Billy Crystal is cooking.

He's hot, babe, know what I'm saying?

Wiry as a Bronx street punk, he purses his pudgy lips and arches his left eyebrow.

"You llooook . . ."

He stops dead, the spotlight freezing his tiny figure on a stage the size of a soccer field. "You know what I'm saying to you dahrlings." The audience at Wolf Trap goes bonkers. "SAY IT!" they cry, pounding their fists in frustration.

Crystal, the 37-year-old latest supernova from NBC's "Saturday Night Live," knows what they want. They want to hear those three dippy words that delivered the comedian Federal Express-style from prime-time dropout ("Soap") and yuppie Rich Little to cult phenomenon.

Tonight he's making them wait, flashing that lomo saltado smile of "Fernando," the unctuous macho reincarnation of the late-'50s Latin heartthrob Fernando Lamas.

"You know, so many people say to me 'Nando . . . "

The crowd roars. He stabs the air with his index finger, waves it a little. "You know who you are." Deafening cheers. He's teasing them. The timing is perfect.

"You llloook . . ." Suddenly the place explodes, as possibly 2 million Fernando freaks finish the sentence in unison.

"MAHHHVELOUS."

Like Steve Martin's "Excuuuse me," Crystal's catch phrase has become part of the national act. Every smart aleck has adopted it, from fifth-grade spitball champions to stand-up comics in the Catskills to Sports Illustrated writers.

At Madison Square Garden recently, the New York Knicks were playing the Philadelphia 76ers. It's a double-overtime game with 12 seconds left. The 76ers' Maurice Cheeks walks up the court to the foul line. The game is on the line. He spots Billy Crystal sitting in the stands, behind the bench.

"Hey," he stops. "You look marhvelous."

Cheeks turns to his teammates, pointing to Crystal. "Hey. That's the marvelous man."

The last time Crystal walked into his favorite Chinese restaurant in New York, the maitre d' greeted him with a smile.

" 'How are you?' " Crystal laughs, imitating the maitre d'. " 'You rook marvelous.' "

Crystal is so hot it's unbelee-ee-vable. He's coming out with a comedy album titled (what else) "You Look Marhvelous," plus a video, plus an NBC special, "A Comedy Salute to Baseball," July 15. This fall he's set to star in a comedy film, "Running Scared," opposite Gregory Hines and directed by Peter ("Outland," "2010") Hyams.

He plays the white guy.

"I think so. Which will be a switch for me."

For Little Billy Crystal, previously known for his portrayal of television's first homosexual (Jody on "Soap") and his ability to mimic such eminently mimicable figures as Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali, Yul Brynner and Howard Cosell, not to mention nasty nightclub comic Buddy Young Jr. ("You're from New Jersey? What exit?"), it's been a long time coming. Ten years too long. That's when Crystal was bumped from the first "Saturday Night Live" show.

"It was awful. A huge disappointment. Gilda Radner and everyone was crying."

Scheduled for six appearances that first season, Crystal was being groomed as the show's only noncelebrity host. That night, he was to be a featured guest. But he pulled out after the producers wanted to cut a six-minute sketch to two minutes. "Being the first show, I was scared. I wanted to come off well. They couldn't do what we wanted."

His managers told him to bag it. One hour before air time, he left the studio, tears streaming down his cheeks, streaking his makeup.

"I couldn't wait to get out of there. I was so embarrassed and didn't know what was happening."

He took the train back to Long Island and watched the show on television, thinking, "I blew it." For the next decade, he would watch the original "SNL" ensemble take off: John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner.

Crystal was still on the sidelines, whispering, I could have been a contenda. Now, 10 years later, he has returned in triumph, and along with Martin Short is credited with injecting new life into "SNL's" tired format.

Producer Dick Ebersol called him "the most professional, hardest-working, most dedicated person I've ever worked with in my life."

TV Guide gushed, "Crystal brings what 'SNL' has too often lacked in recent years, polish and professionalism."

