SF Sketchfest Review: The Great Collaborators Tribute: Billy Crystal & Alan Zweibel In Conversation with Ron Bostwick

by Dakin Hardwick on January 14, 2016

Photo by Dan Dion

Photo by Dan Dion

There is no shortage of great talent that graces our SF stages during Sketchfest. Tonight, however, we got not one, but two, of the most important comic minds ever. Everyone knows Billy Crystal, star of Soap, Saturday Night Live, When Harry Met Sally, etc., and, although you may not know Alan Zweibel by name, you may have more of his words memorized than Billy Crystal’s. He was one of the main writers during the first few years of Saturday Night Live, as well as It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Monk, and many, many more.

This event was a bit different from the usual Sketchfest tributes. Usually we get treated to an entire piece of work, plus career highlights ahead of the interview. Instead, we got an incredibly short piece that covered 41 years of film and TV. It was maybe ten minutes long, giving us a mere taste of the long career of these two gentlemen. Then, with very little pomp or circumstance, moderator Ron Bostwick brought out Crystal and Zweibel, and then immediately launched into questions.

Bostwick first asked Crystal about his history with San Francisco. Crystal then tried to answer, but was greeted with loud feedback. The master improviser, of course, removed his headset mic, which is what was causing the feedback, and proceeded to introduce himself as a visitor from Mars, using the feedback to his benefit. Sadly (for the sake of the joke), the mic was fixed quickly, and Crystal was able to discuss his time doing stand up at The Boarding Room and The Playboy Club, and how he generally loved the town. (Cue applause)

The format, after this casual introduction, followed as so: The first portion was devoted to how Zweibel and Crystal met; the second, about 7oo Sundays, Crystal’s one man show, co written by Zweibel; the third, the fun part, when the two gentleman went on for just over an hour, telling stories. As they told it, Zweibel was a comedy writer looking for work, who met Crystal as part of a carpool to Catch A Rising Star, a comedy club in the Catskills. They used to critique each others’ sets, giving each other notes and helping each other hone their craft. This was the beginning of four decades of collaboration. They followed each other to SNL, and eventually led to them producing 700 Sundays, the highest-grossing non-musical in Broadway history.

Saturday Night Live seemed to be a bit chaotic in the beginning; the first episode had two musical guests and several stand-up comics. Zweibel was sort of placed in a writing room without much direction, and that’s where he met Gilda Radner, who asked Zweibel if he knew how to write for a parakeet. Of course, he claimed that he could, and the two of them became very good friends. Crystal’s experience on that first episode was less than stellar: he had a wonderful set that worked well with test audiences, but inevitably was shortened, then cut completely. It was disappointing, but they eventually brought him back, and he grew to become the biggest star in the world, hosting the Oscars 9 times.

These guys proved their comedy chops once again when a woman left go to the bathroom. Crystal scolded her, stole her jacket, then prompted the crowd to give her a standing ovation when she returned from the bathroom. It was brilliant.

There were so many great stories that the two men told. Crystal talked about opening for Blood Sweat & Tears: when their singer kept deciding he wasn’t in the mood to play, Crystal kept coming out to do more material. Zweibel wrote about Mr. Ed’s widower, and how the horse went crazy on live TV, causing some quick improv from the great Gilda Radner. In fact, they were pretty much cut off after two hours of stage time. I’m sure if the theater didn’t have a curfew, they’d still be on stage, telling stories about their craft, and possibly plotting to slip the hand of somebody that fell asleep into a bowl of warm water.

Billy Crystal and Alan Zweibel are two of the greatest comic minds in history. It was an honor and a privilege to get to hear those two men speak, and I hope we get to hear more from them for many years to come.

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