Sunday, February 23, 2014

Still Foolin' Em: Billy Crystal at his Best


Comedy is often built on tragedy. Memoirs are a form of literature that often mines a person’s tragedy to create universal feelings in the reader. Billy Crystal’s Still Foolin’ Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys is a brilliant memoir from a supremely funny man. Much like Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up it serves as both a career retrospective piece as well as means for Crystal to show some of the events that shaped the performer we see.

My first memory of Billy Crystal as a performer was in the film The Princess Bride. I wasn’t old enough to watch some of his films like When Harry Met Sally… although I’ve since gone back and watched those films. Crystal’s ability to be both poignant and hilarious, sometimes in the same scene, made him a gem to watch on film. My favorite moments, though, were when Billy, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg emceed the Comic Relief events. Three of the best improvisational comedians of a generation on stage is a treat for anyone who enjoys stand-up comedy.
All of those moments are present in Still Foolin’ Em. Crystal began writing this book as he neared his 65th birthday and there is an older man’s flare in the writing. Everything, from the jokes to the human moments of pathos, is written with a steady hand and an eye for telling a good story. I mentioned on one of my previous reviews of a memoir that if a writer wants to tell the truth, they write fiction; if a writer wants to tell a good story, they write non-fiction. That axiom is true for Crystal’s book in spades. The stories strewn throughout the book tell a wonderful story, with plenty of emotion that covers the ranges we humans can possess.
The stories surrounding his career have a subtle pace to them, as if Crystal were revisiting the moments that defined his career with a careful eye for making each one entertaining. From his first televised appearance (on a show honoring Muhammad Ali, which sparked a life-long friendship between the two) to his working with Jack Palance on the film City Slickers, Crystal infuses each story with wit and charm. He made me as the reader feel his elation that the spindly Jewish kid from New York couldn’t believe his luck kept getting better.
But the familial stories are where the heart of Crystal becomes bared for all to see. Death is a constant in the memoir, starting with the untimely death of Crystal’s father when Billy was only 15 all the way through to the death of his beloved uncle Bernie a few years ago. Crystal doesn’t stay maudlin for lengthy periods of time in the book but the sense that time is running out for him is palpable throughout the memoir. Then there are the moments where he gets to meet and become friends with his idols, like Mickey Mantle, the legendary Yankee player. Crystal’s stories of dealing with Mickey in later age, when his constant drinking took a heavy toll on his body and mind, are poignant for a different reason. In those stories, I saw a young man come to grips with the fallibility of heroes, the notion that idols are human beings as well. It strikes home that no matter how great someone may be at a given profession, they are dealing with their own demons just like the rest of us.
While Crystal’s wit and humor are on display when he writes about his life and accomplishments, it’s the smaller chapters where he takes on different topics of the culture where he shines brightest. Whether it’s complaining about the size of his testicles to the difference between a married couple in their 30s versus their 60s, Crystal infuses every anecdote and punch-line with crisp phrasing and perfect timing. Translating how words work on stage to the page is difficult but Crystal seems to make it seem like the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.

Still Foolin’ Em takes every moment in stride to develop a great story from early life to middle age. Billy Crystal uses this book to examine his own fears, his humor, and the life he’s led up to this point. This memoir takes away the veneer of show business, revealing a heartfelt man who worries about the same concerns we all deal with: family, living, and dying. I recommend this book for its humor and its heart. You can’t go wrong with a little humor every now and then. 

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