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Friday, September 29, 2017

Crystal Clear

From the Vault Dept.: As senescence creeps in, I’m often pleasantly reminded of the shows I’ve seen (but by now have forgotten) as I leaf through clippings in a desperate attempt to find meaning in my life. Here’s once such venture, which I made and wrote about in 1986.


The tradition of Vaudeville, long since usurped by television and the movies, demanded that a comedian to prove himself in city after city, year after year. It wearied the bones but preserved material. A few TV shots allow the whole country to become instantly familiar with your act, and the anticipatory applause for Billy Crystal at Proctors on Saturday night proved that the audience was ready to hear it all over again.

Billy Crystal
But they didn’t. Not all of it, at any rate. Crystal is preparing for a Broadway show by bringing material around the country – so there still must be something to that tradition – and he charmed and convulsed a packed house with a show that was much more than a succession of “bits.”

I’ve never seen him on TV, but it’s impossible not to know the man’s reputation. Crystal does characters and bases his routines on them rather than on jokes. He dispatched a few of the audience-expected voices at the start, then launched into a comfortable account of his airplane trip to Schenectady, segueing into movies and then VCRs.

Robert Klein was here not long ago and came up with some free associations that would boggle the mind of James Joyce; Crystal is given to strange flights of fancy, too, but there always were these manic, desperate, and above all funny characters lurking beneath.

When he settled into a groove about his grandfather, he had the voice, gestures, and walk all perfect, along with hilarious material, always tempered by affection, an important ingredient of comedy that’s not always to be found.

He can poke fun at himself, too, as he did when talking about the problem of watching his 13-year-old daughter start taking an interest in the boys. From there it was a logical move to tales of his own first dates.

Other highlights of the show were a silent-movie sequence in which he impersonated his uncle at the family barbecue, and an audience-participation routine in which he acted out a clichéd scene from old African adventure films. The routine itself wasn’t terribly funny, but the way Crystal handled the audience (he asked for jungle noises and the crowd unabashedly responded) was a scream.

He brought out some of his well-known characters, too, and finished on a wistful note with an affectionate portrait of a 75-year-old jazz musician (reflecting the environment in which he grew up – his father owned the Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan).

Dan Riley opened for Crystal. He performs with a guitar, and that’s all he needs. He can supply all the sound effects and back-up vocals anyone might want. His short set began with an Elvis tribute, complete with reverb; “Leader of the Pack” included convincing motorcycle noises and Riley’s incredible vocal range.

“Guantanamera” became “One Ton Tomato” in Riley’s hands; he poked fun at the conventions of C&W and the attraction of Julio Iglesias and Tom Jones before finishing with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which sounded for all the world as if there were four people on stage.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 20 January 1986

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