Finally recognized as a bona fide comedic star, Crystal -- who writes all his own material -- joins the 3M Company (Martin, Murphy and Murray) as one of the country's most famous funny men.

"I'm ready now," he says simply.

When Sammy Davis Jr. called Crystal recently, he got a taped message on the answering machine. It was Crystal doing a flawless Sammy Davis Jr.

"Hi. Not here now, babe. Making a video with Frank." Crystal suppresses a grin. "Then I heard, 'This is too wacky for me. What the hell's going on?' He hung up. I haven't spoken to him since. I think he's angry."

Born in Manhattan, Billy Crystal (his real name. Unbee-ee-lievable) was the youngest of three boys. His father owned a record store, the Commodore Music Store and Commodore Records, a jazz label. The family moved to the Bronx for two years, then to Long Beach, Long Island, where Billy spent his early, often deranged, but not entirely unformative, years.

"When you're the youngest and the shortest, you're the loudest," he says, sitting on a couch in his hotel room before a recent appearance. "It was a small house."

He swings his legs over the arm. He's the Devil in disguise, wearing a Puckish grin, tight jeans, a plaid shirt and Reeboks on his tiny feet. He's shorter than he feels, older than he looks, smarter than he sounds, in his nasally Noo Yawk accent.

"My dad insisted that instead of 'The Three Stooges' we watch 'Laurel and Hardy.' Tasty things. He would bring comedy albums home from the store.

"My older brother was bedridden for about two years. So to pass the time, we'd be Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. We'd do our own shows. The three of us would be 'The Nairobi Trio with Ernie Kovacs.' "

Crystal has been making people laugh nearly all his life.

"I can't explain it. I know that I always did it. It started with the relatives. I would get up and do them. I was a 6-year-old Don Rickles. 'Look at Uncle Max . . . Blah. Blah. Blah.' They'd give me dimes. I'd stick them on my head."

He slaps his forehead with his palm.

"When my forehead was filled with coins, the show was over. I'd go in the back and my brothers would say, 'Howja do?'

"If the relatives were too loud, I was in the room with the coats. We'd put on their stuff and go out and be them."

He can't explain the obsession.

"It's some sort of natural competition. 'Love me. Love me.' It's just attention. Plus we loved it. We'd love to see them giggle. When they would laugh, they'd go . . . "

He leans over, throwing his arms around an imaginary child in a bear hug. "Grrrrrrr." He smiles. "That was a good place to be."

Did he ever bomb?

"No. The living room was a good room for me. The bombing came later."

. . . 'Cause I remember how I was. You know, that's why guys get a little cranky. They remember how they were at 15 years old. They get that little mustache. Look like half the women in New Jersey, know what I'm saying?

I was the comedian. The clown was the guy, last football game, freezing cold weather, the clown is on the field naked. I was the comedian. (Pause) I was the guy who talked him into doing it.

Hey Uncle Danny, how ya doin? Could you have MORE hair on your back? Is that possible? Why don't you just trim the hair on your back. And your ears, too. You look like a koala bear. Hey, you look good today. Why don't you wear a bathing suit and black socks more?

At Long Beach High School, Billy Crystal was voted the wittiest in his class. His heroes, he says now, were a pretty eclectic group.

"Mickey Mantle, Ernie Kovacs, Laurel and Hardy. I used to love the "Ed Sullivan Show" because the comics would be on. Alan King always used to make me laugh. Mike Nichols, Woody Allen , Jonathan Winters. Cosby, I think, because when you played his albums he'd talk to you. Tell you stories about the family. I thought, 'I've got stories about the family. I can talk about Uncle Max. I can talk about my grandmother.'

"We had this mixture of Jewish ethnic people with great love and sense of humor. Throw into that black jazz musicians," friends of his father's from the record store. "What a group. All at the bar mitzvah together."

For one school show, Crystal -- who was also an avid baseball player -- did his own version of Cosby's infamous "Noah" routine.

