Comedian Billy Crystal talks kids, political correctness and failure
Veteran funny man Billy Crystal still has plenty of comedy in him just don't call him Pop, as Vicky Roachdiscovers
Billy Crystal reckons he knows a thing or two about failure.
Like Artie, his alter ego in family comedy Parental Guidance, the veteran comedian is of the firm opinion that disappointment should be embraced rather than avoided.
"I think there are great lessons to be learnt ... because nothing is a complete failure. You find the good in things and learn how to improve, how to overcome," he says, with obvious authority.
In Parental Guidance, which co-star Bette Midler has described as "Home Alone for grandparents," Crystal plays a forcibly retired baseball announcer whose world is turned upside down when he and his wife agree to mind their rarely seen grandchildren for a few days. Crystal came up with the concept after looking after his own grandchildren while actor-daughter Jennifer, who appears in the film as a speech pathologist, and son-in-law Mike took a break.
"Following the list of all the things I was supposed to do say this and don't say that, feed them this and not that, at bedtime read them this and not that ... it was an eye-opener into the world the kids live in and I thought it could be a really fun movie," Crystal says. "Especially if those grandparents weren't fluent in the way their grandkids were being brought up."
Crystal, 64, stresses the film is not a comment on his own children's parenting choices, but a more general comment on modern social mores, and says both his daughters have taken it very much in that spirit.
When Parental Guidance opens, Artie is struggling with unexpected unemployment and his long-suffering wife, Diane (Midler), seizes the opportunity to mend some bridges by accepting a desperate plea from their estranged daughter (Marisa Tomei).
It's a decision that plunges the old-school patriarch into a new and foreign world where water pistols are banned, baseball games have no winners or losers, and children aren't told "no" but gently redirected. His angry confusion reaches a peak at a long-scheduled symphony concert where the youngest grandson runs amok.
With face painted in an indelible fluoro mask, Artie stands on the stage, errant child tucked under one arm, and launches into a rant about discipline that clearly comes from the heart. When he's finished, the well-heeled audience launches into spontaneous applause.
"I'm not angry like him, but I agree with a lot of the things he says," Crystal admits.
"I think we coddle too much.
"And I think there is a lesson to be learned from losing a game.
"Not everybody should be given a trophy at every game and not everybody should get a medal at every spelling bee."
Crystal believes it's easy to be relaxed when things are going your way.
"But since there tends to be more disappointments in life than triumphs, learning how to deal with the former is an important life skill.
He is similarly ambivalent when it comes to the benefits of social media.
Unlike Artie, a happy luddite, Crystal is a proficient citizen of the twitter verse.
But he sees social media as a useful professional tool, and one with obvious limitations.
"Anyone who thinks they are funny can post something and get a career out of it, which I think is great because that means there will be more funny people. But with that comes all these other people who can be really nasty. There are too many critics."
And Crystal sees the era of instant celebrity as potentially undermining the craft of his chosen profession.
"If you are a funny person, you have to be funny in all different situations," he says.
"And it takes a long time to build up the muscles to handle any kind of situation.
"For me, I hosted the Grammys three times before I hosted the Oscars," says Crystal, who went on to host the Academy Awards nine times and won't rule out a 10th. "That's a big show too but it wasn't the Oscars. By the time I got there I was really ready."
In Parental Guidance, Artie has reached his professional use-by date. But Crystal says he is confident that good comedy doesn't age.
"Funny is funny. We are still laughing at Chaplin and Keating.
"And in my case, people are still laughing at When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers."
Further enhancing the comedian's career longevity is his relationship with Pixar, and the upcoming Monsters, Inc. sequel, Monsters University.
"I have seen about 40 minutes of it and it really blew me away," he says. "These movies are our Snow Whites and our Dumbos.
"I watched Monsters, Inc. with my kids first and now their kids.
"It's how my grandchildren started knowing I was in the business."
Crystal is secure enough about his place in the world to embrace the moniker grandpa.
"I feel I have earned it. I don't like it when I see grandkids call their grandparents by their first names. Or a made-up name.
"Something about that that bothers me I know it works for people and it's very affectionate and sweet but for me, I like Grandpa, that's who I am. But not Pop, I am not old enough for Pop yet."
Parental Guidance is in cinemas nationwide now.
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Crystal clear: Billy Crystal (centre) with Joshua Rush (left) and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf (right).