Dan Pasternack grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s, voraciously consuming Looney Tunes cartoons, Marx Brothers’ movies, old-time radio shows, the Dr. Demento radio show, and stand-up comedians on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He went on to become a stand-up comic before embarking on a career in writing, producing, and programming. Dan has been collecting autographed comedy records for most of his life. This is his collection, and these are his stories.
In 2006, I took my father to see Billy Crystal’s balletic one-man show 700 Sundays. It was an extremely significant experience in my life, for many reasons.
If you’ve read my previous essays, you probably understand how much the history of comedy means to me. And you also likely get that I feel especially strongly about the artists with whom I’ve gone on a long journey. Today, I want to pay tribute to a comedian who embodies the history of comedy… and whose work I have a lot of history with.
When Billy Crystal began his career in the early 1970s, the faintest vapor of old-school comedy was still wafting in the air. The venerable variety showcase of The Ed Sullivan Show ended its decades-long run on CBS in 1971. The resorts of the Catskills, where tummlers triumphed and glamorous New York City nightclubs like the Copacabana were all dying off. Young comedians were starting to migrate uptown from the coffeehouses of the Village to the brand new showcase rooms like the Improv and Catch a Rising Star. That’s when and where a baby-faced Billy Crystal quickly rose to the top of his class, joining an elite echelon alongside the likes of Freddie Prinze. In fact, the first time I remember seeing Billy on TV was on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Muhammad Ali where he shared the dais with Prinze along with charter members of the cigar and cuff-link set, including Red Buttons and Foster Brooks. Worlds collide? You bet. But Billy’s dead-on impressions of Howard Cosell and the great Ali, both in attendance, delivered a comedic knockout punch worthy of a future heavyweight champ.
Unlike his counter-culture predecessors such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Cheech and Chong, or even many of his contemporaries, Billy never seemed ill at ease in a tuxedo. And yet, on him, it was never uncool. Maybe because Billy didn’t affect a pretense of cool. He was just always himself and always funny. And I thought that was cool. At the same time that Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and Andy Kaufman were all deconstructing the artifice of show business, each in their own way blowing up the bridges between the past and the present, Billy seemed to relish reinforcing those roads, joyfully repaving them with comic gold.
From the very start, Billy’s comedy nodded affectionately to that beloved, bygone era by peppering his act with a mix of odd, slightly anachronistic celebrity impressions and inspired original characters. His bit about Edward G. Robinson and Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments was an early favorite of mine. And I can’t recall ever laughing harder than when Billy and Robin Williams went into an extended improvised routine as dueling George Jessels. And, of course, Billy’s “Mahvelous” Fernando Lamas took popular culture hostage during his one-year tenure on that all-star season of Saturday Night Live. (Lamas actually died in 1982, and I will bet that the majority of the audience didn’t even know who Billy was doing. And yet it didn’t matter.) But the character that most captivated me and the one that endured above all others was the “kamikaze of comedy,” Buddy Young Jr.
When Buddy first emerged in Billy’s HBO special A Comic’s Line in 19-ba ba-ba-boom, he was kind of an amalgam. Equal parts Jack E. Leonard, Jack Carter, and probably a dozen other Jacks and Jackies with great timing and lousy breaks who were brutal and funny and driven and tortured and often seen as pricks who felt they were screwed over and passed over and passed by. But this earliest incarnation was just an archetype. No history. No makeup. Just a suit, a stogie, and a shit-ton of attitude. A comedy machine gun.
Then when he went to SNL, Billy broadened Buddy with latex and layering. I remember the fake commercial for Buddy’s one-man show that trumpeted, “He’s got his act together … and he’s taking it out on everybody.” (In hindsight, that proved prescient, preceding Jackie Mason’s triumphant comeback vehicle The World According to Me a couple of years later.) And then, on Billy’s next HBO special Don’t Get Me Started in 1986, Billy seemed to settle into the man in the most naturalistic and nuanced way. The mannerisms and makeup all just fit together perfectly. Watching Rob Reiner on that special reprise his This Is Spinal Tap alter ego Marty DiBergi interviewing Buddy is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the pure magic of Rob’s dad, Carl, interviewing Mel Brooks’s 2,000-Year-Old Man.
By the time Billy blew up as a bona fide movie star with box office hits like When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, he was both inclined and able to undertake a long-form exploration of Buddy’s story, ultimately making his feature directorial debut with 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. The film is profoundly personal, as we see Buddy getting his first laughs as a boy performing in the family living room, just as Billy has often recounted in the stories from his own childhood. But the scene that most resonated for me was the one at the Friars Club, where we see Buddy kibitzing with fellow comedy vets Carl Ballantine, Slappy White, and Jackie Gayle. After a quick, hysterical cameo by Jerry Lewis, Buddy is stood up by an important agent, who has sent Annie, a lower-level “pisher” (sensitively portrayed by Helen Hunt) in his stead. At that time, I was a twenty-something agent and was actually representing a few old legends like Milton Berle and Jackie Gayle. I knew their bluster and bravado as well as their pain. I loved them and believed in them, so I felt for both Buddy and Annie in their scenes. The reality of Buddy having to bear the indignity of performing audience warm-up at a sitcom taping, appearing on cheesy game shows, and even in incontinence product commercials was both hilarious and heartbreaking. That combo is such a sweet spot for me.
Cut to last year when Billy brought Mr. Saturday Night to Broadway as a musical. At that point, Billy was seventy-four years old. Even older than Buddy was written to be in the original film. Now playing the character without makeup, the transformation from Billy to Buddy became seamless. Ironically, all of the aged affections had fallen away. It was as though Billy realized the last and most essential element of embodying the septuagenarian. The fire in his belly put a spring in his step. So at last year’s Tony Awards, when Billy did Buddy’s breakout bit, scat-singing in Yiddish and doing Cab Calloway-style call-and-repeats with the audience—even leaping down to trade riffs with Lin Manuel Miranda—the theater became a Borscht Belt showroom, and Billy and Buddy were one. And it was beautiful.
That performance of 700 Sundays back in 2006 was the last show my father ever saw. He died in November of that year. A few weeks later, I attended a Christmas party at the home of my old boss, Fred Silverman, and I ran into Billy. We didn’t know each other well enough that he would have been aware of my dad’s passing. But when he saw me, he somehow just dialed in on my emotional state and asked, “What’s going on? Something’s wrong.” I can’t explain how he knew except to attribute it to his superhuman sensitivity. But in the middle of that party, his kindness and words of comfort meant the world to me.
And so today, on Billy’s seventy-fifth birthday, I just wanted to express my gratitude for everything Billy has given us … given me. At his best, Billy isn’t just powerfully funny. He also has the rare ability to convey tremendous humanity, just as the most magnificent maestros of mirth have done. He belongs in the pantheon with the heroes that I know mean so much to him as well. Happy birthday, Billy. And like Buddy, may you stay forever Young. (You see what I did there?)
Watch Dan’s Television Academy interview with Billy from 2018.