Crystal Lite: What's Billy Crystal doing here today?
SNL du Cinema, Part 1
Hi! Thanks for reading B-Squad Leader. My Twitter account was recently hacked, and while I hope it’s fixed soon, it seemed like a good excuse to finish this long-overdue Billy Crystal study. Feel free to share it around in my absence from the social-media sphere, or drop me an email and say hi? I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m missing the stupid socials already.
Billy Crystal was one Saturday Night Live for one season. But like Steve Martin, he’s more closely associated with the show than he probably should be, both because of the recurring characters he brought to the program, and the way he circled the show before actually joining its cast for the all-star 1984-1985 season. He hosted twice the season before, and had been scheduled to appear in a sketch on the very first episode back in 1975. (The sketch was bumped; Crystal appeared later in the first season.)
Crystal’s movie career didn’t really pick up until after his SNL stint, which probably served to tie him more closely to the show, even though it was far from his big break; he also hasn’t appeared closely associated with the show in the many years since his single-season tenure, which might add an extra layer of mystique. He was never at the level of Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, who started on the show when they were young, became globally famous because of it, and distanced themselves from the program for years (before both eventually hosting again, both in 2019). Yet in retrospect, he looks something like the middle-aged version of those hot shots: starting on the show in his late thirties, then starring in a series of hit movies, and never really looking back apart from the occasional reference to looking MAHvelous.
That is, until 2021. Billy Crystal did not return to host SNL in its 46th season. But as the show entered its final run of spring 2021 episodes, Crystal did put out a movie, the first theatrical release he’s directed in over 25 years: Here Today, a comedy-drama starring Crystal and the boundless good will of contemporary comedy star Tiffany Haddish, who apparently respects her elders. The movie is literally sickly sweet: It’s about a close friendship that develops between comedy writer Charlie Burnz (Crystal) and singer Emma Payge (Haddish), as Charlie comes to terms with a form of dementia that may seem rob him of his ability to write, crack jokes, or take care of himself.
Here Today has some—well, a few—well, a handful of—graceful moments, focusing on the unlikely, ambiguous, surprisingly supportive relationship these characters. It is also singularly, fascinatingly, appallingly, confusingly unfunny. The fascination comes from Crystal’s willingness to revisit his past, by giving Charlie a sort of supervisor emeritus position on a live sketch-comedy show that airs at 11:30PM. It’s the kind of Saturday Night Live pastiche where even the details that are changed—it’s a cable show; there doesn’t appear to be a host or musical guest—circle back to make it seem more like SNL, not less. As a longtime SNL viewer/obsessive, fake SNLs in media are a major sticking point for me, and so I will stick to this one, hard.
Do you remember the Aaron Sorkin show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which imagined what Saturday Night Live would be like if it were written almost exclusively by an exacting middlebrow visionary whose sense of humor is as narrow as it is faux-erudite? Based on the glimpses of the sketches we saw on Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes drama, the resulting show would look a lot like SNL in structure, form, and even sometimes sketch subjects, only worse: A mixture of the real show’s hackiest tendencies with Sorkinized sketches that sounded irritatingly obtuse and unfunny, then packaged together as comedy idealism. If you can incept yourself to imagine another layer of reality that produces another fake sketch show that has that kind of relationship to Studio 60, you might have an idea what the Here Today version of SNL is like. If all of this imagining this sounds like hard work, trust me, it is easier than watching Here Today.
Crystal could be both forgiven and scrutinized for trying to reconstruct SNL from memory (in a movie about the fragility of the human mind, no less!). Scrutinized because he only worked at the show for one year, nearly 40 years ago, and seems to be imagining a version of it that both venerates and cruelly rejects people of his generation, despite the real SNL being run with an iron fist by a genuine senior citizen. And forgiven, because he’s working with a co-writer, Alan Zweibel, who worked at SNL for its storied first five years, making periodic returns after that. Perhaps it was Zweibel assuring Crystal that this version of SNL makes any sense at all. The point is, someone on this movie should have known better. Zweibel in particular should know that shows like SNL don’t typically produce sketches that are 45 seconds long, and if they do, they aren’t routines pitched at the level of bad vaudeville about how the inventor of the toilet was named Thomas Crapper. Zweibel should also know that recurring characters on SNL don’t deliver direct-to-camera monologues closely based on the writer and performer’s real-life foibles. (They did this on The Kids in the Hall, with the caveat that on that show, the monologues last more than 45 seconds, are full of compelling comic details, and are funny.) And Zweibel and Crystal should both especially know that the height of envelope-pushing cheap-laugh vulgarity on network sketch comedy, nevermind cable, wouldn’t involve a reference to a thumb up someone’s ass.
