700 Sundays debuted on a Saturday night on HBO.
Not that it matters. Because Billy Crystal’s one-man show spans seven decades and all seven days of the week, looking back on a long and storied career. The title refers to the approximate number of days Crystal knew his father before his sudden death when Billy was only 15, but his retrospective touches on all of our childhood memories. For me, I’m confronted with the knowledge that Crystal’s own comedy continues to influence me as it did when I was 15 — from his old Jewish accent that I’d mimic whenever I wanted to throw myself a few generations forward into early curmudgeonhood, to how he made the most of his few minutes onscreen during The Princess Bride (how I’ll still, to this day 27 years later, bid adieu to a friend or stranger with “Have fun storming the castle!” or even note that to blave means to bluff), or his memorable one-season star-made turn on Saturday Night Live (sure, there was Fernando, but for me, even more was his recurring sketch with Christopher Guest in which they described inflicting pain upon themselves. “I hate when that happens!” is a phrase my mother and I still use with endearment on the phone).
And that’s not even mentioning his role fronting Comic Relief, the City Slickers movies, When Harry Met Sally or his generational standing as the preeminent Oscars host.
700 Sundays is not about all of that. Sure, you may catch a reference to one or two or more of those things over the course of two hours, but this time spent with Crystal, now 66, is a more personal look-back at his own formative years growing up on Long Island in Long Beach and coming into New York City where his father was an influential figure in jazz.
For a moment early in the show, you’re left to wonder if Crystal will recount each and every of the 700 Sundays he spent with his father. Here is Crystal talking about Sunday #2.
His father had a record shop on 42nd Street across from the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan, and started the Commodore jazz label. As a kid, Crystal’s first comedic burst came about by imitating all of the black jazz musicians he got to see and hear there — they, in turn, called him “Face.” Billie Holiday, Crystal recalls, took young Billy to see his first movie in a cinema: 1953’s Shane (starring a young Jack Palance!). Crystal earns a deserved applause break early on after acknowledging his upbringing by saying simply, “I’m a lucky kid.”
Crystal, who would later produce the HBO film, *61, shares how his father also introduced him to a love of the New York Yankees in 1956. Film footage plays on the side of a home made up onstage to resemble his childhood house in Long Beach.
“My father took all of these home movies that you’re seeing. And I’m so blessed to have them, because if i didn’t have these home movies I’d have, you know, half a show!”
So, too, we see Wilt Chamberlain playing pickup hoops in the Catskills, where Crystal first saw a comedian perform live. That inspired him. If Billy Crystal couldn’t become the next Mickey Mantle, then he could do comedy: “This I could do!”
For a touching, personal show, there are so many more dick jokes. And old lady boob jokes. And fart jokes. And even more dick jokes. As the 14-year-old Crystal discovers his penis. So many dick jokes. Don’t worry. No home movies about that.
The final 45 minutes or so deal with Crystal dealing with the aftermath of his father’s sudden death. The jazz greats converge on Long Beach to jam and liven up the family’s sitting shiva. So, too, does one of Crystal’s uncles, by making everyone laugh. It’s then that teen-aged Billy learns the power of comedy to help us survive tragedy.
His Jack died in October. Everyone’s Jack, President Kennedy, died in November. The following spring, Crystal recounts watching The Beatles arrive in America, and with it, his mother tsk-tsks the death of jazz.
But life goes on. And what a funny life Crystal has made of it.
Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays plays throughout April on HBO, and anytime on HBOGo.