Sunday, February 26, 2012

800 Words: We Don't Love Billy Crystal Anymore

The Academy, a body with 2% membership under 40, wants a younger demographic to watch their award ceremony. They hire Eddie Murphy, because by younger they mean that they want people who remember 1983. Eddie Murphy backs out, so they go back to Old Faithful, Billy Crystal.

I remember being excited for a Billy Crystal telecast. In 1991, I was nine years old and even I found him hilarious. He was the only reason to watch the world’s most boring award show. Yet every year I seem to end up watching it...why? Because it’s on TV. It’s never because I enjoy watching it. I’m not sure anybody actually enjoys it.

Think of how odd it is to do a song-and-dance at the Oscars in 2012. Hugh Jackman did it back in 2009, but he could sing, and it was to parodies of pop songs released in the viewers’ lifetimes. But when Billy Crystal does it, it’s simply a bad singer singing parodies of the Great American Songbook, an institution appreciated by no one under the age of 55 who doesn’t make a point of listening to things their parents liked. He’s met with nary a peep.

Billy Crystal just messed up a joke, stunned silence. So he did a rewind imitation to come back. Let’s think about that, nobody has rewound with sound since the age when film and sound recording was still reel-to-reel - a medium that hasn’t been common since the 1970’s. Stone silence.

At the beginning of the show, Billy Crystal made a joke about how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is how his family watches the show. It’s a Jewish joke, you either get it or you don’t get it. After the Cirque du Soleil show, he said ”We've got puppets, acrobats, we're a pony away from being a Bar Mitzvah.”

The age difference between Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart is fourteen years. Jon Stewart is resolutely in 2012, Billy Crystal is stuck in 1955. In 1991, the world still found him hilarious. Billy Crystal may have fancied himself a movie star, but he was the best reminder of the ‘Golden Age of Television’ which we had. But now that we've experienced a true Golden Age of Television, what reason do we have to venerate Sid Caesar and Playhouse 90?

If Crystal understood his career, he would have followed Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. No comedian would have better balanced the need to generate revenue with actually producing a good show. Billy Crystal is everything Jay Leno is; professional, personable, tasteful, obsequious....only he’s funny. For over half-a-century, Television, the most Jewish of all art-forms, lacked the one star that would cap all the early Jewish achievements in show business - a successful Jewish Tonight Show host.

Johnny Carson was a righteous gentile, perfectly able to hold his own with dozens of Jewish comedians. But so long as a kid from Nebraska was the host, The Tonight Show was the most goyish institution on television - full of psychic predictions, magic tricks, and hillbilly jokes. But he was the King, and the only way to anoint a successor was to give it over to someone who evokes nostalgia for a time when a King was necessary. There were only two comedians who could have ruled TV in the same way Johnny Carson did: Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. Billy Crystal was a ‘film star’ in the last era when film still had prohibitive cache for its stars to regularly be seen on TV, so he was thought to be unthinkable. But people forget that it was Jerry Seinfeld, not Letterman, whom NBC groomed as Carson’s probable heir throughout the late 80’s.

Thanks to Billy Crystal, our parents’ childhood memories of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jack Benny, Ernie Kovacs, and Henny Youngman had a living relic. Everything which those old comedians were: the willingness to try anything, the manic desire to entertain, the sense that nothing mattered more than pleasing the audience (not to mention the subtle Jewish in-jokes which we love and make the Goyim feel exotic), are sentiments almost utterly gone from contemporary comedy. Most of us not only find it unfunny, most of us aren’t even aware that people once found it funny. What a difference twenty years makes.

Billy Crystal wants to turn back the clock to Bob Hope, but the world moved on to Ricky Gervais. What use is Billy Crystal’s affectionate prodding in a time when Ricky Gervais can accuse award shows of corruption and stars of secret homosexuality to an audience of hundreds of millions, and be invited back? What matters in today’s comedy is that we believe what the comedian tells us. The more awkward, painful, and ‘real’ a comedian is, the more we laugh. We no longer want comedians who delight us. We know too many dark secrets about our society to merely be entertained. From Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce on, we’ve wanted comedians who defiantly proclaim how disgusted we are with the lives around us. From Sahl and Bruce, we get a natural line of succession to Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, to Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy, to Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, to Mitch Hedberg and Chris Rock, to Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle, to Louis CK and Ricky Gervais. If we get any more disgusted with our society, the great comedian of the next era will be Doug Stanhope.

(Doug Stanhope on Sarah Palin. Do not click on this unless you really, REALLY mean it)

But when Billy Crystal takes the stage, we can pretend that all this history no longer exists. Billy Crystal was funny when there was still a possibility to turn back the clock. But now that there isn’t, how is all this still funny?

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