Billy Crystal relives ‘700 Sundays’ on HBO

By Jay Bobbin / Zap2it

The original run of the Tony Award-winning stage show about Billy Crystal’s relationship with his late concert promoter father, Jack — titled “700 Sundays” — wasn’t enough for the comedian. So Crystal brought it back to Broadway for a recent nine-week revival. But having it be only a theatrical event wasn’t enough either, so Crystal has turned it into an HBO special: “Billy Crystal 700 Sundays,” which premieres on, well, a Saturday, April 19.

Assembled from two January performances the actor-comedian gave at New York’s Imperial Theatre, the two-hour one-man show also factors in such aspects of Crystal’s life as his passions for jazz music and the New York Yankees. A winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and six Emmys, four of those from his nine stints as Oscar host, the “When Harry Met Sally” and “Monsters, Inc.” star also took “700 Sundays” across America and to Australia in the mid-2000s.

Planning a return to series television next year opposite Josh Gad (“Frozen”) in FX’s “The Comedians,” Crystal spoke for this article about reuniting with director Des McAnuff and “additional material” writer Alan Zweibel to create a permanent record of “700 Sundays.”

Q: What made now the time to bring the show to television?

A: It’s been 10 years of doing it and 66 years of writing it. This last run was so fantastic — as was the first one — it got to the point where I was thinking to myself, “OK. How much longer do I do this?”

I still love it every time I perform the show, but it’s 1,500 to 2,000 people a night. And those are big theaters. I thought I was ready to let go of it and let more people see it, and when HBO came to me during this last run, I said, “OK. Let’s do it.” I was ecstatic, as we were putting it together, with how intimate the television version is.

Q: You’re all over the stage during the course of the show, and certain camera angles clearly are designed for home viewing, also capturing the set that resembles your boyhood home. How different was it for you to contour this for television?

A: I think it pretty much spelled itself. We had the crew come in to watch the show, and Des and I knew where we wanted cameras to be at certain points, plus we’d do pickup shots after the audience left. The approach is more filmic than a standard comedy show, because it’s a play.

Q: It is, plus it draws on your experiences as a stand-up comic, a television personality and a movie star. Does performing “700 Sundays” for TV strike you as a merging of everything you’ve done professionally?

A: I think so. I don’t want to sound self-serving, but it’s sort of an expression of all the different kinds of things I can do. I get to go from showing home movies to impersonating people like my aunt Sheila to doing mime. It’s a great range I get to play in playing myself, and it’s an extraordinary experience to get to do that.

I love that the laughs are as big as they are, but for me as a performer, the best moments are when 1,500 people don’t say a word or don’t breathe for six or seven minutes as the show gets more serious … as I re-create the night my dad died. I can’t even tell you how powerful and wonderful a moment that is for an actor, to feel you have everybody leaning forward on your every word. That’s a very rare thing, too.

Q: Since this is the story of you and your father, how is it for you yourself emotionally while you’re taking the audience on that ride?

A: After doing this something like 450 times and living it, and going through the joys and the pains of the show — sometimes at the same time — I was able to “get there” every night, and that’s an incredible kind of journey for me.

In a way, acting alone made me better. It makes you concentrate more. It’s just me and them, and I like those odds. Every audience gives you something different, and it’s a great chance to share. My story is not unique in that way, and it makes people feel good. From the letters and comments I’ve gotten, it’s been fantastic for me to feel that it reaches them.

Q: If this HBO version is indeed the capper on your time with “700 Sundays,” how do you look at it as a complete experience?

A: When we first started it in a little theater in La Jolla, I didn’t know what we had. It was all improvised. The show opened on Broadway with an eight-page outline; nothing was written down, it was all in my mind, and we eventually had to transcribe it for cues and everything.

I couldn’t wait to get to the theater every night, and the audiences didn’t want to leave. They’ve been with it, and it’s been an amazing thing.