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Billy Crystal Finds That It's Murky In The Middle of 'Night'

TORONTO -- Billy Crystal's new film is about a stand-up comedian who doesn't have a good feel for his room. He has, in fact, a reckless genius for saying the right thing at the wrong time. What he says may be funny, but try to explain that to his audience, which is appalled.

The character's name is Buddy Young Jr., and for a brief period in the 1950s, he is known as "Mr. Saturday Night" because he has his own show on the CBS Network. But then ABC puts "Davy Crockett" up against him, and the ratings start to slip, and Buddy thinks it would be funny to make jokes about how Davy had to be gay, because why elsewere there only guys at the Alamo?

"There are a lot of comics like Buddy," Crystal was saying here the other day, after his film premiered in the Festival of Festivals. "In my standup work, I always do these characters, older people who are just off to the side. It's easier to write a story about the guy who made it to the top, but the middle is so much more interesting, so much more murky." 

The ad line for the movie expresses this perfectly: It's lonely in the middle. Crystal plays Buddy Young, and directed himself, in a movie where the comedian moves from one missed opportunity after another. He had a lot of support in his life. There's his brother (David Paymer), who has put his own life on hold to be Buddy's manager. His wife (Julie Warner), who knows he needs that "little extra hug" that only an audience can give. His bright young agent (Helen Hunt), who will help him if he lets her. But Buddy is singularly lacking in introspection, and has never quite figured out why his whole career has been a series of near-misses.

"The movie had to be an unflinching look, a real look, at the ability of a human being to give and accept love," Crystal said. "His brother tells him, 'You coulda been nicer.' That's his whole story. I wanted to make the 'Raging Bull' of comedy, rather than the 'Sunshine Boys.' I wanted the audience to know what it's like onstage and offstage. Julie Warner's line is right. He needs a little extra hugging. If you laugh, you kissed him. If you applaud, you're hugging him." 

The movie follows Buddy and his brother from childhood, when they entertain the relatives in the living room, through the Borscht Belt, radio, television and finally, as the movie opens, a series of standup engagements in nursing homes. The final blow falls when Buddy "loses his winter;" he's cancelled by a cruise line in favor of a younger comic, and faces unemployment, which is bad, and no more audiences, which is worse. 

"His problem is, he just doesn't know his room," Crystal said. "I pride myself in being able to survive just about any situation on stage now. I can handle pressure. He can't." 

Crystal's grace under fire was tested last April, when he hosted the Academy Awards while in the middle of a bout of pneumonia. 

"We had just finished making the movie, and I was completely beat. I had a fever of 103. But I felt good, I didn't have that gulp in my throat I used to have when I did the Tonight Show. I was more relaxed, more confident. When Hal Roach didn't have the mike, I'm there on camera. What do I say? Everybody is watching. The world is a rough room. Here's a 100-year-old genius, he's not scheduled to speak, but he gets a standing ovation, and he stands up and starts to speak. I saw them scrambling, they came back to me, and you know how you know something, a split second before you say it? I saw the line come into my head like the printout of the headlines on Times Square. I said it was appropriate we couldn't hear him, because after all he started in silent films. That was a split-fingered fastball, right on the outside corner. Backstage, I was okay until about two and a half hours in, when I started to shake. I had a fever surge. I was backstage, Paul Newman was putting pillows under my head. I had never met him before. Was I dreaming this?" 

Crystal is at the top of his game right now. His performance at the 1992 Oscars was reviewed as maybe the best emcee job in Academy history. And his movie career has taken off. He figures this is perhaps his third reincarnation, after his early standup and movie work, his re-launch on Saturday Night Live, and now his feature films. 

"I've worn down America. Since I got into the movies, 'Running Scared,' that did $40 million. 'Princess Bride,' I got good reviews for the character Miracle Max. 'Memories of Me' didn't do well. 'Throw Mama from the Train' did $70 million. 'Harry and Sally' did 95 or 96. 'City Slickers' did $120 million. If we do half of what 'City Slickers' did, I'll be ecstatic." 

I wondered if the character of Buddy Young, Jr.--in a screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, but based on a character Crystal created for his standup act--was inspired by any combination of older comedians. I asked him if he hung around with that generation of comics. 

"We don't have a bowling team, if that's what you mean. Basically, no. Alan King and I are very close friends, but he isn't anything like Buddy Young. We met years ago, when Alan was the producer of the Howard Cosell variety show that I started on. Alan was my technical adviser on the movie. He's one of the funniest people I know, offstage and on." 

Is it true that comics are laughing on the outside, but inside they're sad, bitter, jealous, and depressed? 

"Well, you're hitting a lot of them. My job was to get all those things into an interesting character. Buddy has two speeches that I think sum him up. One, he tells his future wife that when he's getting laughs, he feels like Joe Louis onstage. Nobody can touch him. He says he loves that feeling, 'but I love you more.' That's a big thing for him to say. And at the end, there's that brutal speech in the alley, when he tells his brother, 'You don't know what it's like to get up in front of a crowd.' And we understand the whole thing that makes him live. I know these guys. As gruff and rough as they can be, they're so sentimental, they have so much pain sometimes. That's what they do. They insult you, then they say they love you, and they get all sappy. And they mean it. Don Rickles goes out and kills an audience. I mean dead. He's vicious. Then he sings a ballad: I'm a nice guy...I really didn't mean it. And he means it. 

"The movie is an emotional roller-coaster, because it's trying to reflect that personality. Buddy is this guy who has been so rough, and then he gives his best performance at his mother's funeral." 

Crystal smiled. 

"We had some trouble getting that funeral scene to work. The first time we screened a rough cut of the movie, out in Sherman Oaks, when we get to the funeral and the rabbi says, 'If anyone has a few words....' the audience started laughing. It caught me so off guard, because in my mind it was a sad scene. But there were these huge anticipatory laughs, because they think, here goes Buddy again. So I had to go back and put some more serious stuff in the beginning of the scene, to make it work." 

Directing the movie, Crystal said, was "sixteen months of actual work. And every minute of every day you're thinking about it. It's all-consuming, a monstrous mistress that invades your privacy. While people are talking to you about baseball, you're thinking about lighting, color correction, whether a line should stay in or go out. Plus I went through 53 days of 5 1/2 hours a day of makeup application, touchup, repair, to make Buddy look the right age. Sometimes I look at the movie and wonder, how did we do this? I got to my room last night at 2 a.m., I put my head on the pillow, and I thought, when we were making the movie, I used to be at work already." 

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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