A microphone, a couple of chairs, a co-host and some film clips—that’s all it takes for comedian-actor-writer Billy Crystal to put on a show. That and, of course, a lifetime of stories and entertainment experience.
That’s what you get with “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal,” which took over the stage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Jan. 26. It was the fourth of 30-plus shows that Crystal, with special guest comedian-actress Bonnie Hunt, are taking around the country, and it’s a combination of standup, conversation, and the aforementioned clips, which range from Crystal’s early days on the groundbreaking sitcom Soap to his stints on Saturday Night Live to hit movies like City Slickers, Analyze This and When Harry Met Sally.
Hunt introduces the evening briefly, and then Crystal joins her, alternating between sitting with her to chat about his career and prowling the stage to deliver comedy riffs on things that are on his mind lately: jokes about cellphones, aging, marriage, his family, even sexual genitalia. (Note: Performing live allows him to be more risqué than you’ve seen on, say, his famous Oscar broadcasts.)
It's hard to say with a longtime pro like Crystal how much of his routine is the same from night to night and how much might change depending on the flow or what the audience reaction is. After more than 40 years of being in front of an audience, he has the gift of making it seem like he’s making it all up on the spot.
In this show, he can smoothly switch gears from being his animated comic self to presenting some of his memorable impersonations, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Muhammad Ali to Jack Nicholson, to reminiscing with Hunt about his early days. Some of those stories might sound too good to be true, but we’ll believe him. Take the one about his big break opening for the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Originally set to do 20 minutes, he had to keep returning to the stage when the band’s temperamental lead singer would launch into the hit “Spinning Wheel” and then find a reason to swear and thrown down his mic. Somehow, Crystal desperately kept mining his brain for more ways to keep the crowd laughing instead of shouting, until they eventually wanted more of him instead of the band.
Once in the spotlight, Crystal stayed there, gaining more recognition with his early renditions of both Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell. He became close friends with Ali, and his recollections of the champ are touching.
So are his memories of longtime friend Robin Williams (who was also a close friends of Hunt’s), which close the show. In between, his stories touch on meeting Princess Diana, opening for Sammy Davis and working with Jack Palance, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in City Slickers. Watching him imitate Palance’s facial movements (“half-man, half-iguana”) is a hoot.
Hunt makes a good partner throughout the evening, getting in a few good comedy lines herself as well as asking Crystal the questions that spark his best stories. At 2 ½ hours (with no intermission), “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal” is a longer show than you might initially expect. But when you see the clips, hear the anecdotes and laugh at the jokes, you’ll probably think the story couldn’t be told in less.
Crystal and Hunt still have three more shows set for Florida venues before heading south, west and north on the tour. But then, if you’re a Crystal fan, you probably already have your tickets.