After four decades of acting, producing, writing and stand-up comedy, Billy Crystal is no stranger to show business.
He starred in the blockbusters When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers and Analyze This and recently voiced the little green cyclops in the animated hit Monsters. He has also the hosted the Academy Awards nine times, an achievement topped only by Bob Hope.
Billy Crystal performs two intimate shows in Auckland on 21 July and 22 July, with Australian interviewer and comedian Andrew Denton.
He tells Kathryn Ryan that while this will be his first time performing in New Zealand, it isn’t his first visit.
Edited interview highlights
I had a great vacation there in March 2007. It was fantastic. We drove from Blanket Bay all the way to Auckland. It was truly memorable. The people were fantastic, the country, of course, is stunning.
If you find [honesty and truth] in a joke, that’s the best kind of comedy to me. When people sit there and they hit their forehead and go “Oh, my god. I do that, too. That’s me. That’s what I think”. It can enlighten them into a different point of view about things, too. But to me it always has to be rooted in some sort of honesty otherwise you’re just dealing in farce – which of course can be funny, but to me it’s not what I’m about.
The life source of my creativity is talking about things that amuse me or upset me or move me. It’s always been my ability to get up in front of people from the time that I was a little boy. Always the juice of it is really from the stand-up.
I’ve been blessed with a fearlessness… to go with the moment and say what’s on my mind and also know when not to say something. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to think quick on my feet on stage or off. To me that’s always been a blessing that I can think quickly.
That’s the exhausting thing about stand-up comedy, all these exhausting things that are going on at the same time – you’re looking to the audience like you love being there (at the same time you may not love being there, you may not like he audience). You’re thinking ahead, you’re saying the joke, you’re timing the joke, you’re hearing the response. And inside your mind is editing. “Don’t do this, cut to this. Don’t do that, cut to this. Go here. Say this. Here’s a new line! Do that one!”
It’s like there’s a big staff of people in my brain, in all comedian’s brains, while they’re doing it. That’s what’s exhilarating about stand-up and also exhausting. When you’ve done an hour or whatever it is onstage you come off and you go ‘whoa’. Your brain needs to just compress for a second because every part of it has been working in some way to make it look easy.
It’s almost like a control centre landing an airplane – all those people help you guide it till you land, that’s what doing a show is. You take off at high speed, then you cruise then you have to land the show – so someone’s got to help guide you through the timing of it. All you’ve got is your brain at that point.
[Muhammad Ali] was my friend. I’m always in awe of the fact that we knew each other and were indeed friends. It wasn’t a celebrity friendship – we were really good friends and helped each other and each other’s causes and charities and were family friends. He meant to me such a great deal because he stood up against the Vietnam War, which a great part of my generation did not believe in. He stood up and said "No, I’m not doing this. This is not part of my religion". And for those of us that were frightened we were going to be pulled into this war machine, by doing that, with Martin Luther King gone and Bobby Kennedy gone and John Kennedy gone… we had five years of terrible assassinations… he became the voice for my generation. I looked up to him as somebody who had the courage to do that.