Then again, even a casual SNL fan would also know these things, which is how you can tell that Here Today is playing dumb. The writing, and the writing-within-the-writing that supplies the movie’s fake comedy, feels restless and rushed, as if Crystal and Zweibel affixed their every “yes and” with the words “…then we’re done.” There’s rich material to be mined from the quirks and foibles of a professional comedy lifer. Instead, Charlie Burnz just sounds like someone opened an expired jar of Billy Crystal and left it out on a counter for several decades. No wonder Crystal has his character tut-tut about a thumb up the ass; he apparently now envisions comedy as a series of warm exchanges—as a prelude to schmaltz, which this movie also provides by the gallon. Whatever poignance it finds in Charlie’s unenviable medical condition and Emma’s willingness to take care of him, it drowns in self-aggrandizing treacle. I’ve always disliked Nancy Meyers’ tendency to write her own meta-commentary about what a good writer she is; turn sout, she has nothing on the baffling scene in Here Today that showcases a scene from one of the classic comedies Charlie Burnz wrote, where present-day Kevin Kline and Sharon Stone are shrouded in darkness and Halloween costumes so that they might trade limp dialogue in a laff-riot movie from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Like the endless scenes at Charlie’s workplace, this sequence pads out the movie’s running time to a full two hours of rambling, melodramatic self-indulgence with a side of the weakest one-liners this side of a retirement dinner.
I went into Here Today fully expecting to lean into its cornball charms and rediscover my teenage, well, I wouldn’t say love, but certainly tolerance of Billy Crystal. I was enough of an old man at 14 to have seen Forget Paris in a movie theater, and liked it! I remember his Oscar-hosting gigs fondly, even as I cringed through some of his creaky later-period outings. I liked City Slickers, didn’t I? Doesn’t everybody? But as I rewatched City Slickers (in part for another project, at least), I was chilled by how little Here Today resembled a fall from grace. It’s less insane, certainly, for Crystal to play a schlemiel unsatisfied by his advertising job than a senior-citizen comic genius inexplicably kept on retainer at SNL to give or deny millennials his stamp of approval. It’s not, however, much funnier, even with an actual supporting cast and an appealing high concept where Crystal and his buddies (Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby) break out of their doldrums by going on a real-life (if tourist-friendly) cattle drive led by a leathery old-timer (Jack Palance, who won an Oscar, did a one-armed push-up, and inspired Crystal’s most inspired running gag as hots).
City Slickers is confusingly unfunny (happy 30th, buddy!), its comedy shockingly low-effort (getting old sucks!). Its big catchphrase is literally Crystal saying “hello.” Like Here Today, its best moments scarcely even try to be funny: A scene where Crystal, Kirby, and Stern discuss the best and worst days of their respective lives has an emotional directness that forms a striking contrast with the cowboy environment. There’s another, less flatteringly stark contrast at play in Crystal’s performance: Set opposite the Woody Allenisms of When Harry Met Sally or the nonstop shtick of his SNL days, his performance in City Slickers feels hangdog and self-pitying. Sure, it’s nominally better than Fathers’ Day, the belated cinematic team-up with Robin Williams (and reteaming with his City Slickers screenwriters) that I, appropriately enough, watched 24 years late. The cinematography is certainly nicer, and the plot mechanics are less creakily farcical. Yet all of these performances have a settled-in quality, a quaint notion that mild wiseacreage is enough to crack up adoring fans. Some comedy stars have it and lose it; despite a few stone-cold classics (I’m speaking of course of his very funny cameo in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle) (I mean, I’m not, but I kind of am), much of Crystal’s movie career feels like it’s either preparing for him to get really funny, or suffering the aftermath of once having been funny. And aside from some highly questionable blackface (you know, as opposed to unimpeachable blackface), that actual funniness in Crystal’s career was mostly, as far as I can tell, on SNL. It was the time he felt like a comedian, not a guy gesturing toward the idea of comedy.
Glimmers of this truth are reflected, however briefly, in a few shards of Crystal’s movie career. He cashed in his City Slickers chips to direct his first feature, Mr. Saturday Night, which bombed in theaters about 15 months after Slickers became his biggest hit—and expanded on a character he did on SNL years earlier! That movie, which I would happily rewatch if it didn’t involve me either using Apple TV or buying the film outright, at least acknowledges the acerbic side of Crystal’s beloved old-timey comedy. There’s a sense, fully absent from his other work, that the pursuit of a showbiz career might leave the pursuer hollowed-out, lonely, and unpleasant. In Here Today, the major detriment of a career in comedy is that you might someday disrespect your elders. (Thankfully, there is a gentle-soul writer character in Here Today who Burnz nurtures and encourages by lightly workshopping the aforementioned 45-second Thomas Crapper sketch. Those millennials aren’t so bad after all, provided they can work in the Carol Burnett Show vernacular that Crystal himself had little to do with!)
This should make Crystal a beloved fixture of Saturday Night Live, a show that, if nothing else, pays ongoing homage to the kind of showbiz institution (in this case, itself) that Crystal seems to love. Here Today suggests a kind of perpetual dissatisfaction, like Crystal might be one of those guys complaining that the show isn’t what it used to be, only the call is coming from inside the house. Crystal appeared on around 20 episodes of Saturday Night Live, and he’s still making movies about it years later. Two of his three theatrically released films as a director relate to SNL in some way. This might be what I find most relatable about Crystal; I, too, have difficulty not thinking about Saturday Night Live. As such—if you haven’t already guessed—this piece is the first of a series. I’m hoping to look at every major SNL cast member (and probably plenty of minor ones), usually in the context of a film or films, though I might throw in some books from my extensive SNL memoir library, too. I’ll talk about where they went after their SNL stints, why I have misplaced or perfectly-placed affection for them, and how they work (or not) as movie stars. God willing, it will get better from here.