Mr. Mahvelous

(By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007


Where does funny come from? Maybe it comes from a living room at 549 East Park Ave. in Long Beach on Long Island. It is a Sunday afternoon, many years ago. There's been a huge meal -- scary big, Jewish mother big -- and now the furniture is covered with sated uncles, uncles smoking cigars and aunts drinking a little schnapps. The men have unbuckled the belts on their pants. A couple of the women have those upper arms, the ones with the wattles that jiggle when they laugh, and everybody is laughing.

Billy Crystal is 10 years old. He's already what they call in show business a triple threat. He sings, he dances, he acts. "A wild monkey," he remembers. After the cake and coffee would be "the show." Billy got paid in shiny dimes. If you recall Crystal hosting the Academy Awards, which he has done eight times, you have seen him work a room. Tonight, he'll be working the Kennedy Center, where he is to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, our Nobel for funny.

But his living room, when he was a kid? "That was the best room ever," Crystal says. "You have the captive audience, who already likes you. But we never did anything easy. No. We always had good stuff to do. Joel and Rip and I, we had taste." Joel and Rip are his older brothers. They stole bits from Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Phil Silvers. When they'd go "on the road" for Sunday dinner to a relative's house down the block, they'd pack a suitcase, fill it with props.

"Joel always had the wit. He'd play the straight man to my crazy. Rip was a phenomenal personality and more of a singer. I was the little Jerry Lewis. I was the motor. I just couldn't be stopped."

Because? "When you're the youngest, you become the loudest," he says. "When you're the smallest, you become the fastest. I could imitate. I knew no boundaries as far as being dangerous in front of them. So I was fearless. I could imitate all my relatives, the men and the women. I would stand on a table like this," Crystal taps a coffee table with his toe, "and do them -- for them. Oh, I was very accurate. I always had the ability to ad-lib in front of people, whether it be in that little living room or school shows or whatever."

Or whatever. It is part of the arrangement, when a performer is about to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center, to be humble -- and wary.

"He's a real mensch, which is Jewish, you know," explains actor Robin Williams. "Which makes sense, because Billy is a Jew. And so is that famous Jewish comedian, Mark Twain, I think." Williams then describes Crystal as "one of the kindest, most loyal, best men I know." He is being serious now. He asks us to be kind, and you think -- it's Billy Crystal winning an award. Meanness does not compute. "Getting honored like this is not an easy thing," Crystal says.

Because everybody is being too nice, like 'All aboard, next stop, the boneyard'?

"Yeah," Crystal says, "like does this mean I'm going to have to quit now? Because, hey, what a wonderful funeral."

Crystal is seated in his corner office in Beverly Hills; he mentions that Robert Redford has a suite upstairs. Crystal is 59. Doesn't look it. He's a rubber band. His face retains that elastic quality. Smile. Frown. Like flipping a switch. He has theatrical hair. A halo of pouf. Today, he is dressed, as he often is, in black slacks and a black sweater, which makes him appear as if he might suddenly begin to mime, which would be scary and funny. The image draws a nice circle. One of Crystal's first movie roles was Morty the mime in his friend Rob Reiner's 1984 mockumentary classic, "This Is Spinal Tap," where Morty utters the immortal line: "Mime is money."

If you're old enough, you remember a time during the Reagan administration when a person could not pass a day without hearing some clown saying, "You look mahvelous," in the coconut butter delivery coined by Crystal as the unctuous celebrity TV host Fernando on "Saturday Night Live." It was a killer take, as was his Howard Cosell, Prince, Herv┬┐ Villechaize and especially his Sammy Davis Jr. That was 1985.

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