"Years later, friends would come up to me and say, 'You know this guy Bill Cosby is doing yer stuff.' "

He went to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., but left after freshman year. "It was a little too off-Broadway." He wound up at Nassau Community College on Long Island, where he suffered from terminal shyness. He couldn't audition for any plays, he says now. "Then one day I walked in and said, 'If you give me $100, I can direct and produce "The Fantasticks." ' For some reason, they let me do it. It was a smash."

In 1970, after his draft number came up 354, he married Janice (his one and only wife). They had met years earlier when they were both camp counselors. Then he formed a comedy group called "3's Company" and began touring the country, playing auto shows and colleges.

"You played over the sound of sizzling hot dogs in the cafeteria. We'd get into my VW and travel all around."

By 1974 he was making $4,000 a year, was moonlighting as a substitute teacher and had a wife and a 10-month-old daughter. That year he took a loss of $2,200 (expenses for the group) and the tax auditor took Janice aside and said, "Why is he in this business? He's losing money."

Janice just smiled. "It's in his blood."

Crystal's managers, Buddy Morra and Larry Brezner (who make up half of the talent management firm Rollins, Joffe, Morra & Brezner, whose clients include Woody Allen and Robin Williams), convinced the young comic that to be a success he had to work alone. Develop a point of view, they said. Crystal was technically a fine comedian, but he lacked a persona.

Then Crystal got a call from a friend at New York University. They needed a comic for a fraternity party that Saturday night. Although he had never worked alone, Crystal volunteered.

He put together an Ali-Cosell interview, did a four-minute "Wizard of Oz" bit and perfected his midget walk. "They wanted 20 minutes . I did an hour and 10."

He was a hit. They loved him.

"It was," he says now, "like throwing an anvil off my heart."

He was 6 years old again, back with the relatives.

"It was a living room set," he recalls, not exactly surprised. And the ghost of Uncle Max was chuckling in the corner.

"They were all there."

He began working clubs. Making money. But in beating his fear of success, he was faced with a new demon. Guilt.

"I'm always conscious of doing better than my brothers and mother," he says. Reportedly, Crystal earned $25,000 per "SNL" appearance last year. "It's very difficult sometimes. It bothers me that I make more for an appearance than my father did in a year."

After Crystal was canned from the first "Saturday Night Live," he did "Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell," then moved to Los Angeles. Then, in 1977, came "Soap."

The show was a hit, running four years, but Crystal says it was a bittersweet experience.

"For all the years I did 'Soap' I never felt good about the success I was getting. I was doing good work, but it wasn't what I wanted. It wasn't me. You wait a long time for the right thing."

He did a widely unappreciated feature film directed by Joan Rivers, "Rabbit Test," then in 1982 was hired by NBC to host "The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour."

It was canceled after two shows.

"They wanted me to be a male Carol Burnett. That's what they were calling me in the press releases. I had a producer who didn't understand funny. It was an awful period. Just the worst."

Crystal learned of the show's cancellation when he read it in The New York Times.

"That's a rough one.

"I went away in my brain and said, 'What do I do to get better? I don't want to do television anymore. I went out on the road and I just started working."

There was, he says now, "a sense of relief. The whole experience was so terrible and draining. It was like, 'Phhhhew. Not ready.' "

He worked steadily, building up his act and his confidence. He hosted several "Saturday Night Live" shows and did a well-received HBO special.

"There's a great rush being on stage. There are some nights you know it's going to be hot. I don't sit down before a show. I pace. I walk. There are nights when I feel like a bull in the rodeo. 'Coming out of Chute 3. Come on, lemme out.' BOOM. It's great."

Being on stage, he says, "makes me feel alive. It makes me 6-2, a hundred and eighty-five. I like that."

What is he in reality?

"Six-two. A hundred and eighty."

Crystal takes the microphone, and walks to the edge of the stage. He's been on for more than an hour, doing Fernando, Yul Brynner, a teen-age boy in heat and a hilarious takeoff of a jungle movie.

