My feud with Oscar host Billy Crystal: It's time to bury the hatchet
I am a huge supporter of comedians, which is why I’ve said over and over that the Oscars should hold a great comic performance in the same high regard as a dramatic one. Nonetheless, there’s a long list of comic heavyweights who have about as much love in their hearts for me as the average Dodgers fan has for Frank McCourt.
Judd Apatow has never forgiven me for writing, even before I’d seen the movie, that “Funny People” was, at 146 minutes, way, way, really way too long to ever be a good comedy. Rob Schneider once bought full-page ads in the trades to chastise me for saying that his film “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” was “sadly overlooked at Oscar time because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic.”
And then there’s Billy Crystal, who stepped in several weeks ago to replace Eddie Murphy as host of next year’s Oscars. Even though I’d been a fan of his early Oscar gigs, a chill has been in the air since we had a lively dust-up a decade ago. In a 2001 column praising the movie parody sketches in the MTV Movie Awards, I wrote that the MTV show’s production team believed Crystal and his Oscar show writers had lifted a movie parody sketch that opened the Oscars from them.
MTV Films chief Van Toffler didn’t mince words, saying, “We’re not suing, but they not only stole the idea, they stole Troy Miller, one of our original producers, to do the Oscars.” MTV even did a sketch with a wild-haired, T-shirt-wearing “patter writer” named Brice Kapants — clearly a spoof of veteran Oscar gag man Bruce Vilanch.
The story did not go over well with Crystal. He penned a lengthy response that we ran in The Times, arguing that movie parodies have been around forever, at least as far back as Sid Caesar’s inspired spoof of “From Here to Eternity” on his “Your Show of Shows” variety program. Crystal said he’d been opening his live HBO specials with movie parodies as far back as the mid-1980s.
He called my piece “a nasty attack on my character,” adding “to insult my integrity like this is a very cheap, low blow, something you are well known for. Good writers do research; good writers investigate and can substantiate their accusations. Not you.” Citing a variety of parodies that had inspired his own, Crystal ended by saying: “Who inspired you? My guess would be Roy Cohn.” (For any under-50 readers, Cohn was a widely reviled mob lawyer who made his name working for Red Scare monger Sen. Joe McCarthy.)
Was I unfair to Crystal? Looking back at the story a decade later, I think the answer is yes. I was writing on deadline, but it was wrong for me to not give him equal time to rebut the accusation. He had every reason to be royally ticked off.
As penance, I took time out the other day to watch an hourlong conversation Crystal had with Bob Costas on the MLB Network. The talk was about sports and films, including “61*,” the 2001 baseball movie Crystal directed about the year Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle vied to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. Crystal was in rare form, displaying the same deft comedy timing he has utilized to woo Oscar audiences.
He showed off his great Muhammad Ali impression, told hilarious Yogi Berra stories and reminisced about his boyhood idolatry of Mantle (who could be seen in an old video clip, taking batting practice off, of all people, Johnny Carson). When Crystal turned 60 a few years ago, the Yankees let him have an at-bat in a spring training game. The opposing pitcher struck Crystal out using a pitch that’s known in baseball parlance as a cutter, prompting Crystal to quip: “Worst cutter since my bris.”
It was an apt demonstration of why the academy, after all of its messy hirings and firing, has again turned to Crystal to host its show. In baseball, when you’re trying to squelch a late-inning rally, you bring in your closer. The ball has been handed to Crystal. Come Feb. 26, we’ll see if his fastball still has any heat.
Photo: Billy Crystal performing his monologue at the start of the 72nd annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2000. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Reuters