Mr Natural

Billy Crystal in Auckland, July 21

Oh he makes it look so easy. Billy Crystal is relaxed, comfortable, unfussed. He’s invited us around for a chat and a catch up. We might be sitting in his living room, or around a campfire. It feels intimate, it’s just that the gathering around this particular campfire numbers a couple of thousand. We’re at the ASB Theatre in Auckland for the first of his two shows in the city.

Perhaps “show” isn’t the right word. And although he’s on his feet quite a bit, it’s not a stand up routine either. Rather, Billy Crystal is simply sharing stories and jokes from his long and successful career, with Aussie Andrew Denton sitting alongside him prompting him from one chapter to the next, and video clips interspersed here and there.

It all sounds rather simple, and, more importantly, intimate. That surely is the trick. He is a 68 year old grandfather who has honed his craft and his timing and his reading of an audience to the extent that you could imagine him telling you the same stories sitting next to you on the sofa.

Billy Crystal (his real name, by the way) has a lot of content to cover. We’re given an insight into his early family life, how he got started in showbusiness, and how bodily functions played a key role in his early public appearances.

The evening’s tales are peppered with great names from entertainment and sports – Ali, Nicolson, De Niro, Loren, and of course his late dear friend Robin Williams. It’s not all laughs all the way. How does a white Jewish comedian strike up a decades long friendship with the most famous black muslim sportsman ever? Yet he did, with Muhammad Ali’s family asking him to deliver a eulogy at Ali’s funeral. He sounds genuinely stricken, still, by the death three years ago of Robin Williams.

But mostly there is a lightness of touch which is impossible not to like. The stories are quite edgy at times, but even when it feels like he’s putting the boot into someone – Orson Welles and Charles Bronson for example – he finds a way to soften the blow.

You’d expect to hear about THAT scene from When Harry Met Sally, and you’d expect to hear about all those years fronting the Oscars. Billy Crystal doesn’t disappoint. Having said that, there is an opportunity missed, in front of a New Zealand audience, to make something of this country’s grand night at the Oscars when the third Lord of the Rings movie swept all before it. Maybe he is saving that for the second night.

As relaxed as the evening is, it’s a planned performance, and some of the most entertaining moments come when Crystal demonstrates his quick wittedness on his feet, snapping out an impromptu one liner or two when he’s talking directly to the audience. No wonder he makes us feel at home. For him, the stage is home.


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