Billy Crystal is one of those guests talk show producers adore, and if you were watching Letterman last night you know why. For a full segment — about seven minutes — he delivered a routine on rodent infestation at his Malibu home that required essentially no participation from the host. Just give him a quick set up, and get out of the way. It's easy for the show, and a treat for the audience; the comic monologue is where Crystal is at his best. (I'm not a great fan of his nostalgia-driven films.) A Crystal routine is a catalog of New York Jewish comedy in action, full of the asides, the internal references, and the self-mortification that trace back to Vaudeville days, if not before. Watching him last night brought to mind an absolute master of this idiom: Woody Allen. It's easy to forget what a brilliant comedian Woody was back when he was still doing standup, even though his films, including the dramas, are laced with gags and one-liners. He was not a "joke" comedian, however; he was a storyteller, a far more challenging — and to my mind, satisfying — kind of performance. Woody seemed a "natural" raconteur, but the apparent effortlessness of his act belied the great deal of work spent refining his material.
Take, for example, his classic "Hunting Moose" routine. The early version above is relatively awkward: he minces around almost nervously, doesn't nail his applause lines, and the kicker is kind of flat — there's an almost palpable relief that he gets through it. Compare that to this later, far more assured delivery. The audience is clearly more engaged in the second version, their excitement building throughout. He has made a variety of subtle improvements, and the biggest comes at the end. The closing reference has been changed from the "New York City Golf Club" — which does not even exist — to the notoriously exclusive and easier to parse "New York Athletic Club." Finally, there is the kicker: "And the joke is on them because they don't allow Jews" (wordy, a little disturbing) becomes "And the joke is on them because it's restricted" (short, funny, perfect). Practice and refine. That's how a good bit — or a good anything — becomes something special.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture. A contributing editor to Architectural Review, he is currently at work on his third book, a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson. Follow: @marklamster. More >>