Billy Crystal is a heartstring-tugging machine in his one-man show 700 Sundays, which comes to HBO after multiple successful runs on Broadway and a national tour (the HBO special was taped in January at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre). Crystal’s account of his Long Island childhood is a flood of hokey nostalgia and emotional manipulation, diluting his undoubtedly genuine feelings (including his grief over the death of his father when he was 15) into so much shtick.
Shtick is Crystal’s lifeblood, though, so it’s not exactly surprising that he would represent his life via hackneyed comedic devices, rank sentimentality and fart jokes. At one point he recounts his first visit to the Catskills as a child, and explains how witnessing a performance by one of the resort region’s many journeyman comics inspired his own desire to tell jokes onstage. His impression of the comedian (complete with rim-shot sound effects) is almost indistinguishable from a typical Crystal character, because Crystal has modeled his entire career on those Catskills comedians. Earlier in the show, he mentions a lie he told as a kid, and comments that “I became a better actor later,” but the rest of his performance doesn’t really support that statement. Crystal is great at playing himself, but only because he’s turned himself into the only character he knows how to play.
Standing on a set modeled after the front of the house where he grew up, Crystal tells stories about his suburban upbringing, his extended Jewish family and his early brushes with both tragedy and fame (his uncle, Milt Gabler, was a renowned jazz producer and record executive, and young Crystal hobnobbed with the likes of Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong)y. The title refers to the amount of time Crystal got to spend with his father before he passed away, and Crystal devotes the most serious passages of his performance to his father’s death and its aftermath. It was clearly a defining moment for Crystal, but his polished delivery makes his own emotions ring false, turned into a syrupy, greeting-card version of his life.
For a comedian, Crystal spends quite a lot of time in 700 Sundays being serious, but he makes sure to lighten even the most somber moments with a joke or two. His impressions of his colorful family members can get a little tiresome, and the sense that he’s on autopilot most of the time robs the humor of much of its liveliness. Just once in the show is Crystal seemingly caught off-guard, making a quick joke about an audience reaction to something he just said, and it ends up the most genuine moment in the entire production. “Back to the play,” he says afterward, returning to his well-worn series of ethnic jokes and emotional platitudes. That play has served Crystal well for years now, but somewhere underneath it is the spontaneous kid who made his relatives laugh by being quick on his feet. It’s too bad that guy never really shows up in 700 Sundays.