Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
A king in the realm of legitimizing the concept of ‘schtick’, Billy Crystal’s seventeen-episode SNL run pales in comparison to his iconic film work and reputation as the most reliable award ceremony emcee since Bob Hope. Whether it was his yen for bigger feature film roles, his desire to be center stage rather than part of an ensemble, his tainted memories of being dropped from the premiere episode in 1975, or just bad timing, Crystal’s SNL career was notably brief. Like Crystal, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer were brought in as late-inning ringers by producer Dick Ebersol as part of a last-ditch effort to revitalize the show before Michaels returned the following season. There’s little doubt that Crystal’s showbiz moxie and refusal to ever “phone it in” might have helped greatly in preventing SNL from dying an untimely death, so however brief his stint, he still played a part in the show’s greater evolution.
Crystal was born in New York and grew up the youngest of three sons on Long Island. Thanks to his father’s job as a jazz music executive, producer, and cofounder of Commodore Records, Crystal grew up around plenty of jazz stars and showbiz types like Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, and Billie Holiday (who babysat Crystal on several occasions). While he first tried stand-up comedy when he was sixteen, Crystal also had a passion for baseball inherited from his father, who had pitched for St. John’s University. After playing all throughout high school and earning the title of varsity captain his senior year, Crystal accepted a baseball scholarship from West Virginia’s Marshall University. The school’s baseball program, however, was suspended during Crystal’s freshman year, so he moved back to New York and shifted his focus back to performing, studying theater at Nassau Community College then film at NYU, where he briefly studied under Martin Scorsese.
Crystal got his big break from stand-up and won acclaim from his recurring role as one of the first openly gay characters on television, Jodie Dallas on the hit series Soap from 1977-1981. He also had been set to appear on SNL’s premiere episode in 1975, but he was bumped after dress rehearsal due to time – Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” performance was chosen instead. According to Live from New York (which chronicles Crystal’s status as an almost-original cast member for five pages), when Crystal was offered a job at SNL by Dick Ebersol nine years later in 1984, he accepted it with a $25,000-per-show salary alongside his Spinal Tap pals Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest, SCTV star Martin Short, Fridays’ Rich Hall, and UK comedy star Pamela Stephenson. Crystal says in Live from New York:
Dick Ebersol was a great producer for all of us in that way. It was an awkward situation where Harry. Marty, and Chris and I came in and yet there were still some remaining cast members from the year before – Jim Belushi, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mary Gross, Gary Kroeger. So it wasn’t Us versus Them, but there was definitely the sense that they were veterans with perhaps different sensibilities. This had been their turf, and here we come in. And there had to be a melding of the two. We had very specific ideas about what was to be the tone of that ear after coming off some bad times for the show.
SNL’s tenth season lasted only seventeen episodes, but Crystal still racked up a list of recurring characters, channeling his love for baseball into sports fan characters like Tony Minetti and Lew Goldman, and paying homage to the Borcht Belt comics he knew from childhood via Buddy Young Jr., a faded Catskills headliner whose insults seemed less funny and more bitter with each new gray hair. The Spinal Tap chemistry (“Mime is money!”) he shared with Christopher Guest was also put to use in several hit recurring duos like prank toy company owners Al and Herb Minkman, Ricky and Phil the spitfire insulters, and the whiny talky oddjob-working New Yorkers Willie and Frankie and their trademark “Don’t ya hate it when” mantra. Crystal also impersonated John F. Kennedy, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Joe Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr. in blackface, and Argentine talk show host Fernando Lamas (You look marvelous!”), who he appeared as 11 times during his 17-episode stint.
Despite Crystal’s consistent presence on air, he wasn’t asked back the following season, but he found some great ways to utilize his skills: 1987’s The Princess Bride endeared him to people who had long since stopped watching SNL, and his 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally… was so huge he became a household name. Later there were City Slickers I and II (1991, 1994), Analyze This (1999), and the voice of Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc. (2001), not to mention his steady hosting gigs on The Emmy and Academy Awards over the past twenty years. He also wrote, directed, and starred in his old film projects, Mr. Saturday Night (as his SNL character Buddy Young Jr.) in 1992 and Forget Paris in 1995 and earned an Emmy nomination for directing the TV movie 61* in 2001. He also won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2007 and a 2005 Tony Award for his one-man play 700 Sundays, in which he retells stories of his childhood and Jewish family in Long Island. According to The Washington Post, “No one does Jewish relatives with gas better than Crystal.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.