Now he's doing Willie, a nerdy messenger who pines for the secretary from Shadelman Suits. Willie has a strange penchant for self-mutilation, and whines, "I-I-I hate when that happens."

Tonight Crystal is hot. The audience is maybe hotter. Most of them are familiar with the routine.

"The other day I had nothin' to do," Crystal begins, "so I took one of them . . . "

"MEAT THERMOMETERS," a guy in the third row yells.

"Meat thermometers, right. I stuck it in my ear just to see how far I could get it to go. It popped out of my head. I looked like the living unicorn from the Ringling Brothers Circus."

Pause.

"I-I-I hate when that happens."

The applause shakes the foundation of the Filene Center.

"So I took one of those . . . "

"SELF-THREADING MOVIE PROJECTORS," another guy yells.

"Self-threading movie projectors, right," Crystal repeats. "And I put my tongue in it, you know? My tongue goes up and down and then it got stuck against the . . .

"RED-HOT PROJECTOR BULB," comes a voice from the crowd.

Crystal is trying not to laugh. "It was sizzling up pretty good," he says, "I was smellin' smoke for about five minutes but it was jammed and I couldn't get it out so I took a um . . . "

"SHRIMP FORK," a concert-goer screams.

"Shrimp fork, right," Crystal says, eyes bugging out of his head.

Then he pauses. The tension is building.

"I-I-I love when that happens."

The crowd explodes. He's Mount St. Helens. Human lava.

For a split second, even Crystal looks amazed.

"The guy knew shrimp fork," he mutters to himself.

Billy Crystal says it took him 10 seconds to decide to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live" last year.

Even after getting burned 10 years ago.

"That was an old wound," he says. "I don't hold grudges that way."

He uprooted Janice and their two daughters, Jennifer and Lindsay, and against the advice of friends who thought it would look like a desperate career move, returned to New York. " 'I gotta show them,' I thought."

He was getting tired of the road. "I got to play to more than 2,000 people at a time."

After all the years of frustration, Crystal took his best shot.

"There was a slight vengeance to my work this year," he says with a sly smile. "I think I was a little driven at times."

His Fernando was inspired, and may be the most memorable shtick (along with Martin Short's Ed Grimley) of the 1985 season. Many people, including Phyllis George on the "CBS Morning News," have asked Crystal what Lamas, who died in 1983, thought of it.

"The greatest thing was, I met Esther, Esther Williams Lamas' widow . It was at that 'Night of 1,000' or 'Night of a Hundred Face Lifts.' No, a hundred stars. Anyway, she grabbed me and whispered, 'You look mahrvelous.'

"We spoke for about an hour. She told me how much Fernando had loved it. He had seen it on my show in '82. She told me things to talk about, things to do. Phony macho things she loves."

The year was a great personal triumph.

"It's a great sense of satisfaction to finally, for me, feel I'm in the right place. Then you're in the right place and things happen."

The fate of "Saturday Night Live" is uncertain. Producer Dick Ebersol has left, and negotiations to bring back former producer Lorne Michaels fell through. The show, Crystal says, will not return in September. If it is revived one more time, it will most likely be in January and will be entirely taped.

"It's a bitch to do that show," he sighs, but hopes to be among the cast if the show does come back.

By comparison, the baseball special airing next month was a cinch. It also fulfilled one of Crystal's childhood dreams: to play catch with Mickey Mantle.

"I just started to cry," he says. "It was amazing. He hit a lot of home runs, 530 or something, and he said, 'Yeah, but some of them I didn't hit very well. They went out because I was strong.'

"That's one thing I've really learned in the last few years. You talk about why now? It's the muscle."

He moves back to L.A. next week and is currently rewriting the script for "Running Scared" with director Peter Hyams, and it could do for Crystal what "48 Hrs." did for Eddie Murphy. But the live performances are likely to continue.

"If this film happens, great," he says, suddenly seeming smaller and more vulnerable. "I also know," he adds, hugging his bony shoulders and growling softly like Uncle Max, "I love the living room."