Stand-up comedy was his first love -- and it gave him his entry into showbiz more than 40 years ago. So it seemed natural that Billy Crystal would return to the format to tell his life story.
Called Spend the Night with Billy Crystal, the autobiographical show brings Crystal to Philly for a two-night stand Friday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center.
But this will be stand-up with a twist: After an introductory monologue, Crystal will sit down with comedian and actor Bonnie Hunt (Rain Man, TV's Life with Bonnie), who will ask him questions, talk-show style.
"It's really a stand-up show, but some of it is done sitting down," Crystal said in a phone interview.
"It's a very intimate interview with the terrific Bonnie Hunt, and it's very informal," he says. "And audiences really have loved this approach for doing a concert show."
The performance will "be about my whole journey," said Crystal, who turned 69 last month. "And a lot of it started in Philadelphia. When I was first doing stand-up, I would come down to play this little club on Lombard Street called the Bijou [Cafe]. … And I would also come down and do the Mike Douglas Show."
The show also includes an extended riff about one of Crystal's earliest major breaks, opening for the pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears in Scranton.
Crystal asked Hunt to join him when the duo clicked at an event last year held in honor of Robin Williams.
"Bonnie and I have known each other for years," said Crystal. "She's a terrific actress, and she's a Second City veteran. We both spoke at Robin Williams' funeral, and we met up again about eight months ago, when we were on a panel discussion about him, and we were just very funny sitting next to each other. … And I just said to Bonnie, 'You know, this is sort of meant to be. Come out on the road with me. It's just the sort of thing Robin would have loved.' "
Spend the Night with Billy Crystal is, in some ways, a follow-up to Crystal's Tony-winning 2005 play 700 Sundays, an autobiographical look at his childhood in which he explored his relationship with his father, who died when the comic was 15.
"700 Sundays was a play, while this is very loosely constructed and very spontaneous," said Crystal, adding that although 700 Sundays "was about a sad time in my life," the new show is far more celebratory.
Crystal and Hunt don't work off a script, though they will stick to a chronological structure. They'll also play video clips. Crystal will recount his life and career through vignettes that explore every aspect of his career, including his first major TV role on the late '70s satire Soap, in which he played one of the first openly gay male characters on U.S. broadcast TV.
Taking the role was a calculated risk that at the time might have stalled Crystal's career. "That was 40 years ago, and it was a very different America, so there was a real worry about being typecast," he said. "But I knew I still had my stand-up and I knew I could always go off and perform. I thought if I could do this character right and we could write it well and be funny and charming, we could knock down some barriers and we'd be doing something important."
Crystal said he will also talk about his momentous trip to perform in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, becoming one of the first American comics to perform there. (A film of it ran as a 1989 HBO special called Billy Crystal: Midnight Train to Moscow.)
That Russia trip may have been a historic event. For Crystal, it was deeply personal. "In that show, I found 30 family members who I didn't even know existed, and I got to be united with them," said Crystal, whose family hails from Russia. "You start out making your parents laugh, and you start out making your family laugh. And here I was, 12,000 miles away from home, still making my family laugh."