Billy Crystal was the last of his two brothers and his entire Hebrew school class to get bar mitzvahed, so, as a boy, he knew what was coming at his Long Island Reform synagogue: After the Torah reading, the lights would be dimmed, the heavenly organ music would start playing and the arc would be closed.
“As the music reached a crescendo, the rabbi, the most learned and trusted man in the Jewish community, would lean over and whisper some sacred, poignant and holy words to the chosen one, and then seconds later the thirteen-year-old ‘man’ would burst into tears,” the comedian writes in his new memoir, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve been, Where I’m Going and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” (Henry Holt and Company).
Crystal had always asked his friends and brothers what the rabbi said, but no one would give him an answer. “You’ll find out when it’s your turn,” they told him. When the big day finally arrived, (March 25, 1961), young Billy read from the Torah then was motioned for by the rabbi for the crucial moment. “Count to ten, go into the audience, kiss your mother and grandparents and come back on stage,” was all the rabbi said. Crystal, like those before him, started to cry. He couldn’t believe that after 5,000 years of collective anguish and suffering, not to mention having the tip of his penis cut off, this was the only advice he got. The rabbi told him never to discuss it with anyone – “with a look in his eye that said, Tell anyone, and I’ll cut the rest of your penis off.”
Crystal never said a word to anyone. Until now.
Don’t expect “Still Foolin ’Em” – written on the occasion of his milestone 65th birthday – to give away many deep, dark secrets or dish dirt about other comedians and celebrities. The amusing memoir intersperses autobiographical chapters by decade covering his childhood, marriage and career, with chapters musing about all things aging, including insomnia (“When you can’t sleep, every night is Yom Kippur. ‘Why did I say that to that schmuck? Okay, he was a schmuck, but why did I say that? After all he is the pope.’”), sex (“Him: Can we try something new? Her: Oy”) and religion (“When we did get to the Promised Land, we claimed the only place in the Middle East that doesn’t have a drop of oil under it. So much for Jews being the chosen people.”)
Meant to appeal to the boomer generation, “Still Foolin ’Em” lacks the gravitas of his previous book, “700 Sundays,” which was based on his one-man show about his relationship with his father, who died when Crystal was only 15. (The book’s title refers to the number of Sundays he got to spend with his dad.) But if one reads “Still Foolin’ ’Em” - filled with cheerful, kibitzing one-liners in Crystal’s bonhomie - it is easy to understand how this short Jewish kid from Long Island, who’s managed to stay married to one woman since he was 22, got to be one of America’s most beloved comedians.
Crystal started out in a comedy troupe, but always knew he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He got his first real break with his imitations, first of sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, then of Muhammad Ali – then both simultaneously in a TV special honoring the famed boxer. “Howard,” he said in Ali’s voice to his own Cosell, “from now on, I want to be known as Izzy Yishkowitz. Chaim the greatest of all time! It’s Jewish boxing. You don’t hit the guy, you just make him feel guilty.”
Crystal was excited by every success on his climb to fame – from “The Johnny Carson Show” to the “Soap” sitcom to “Saturday Night Live” (most famous for his “Fernando’s Hideaway,” “You look mahvelous” skit) to his movie career (“Running Scared,” “The Princess Bride,” “Throw Momma from the Train,” “City Slickers”) – and peppers his account with enough failures along the way to not make it seem inevitable. We learn that “Still Foolin’ ’Em” is actually the sentence he says to himself before every live performance, as if he doesn’t believe he deserves his level of fame. Hollywood lovers will appreciate Crystal’s genuinely close relationships with celebrities from baseball’s Mickey Mantle to the real Ali and director Rob Reiner. But those looking for “what makes him tick” may find that Crystal lacks the deep introspection that might make his journey more compelling.
What Crystal seems to want is simple: a good family (he married off his two daughters and is now a grandfather of four), a fulfilling career and a chance to play for the New York Yankees – which he did, for a day.
Although he fears getting older, he wants to age gracefully. “The key to having a happy time as you develop chicken hands is you just have to stay upbeat and optimistic, even as you’re trying to make your comb-over not look like Rudy Giuliani circa 1999. Stay positive!” he writes.
As they age, most people want to find comfort in God, Crystal writes. Although he likes the positive tenets of Judaism -- fairness, education, respect, kindness – he is unable to believe in a God that took his father at 15, or caused Vietnam, World War II and Hurricane Sandy (which destroyed his hometown of Long Beach, NY).
Even so, Crystal writes, he wants to reconnect to God. “I want something to hold on to because I want to believe there is something better, something after this.” Crystal says he fears that after he dies he will be at the pearly gates, and God will call him over and say, “Count to ten, turn around, kiss your parents and grandparents and come back on stage...and never discuss what I told you.”