Crystal Clear: Billy Crystal on new tour and championing Muhammad Ali

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

For world-renowned entertainer Billy Crystal, the 2001 World Series was win-win. His money was behind the Arizona Diamondbacks as a minority owner, and his heart beat for his beloved New York Yankees.

Billy Crystal clowns around with Muhammad Ali during Muhammad Ali’s fight Night Held at the JW Marriot Desert Ridge Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 24, 2007.

“It was hard because, when we bought our way in, I had no thought in my mind that someday they’d be in the World Series together,” Crystal said. “That was a really hard World Series for me. It was an amazing World Series. It ended really well for my ownership part, but not my Yankee part. At one point, my wife said, ‘Look, we’re beating us.’”

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The Tony and Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, writer and director will share stories—like that one—from his life during his “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal” tour, which comes to Symphony Hall on Sunday, Feb. 19.

“It’s a comedy concert in the guise of a talk show,” Crystal said. “I had a great relationship with David Letterman. When I’d go on Dave’s show, it would go off and it was wonderful form for me. It was very freeing.

“Well, I’ve expanded it to a full evening. I’m really on my feet more than I’m sitting down. It’s loose and I don’t know where it’s going to go a lot of the times.”

Crystal has a lot to say to his fans via “Spend the Night.”

“There’s so much going on in the world and my world,” he said. “Now, at the age of 68—I almost choked when I said that, by the way—there are things I want to talk about. There are my four grandchildren and the world that we’re going to hand over to them that I’m concerned about. There are so many funny ways of looking at life now. I have so much fun doing the show and audiences seem to really love this intimate, informal approach to doing a comedy show.”

“Even in my early days of standup, when I was being formed, as they say, I naturally became more of a storyteller than a joke guy. I’m very comfortable with that. That’s why I think ‘700 Sundays,’ my Broadway show, was such a great, satisfying experience for me and my audiences.

“It was really stories filled with humor, and jokes, but you didn’t see them coming. They just sort of happen. I grew up in a house with relatives who were great storytellers. They would even find humor in how they came to this country. There’s nothing funny about running for the border, but my relatives would find something funny about it. I think I’m just sort of carrying on their tradition.”

These days he finds himself also entertaining grandchildren, ages 13, 10, 7 and 4, and two daughters.

“Watching my grandchildren grow is the greatest joy of all,” he said.

“I was very close with my grandparents. It was a different time. They didn’t come to my baseball games. We, on the other hand, don’t miss anything. We love watching them develop and helping them make the right choices. I get such a great satisfaction watching my kids raise their children then we—me and Janice, my wife of almost 47 years—feel like we did a good job. That’s the most wonderful thing of all.”

Crystal will return to the Valley on March 18 for Celebrity Fight Night, an event and cause that he has long championed. This year’s event will be bittersweet as it is the first without its founder Muhammad Ali. Throughout Celebrity Fight Night’s 23-year history, $127 million has been raised with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute as a significant beneficiary.

“My experiences with Ali and Fight Night have always been so wonderful,” he said. “He was always there, though. I was honored to be one of his eulogists at his memorial at his request. I did my first television show ever with him and we became really great friends.

“We have to keep his legacy going, which is what I know he wanted. It’ll be hard. The world is harder without him. Even in his silence of the last, at least, 10 years, where he didn’t speak, his presence was this magical silent Buddha for us. He was still there. He wouldn’t want us to be sad right now. So, we’ll have our laughs. We’ll remember him always and we’ll celebrate him. It can’t be a downer. It has to be what it started out as—a celebration in his honor.”