs of the sketch comedy world.
Zooming in from Los Angeles, Crystal recently spoke to IndieWire about why his return to directing took so long, his favorite memories of his year spent as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” and why scads of streaming offers couldn’t deter him from wanting a theatrical release.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: If Wikipedia is telling me this correctly, I am sitting about seven blocks from where you were born.
Billy Crystal: So you’re on the Upper East Side! I was born at Doctors Hospital, which is now like an apartment building, right? When I was on Broadway with “700 Sundays,” you get fan mail and so and so forth, and people drop off items that they want you to sign. But someone once left a very heavy package for me backstage. So I get it, and I take it back to my dressing room. What is this thing? And I open it up, and it’s a brick, and [the sender] wrote, “I was also born at Doctors Hospital, and I ended up living across the street. They’ve demolished the hospital. This is a brick from the hospital. I thought you might like that.” That was pretty cool.
It’s been so long since you directed something yourself. Why such a long pause?
Because I didn’t find anything that I connected with enough to want to give so much to it and spend a year, year-and-a-half, sometimes two years on a project. And I was busy, back on Broadway twice and doing other things.
When Alan and I started writing, I knew right away that I couldn’t let anyone else tell our story. I just kept seeing it, and that infused the writing. The script became very visual to me. If you read the script, you would actually sort of see the movie that I was seeing already. It was only because I was so connected to the characters and their relationship. It moved me, and it still moves me.
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Were there offers coming in, that didn’t fit?
There was nothing that really touched me after “61*” came out and was really well-received. This is the 20th anniversary of that movie, that meant something to me. I was 13 that summer when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle went after Babe Ruth’s record and went to as many games as I could. And then I got to be friends with Mantle. I had a real personal connection to that, to get it right.
So then I got a bunch of [offers for] baseball movies to do, and I felt like, “Well, I’ve already done that.” “61*” was more about the friendship than it was about the baseball in so many ways. I just waited and waited for that one that I could really connect with. And once I saw Alan on the Letterman show, telling that story about the charity auction luncheon from hell, which starts off the relationship, I was in. I knew I couldn’t let anyone else do what I was seeing.
In the film, your character Charlie is the elder statesman of a sketch comedy show, much like “Saturday Night Live.” You had one of the more distinctive trajectories on “SNL,” hosting first and then serving as a cast member during one of Dick Ebersol’s few seasons. Which memories from that time still stay with you?
It was one of my favorite years of my life. I remember doing Fernando [in “Fernando’s Hideaway”], which were always unscripted, it was just all improvised. It really was a talk show within a sketch show, having all of these people come, Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach and Howard Cosell.
We had booked Barry Manilow to be on, and he was playing at Radio City, right across the street. We go on at 11:33, or whatever it is, and we got a message late, like around 10:00 that night, that Barry decided not to do it. He was too scared to do it. So Dick Ebersol, our wonderful producer, said, “What do we do?”
I said, “I can’t scratch it. Let me think.” One of the members of the crew was this wonderful guy named Bobby Fraraccio, and Bobby was a large person, he weighed about 350, I’d say. He was very funny, we used to joke all during the week, and I said, “Bobby, he’s not coming. Would you come into ‘Hideaway’ and play him and be him?” And he goes, “Gee, I don’t know.” I said, “We’ll have fun. Whatever happens is going to happen.”
I explained to the audience, “Barry Manilow did not show up. These big Hollywood stars who don’t come have got to stop. But I cannot disappoint my fans, because I love you very much. And you know who you are. So please welcome … One of our crew has accepted to play his part. Here’s Barry Manilow.” Bobby walks in and sits down next to me, taking off his headset and so on, and we just improvised the whole scene. It was hilarious, and it was what live TV should be. I loved that moment.
It was one year and a perfect year for me and for us, in many ways.
©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection
When Lorne Michaels came back to the show, was there any discussion of you staying on?
Yeah, there was. At the time, [NBC programming chief] Brandon Tartikoff was interested in me. They wanted to change the format and make it like once a month, and would I be the host once a month at “SNL”? And I said, “Gee, I really have to think about it,” because the next day, literally the next day, I was screen testing for “Running Scared,” with Gregory Hines, who I love. And I said, “Let me know, because then I won’t test, because we have to start working right away.”
I think it was June, and it came back that Lorne had come back to the show, and he wanted to start from scratch and start a whole new group, which I really understood. Nobody was asked back, and that’s how it happened.
It was still one of my favorite years, because it put me back where I wanted to be, playing different characters, being able to be all these different people, but also myself. When I was on “Soap” for four years, I played one character for four years. And on “SNL,” when I was there, I’d play four characters before “Weekend Update,” so that was a thrill.
What did you watch this year to pass the time?
What did I watch that I loved? Oh, God. You’re getting me late in the day, where it’s getting cloudy! I loved “Fauda.” I loved “My Octopus Teacher.” What am I watching now? “The Last Kingdom.” I finally watched the first episode of “Game of Thrones,” so I got through that.
A bunch of different things, some shows I didn’t even expect to really love that I ended up loving, like “Dave,” which is a very strange series on FX. I really like it. I think he’s a very interesting star, writer, director. He’s the real deal. That’s a very inspired show. Oh, and then my grandkids got me involved with “Nailed It.”
The film is coming out in theaters. How meaningful is that to you after this past year?
That’s what’s really important to us. Fred Bernstein, my co-producer and our lead producer at Astute Films, really held out. We had streaming offer after streaming offer, but this is a real movie for people in a theater. I hope that people will feel safe enough to go, because they’ll have a really good experience and laugh and get emotional in the best way. So folks, if you’re listening, I hope you are able to get to the theater.
“Here Today” hits theaters on Friday, May 7.