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Finding laughter in the grief

Billy Crystal started writing '700 Sundays' as a meditation on his father's premature death. Reliving the anguish, healing and humor, he's learned to trust his instincts -- and his audience.

January 08, 2006|Billy Crystal | Special to The Times

"700 Sundays" began as a sad calculation. Right before my 50th birthday, I found myself thinking about how life has been like an express train whizzing by as I stand on the platform watching the blur, the wind and noise almost knocking me over. I thought of my father and our all too short relationship. He died when I was just 15 years old. He worked at two, sometimes three jobs, and our one day together was Sunday.

I remember doing the math on a piece of paper and figured that we had roughly 700 Sundays. It had a poetry about it, I thought. With that as a title, and a theme, I started to jot down stories and great moments we shared, and the ones we didn't get to. I wrote about my anger, my thoughts, my feelings. I wrote about fate: How did I end up with this family? How did I become a comedian? It was about four pages long, and I put it away, thinking "someday I have to do something with this." It would become the play that would literally take me home again.

You can't pick your parents, but if I could, I would pick them over and over again. They brought me home to a Damon Runyon world filled with laughter and jazz and eccentric characters. It was like the bar from "Star Wars," except they all had accents. As I wrote, I realized I loved most of my childhood; I would just rewrite sections of it if I could.

Writing is rewriting, right? There are no "do-overs," as we talked about in "City Slickers." One take, that's all we get. Unfortunately for me, that was hammered home by the sudden death of my dad, Jack, in 1963. We were extremely close; I was his youngest son. When my two brothers left to go to college that fall, I had him alone for the first time. I didn't have to share him with them. One and a half months -- six Sundays -- and he would be gone.

The impact of that belted me in the face over and over again, year after year: the empty seat at the dinner table; no smell of his shaving lotion in the morning; walking down the aisle with my mom at my wedding; not being there when my babies were born. Gone. The hurt kept finding its way into my life. Like a red wine stain on a white tablecloth, it would fade, but you always knew it was there.

Then in 2001 my mother passed away. She was my hero, a true inspiration. She kept us together when Dad died. Surrounding her passing was the death of her brother, my uncle, Milt Gabler, a huge influence on my life; the tragedy of 9/11; the sudden loss of my godmother; and then one of my closest friends, Dick Schaap, died. I could barely stand up. Five body shots like that just months apart.

What was life about? Milt was a joyous spirit, a mentor to me. Sept. 11 was stunning in its power and anger, and devastating in its loss. We all watched thousands of people die on television. Mom was hit with a stroke that disabled her at first, but then -- like the shark it is -- came back for the kill. Dick died of complications that were untreated after a hip replacement, a death that could have been easily avoided, but poor medical attention doomed him. Angry, confused, reeling from sorrow and fatigue, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't even sure how to smile.

So I started writing.

It occurs to me now that I always did that. When Dad died, I wrote a eulogy for him, same for my grandparents, and I gave one of Milt's eulogies, as well as one for Mom and one for Dick. I found it hard to talk about these hurts, so I wrote. I wrote an essay called "Orphan" about the realization that at our age, we boomers are all saying goodbye to our parents, and we're just not tethered to the earth in quite the same way. It is an odd, uncomfortable feeling, not being somebody's baby anymore. I submitted it to the New York Times, which politely declined, saying they loved the piece, but since 9/11 everything has been so dark -- couldn't I do something funny for them? ("Orphan" would become the last third of the show.)

So I wrote, but this time with the purpose of performing the material. I had not been onstage doing stand-up since 1989, when I did an HBO special from Moscow, and I had last toured in 1986. There were moments, of course -- Comic Relief, the Grammys and the Oscars -- but not on a regular basis anymore. I stopped for many reasons. The travel was keeping me from my daughters, who were growing up, and I didn't want to be "Uncle Daddy." I was making movies, and the lifestyle was easier. I also didn't have to worry about 8:05 p.m., the time I would usually hit the stage. I just felt like I didn't have anything to say, which is not a good thing for a comedian. The longer I stayed away from it, the more frightened I got about doing it again. Yet when all of those sad things were piled on top of me, that's what I wanted to do. I was now 55, closer to 60 than to 50. Yikes. If I didn't get back on the stage now I might never do it again.

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