“Here Today,” now in theaters, is about a seasoned comedy writer grappling with the onset of dementia years after the death of his wife. Crystal directed the film and co-wrote the script alongside original SNL writer Alan Zweibel, both of them inspired by that era of their lives. Now, of course, Crystal is older and pondering the larger questions in life: What does it mean to lose the thing that drives you?
The answer to that question might be somewhat similar for Crystal — who caught a bit of flak last week for saying comedy is “becoming a minefield” — to what it is for his character, Charlie Burnz, who struggles to connect with some of his younger co-workers on a show clearly modeled after SNL. But the main relationship in “Here Today” is the friendship between Charlie and Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish), a singer who spites her ex-boyfriend by stealing his auctioned lunch with Charlie.
Speaking to The Washington Post on Thursday, Crystal, 73, discussed his on- and off-screen bond with Haddish; his thoughts on the Oscars, which he has hosted nine times before; and his decision to return to the director’s chair for the first time in two decades.
Q: Why return to directing after so long?
A: Because I loved writing this. When Alan Zweibel and I were jumping into this story, I knew I had to be the one to tell it. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. I had such a personal relationship with [someone] who was going through what Charlie goes through in the movie — an aunt of mine, who was a brilliant writer and was losing her words, as she said. I loved where the story was going and said, “Alan, I’m going to direct this.”
Q: Your character in the movie also says he’s a writer losing his words. What was the draw in telling that story?
A: The whole opening of the movie is a true story — the auction lunch happened to Alan Zweibel. We’ve been friends for 48 years, and I saw him on the Letterman show talking about this horrible charity auction thing that happened to him, that ended up costing him $2,300. I wrote to him as he was on the show going, “Alan, this is a great way to start a movie. How did these people meet? Who are they? Where do they go?”
There was an important person in both of our lives at SNL … and his name was Herb Sargent. Herb was in his 50s and nobody else was. I thought, “That would be a fascinating character.” [Charlie’s] currency is his words, but he’s going broke. That really gave us a great dramatic and funny thing to write about — to be funny, but also respectful of this kind of illness.
Q: You set a lot of the movie at the show [modeled after SNL]. What went into that decision?
A: We knew the world well. Everything rings perfectly true, what you see — the writing meetings, the pitch meetings. The room looks right. I cast really wonderful, talented actors who all had that. They could all be on SNL … Alan and I would tell them, it has to be here, that should be there, the band would be there. All that planning went into it to make it look authentic.
Q: Tell me about casting Tiffany.
A: I happened to see Tiffany hosting “Saturday Night Live.” I had not seen “Girls Trip,” but I saw her, which was more important. I saw her be really funny, really charming, endearing, self-effacing, confident … spunky and dangerous. You know, dangerous in that way, a “what’s she going to say next?” kind of thing. You don’t see that a lot.
We got her the script. She actually was in Africa at the time and said she wanted to meet me. She got off the plane, totally jet-lagged after 22 hours on a plane, and we met. It’s one thing that the talent is so great, but I was looking for more than that in meeting her. I was looking to find her heart, just her without the makeup and without that white dress she wore all the time. Who is she? We talk about it, and she was moving her grandmother — Tiffany was moving her into her house to take care of her because she had dementia. And that’s what happens in this movie.
Q: How did your relationship grow from there? There’s a scene in the film where your character’s granddaughter has a bat mitzvah, and I know you were at Tiffany’s actual bat mitzvah as well.
A: We wrote this before I knew of her and when we met, she said, “You know, I started performing at bat mitzvahs.” They’re energizers. They get people up to dance, to perform for the kids. That’s what she did. So when we got to that scene … it was like second nature to her.
Q: I assume she didn’t play that role at her own bat mitzvah.
A: No. During the shoot, a rabbi would come to the set, and other religious people … I was like, “What are you doing?” “Tiffany’s studying, she’s going to be bat mitzvahed.” “Really? Now that’s a great thing.” It was actually — Sarah Silverman’s sister is a rabbi. After we finished shooting — it was right before Thanksgiving, I believe — [Tiffany] had a bat mitzvah and asked me to be one of the people who gives a certain kind of blessing in Hebrew before she’s going to read from the Torah. That’s usually something either a father or uncle does in this tradition, in this service. The fact that she asked me was very emotional and endearing to me.
Q: I want to switch gears a little bit. Given that you’ve hosted the Oscars so many times —
A: Ah, I knew this was coming.
Q: Did you watch the show?
A: Has it been on? Is it on?
Q: Well ―
A: I did, I did. I’m really proud of the nine times I hosted because what we tried to do on the show was be entertaining and celebrate the movies and make it a pleasing experience for the audience and keep it going. An hour into it, four out of every five people have lost, so you have a room of unhappy people. Given these difficult times, I was hoping the show would’ve been more entertaining. And that’s what I miss. I wasn’t even in the mood to celebrate anything, because people are sick. People are critically ill. People are hungry. People are broke. Do we really need to see millionaires give each other gold statues? I don’t know. They tried something interesting, but interesting has to be entertaining. And I think that was missing.
Q: Yeah, there was definitely that weird juxtaposition you mentioned, the Oscars going on right now.
A: Yeah, and I just thought that it’s, you know — I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Q: This is only somewhat related, but speaking of two different tones — I was curious about your decision to make this film a comedy.
A: But we’re never light about the illness. There’s a very funny exchange where [Tiffany’s character] ends up in bed with [mine], just because she’s scared of lightning. He says, “Where have you been? Where have I been?” But there’s great respect for those who are suffering and those who suffer with them, for their families. To pull it off, [we had to] surround it in a bed of comedy about other things. Our relationship with each other always has humor in it and always has — ah, I’m going to use the word — romance in it. It’s charming in that way. And it’s real and it’s a fine tightrope to walk, which as a director was a great challenge.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.