Have you read: Getting reacquainted with Billy Crystal
March 27, 2006
“700 Sundays” by Billy Crystal
Going to high school in a very small town during the mid-1980s left a great deal of down time for a group of us bored teenagers to watch late night television. Monty Python, Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live were the usual fare at whoever’s house we could get away with laughing a little too loud, throwing the occasional Tostitos corn chip and generally carrying on as young adults will.
During those evenings of ridiculous antics, I began to appreciate the comedic talents of Billy Crystal. We were too young to have really understood his brilliant work as Jodie Dallas in the ’70s sit-com “Soap,” but those episodes of SNL were enough to leave the room in stitches. Then came all the movies: “Spinal Tap,” “Running Scared,” “The Princess Bride,” not to mention “Throw Mama from the Train,” with the indisputable genius of Danny DeVito. We were drawn ever deeper into the spasms of laughter and guffaws brought on by Crystal’s amazing characterizations and jokes.
As you might imagine, I was quite anxious for the release of Crystal’s book, “700 Sundays,” around Halloween of last year. With only a handful of appearances in movies and television over the last decade, this seemed like a great chance to get reacquainted with some of those fond memories from my youth. As soon as the book came out, I grabbed a copy and took it home to indulge myself.
Just as I had hoped, it started off like the old days, with zingy one-liners used to tell a very amusing story about the 9-year-old Billy’s father bringing home a new car, taking the family out for Chinese food and having the car wrecked by a gangster all in the first day. It was great, just like sitting around on those long nights watching comedy on one of the only three channels we got in my hometown. Not surprising, since this book is based on Crystal’s one-man Broadway play of the same name, sort of stand-up comedy in print.
But then the story begins to evolve, to become a memoir rather than a routine, an account of a not-so-mundane childhood told through the shtick of a seasoned comic and actor who has done his time in clubs, television and movies. At first I was a bit put off – the jokes were not coming as fast as I had hoped, my stomach didn’t hurt from doubled- over laughter, there were no tears in my eyes to be wiped away so I could read more. The story had content, indeed it was compelling in a way that was far from just jokes and mispronunciations, there was merit and depth to the writing. Suddenly my appreciation for Crystal increased yet again: Here was not only the good old funny man I used to like, but an intelligent author with something to write about.
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The book is short, only 175 pages, but brims with wonderful accounts of a young man growing up in Long Island. From the story of Crystal’s uncle Milt, who started the Commodore music label and recorded Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” when no one else would, to Louis Armstrong at the Crystal family seder, with Crystal’s grandma telling the gravelly voiced singer, “Louis, have you tried just coughing it up?” the book flows delightfully from scene to scene, revealing a family both strange and oddly familiar.
The real centerpiece of “700 Sundays” is Jack Crystal, the author’s father and influential Jazz promoter who worked two jobs and died early in Billy Crystal’s life, inspiring the title which is the estimate of how many Sundays they had together. A compelling work of comedy, family and life this book will find it’s way into the heart of the reader by one route or another.
-Michael Stroschein is co-owner/manager of Neighbors Bookstore in the Village Center.