His gentle, Jewish humor is again Crystal clear in ‘700 Sundays’

After two sellout runs on Broadway — nine years apart — as well as a book and a successful world tour, actor and comic Billy Crystal brings his one-man, autobiographical play, “700 Sundays,” to television via HBO on April 19. The show was taped before an audience earlier this year, near the end of its latest Broadway production.

Crystal wrote the script, incorporating additional material by Alan Zweibel, and he plays the various characters that have influenced his life, from his childhood in Long Beach, N.Y., through his adult years.  

He said he was impelled to stage the play in 2004 as a cathartic endeavor after suffering several painful losses.

“I had lost my mother a couple of years before and two other very close relatives, who are characters in the show: my uncle Milt, whom I talk about in the show — Milt died in July, my mom in November … in the middle of [the aftermath of 9/11] — and my godmother, with whom I was very close, a week after my mother died. And my best friend at the time, a man named Dick Schaap, who was a sports journalist, died in December. So, all I was doing, as I say in the opening, in the empty house, was giving eulogies and conducting memorial services.”  

The actor explained that the play’s title, “700 Sundays,” refers to the number of Sundays he was able to spend with his dad, who died suddenly when Crystal was still a teenager.  

“I was 15, and a wounded kid in love that didn’t work out, and we got into it a little bit,” Crystal recalled. “He was in a failing business, not a happy time in his life, under huge stress, and so we had words, and then, unfortunately we were never able to say, ‘Sorry.’ And that was always a big pain in my life, so coming to grips with that in the drama of the show is, I think, a wonderful thing for me and for the audience.”

Toward the end of the show, Crystal eases the heartache in a dream. “You work the whole show, and the whole story, to be able to be together at the end, in this dream, in heaven, and everything’s OK. Basically, we sort of say we’re sorry just by the way we look at each other and say, ‘Come on, let’s go have dinner together,’ which is how the show ends — ‘Did you eat?’ which is a very Jewish, in the best way, thing to say.”  

In fact, the script is replete with Jewish references. Regarding his own upbringing, Crystal described his family as observant, but not strict.

“We were Reform. I was bar mitvahed and married within the Reform temple. … My grandfather was … I guess Conservative is what you would say — very observant. He would daven. He would do all of those rituals. The seders were always the entire haggadah. We didn’t eat until 10:30. ‘Why is this night different?’ It’s not different. We still haven’t eaten yet, and the Jews haven’t left Egypt.”

As might be expected from Crystal, the underlying poignancy of the piece is leavened throughout with great humor. “There are huge laughs,” he said, “even within the sections of my dad’s funeral, and it’s not easy to navigate. But it was necessary to keep the audience with me so it doesn’t get maudlin, and I think it’s very important, in the show, to be able to do that.”  

And so there are uproarious bits, such as the section in which Crystal re-enacts his awakening youthful sex drive, symbolized by a talking penis that intrudes on his every activity and demands to be satisfied. There are also hilarious one-liners. For example, Crystal defines Yiddish as a mixture of “German and phlegm.”  

Crystal characterized the play as a form of homage to his parents. His mother is presented as a fun-loving woman who, after his father died and they were facing hard times, learned to be a secretary and managed to put away money so that Crystal could go to college. His father, Jack, was a jazz buff who ran a record store in Manhattan and emceed jazz concerts. As a result, Crystal got to know some of the greats of the jazz world. It was through his father and his uncle, Milton Gabler, a noted record producer, that Crystal met Billie Holiday, who took him to his first film, “Shane.”  

There were other “firsts” provided by his father and revisited in the show: the family’s first car; Crystal’s first baseball game, at which he saw Mickey Mantle hit a home run; his first exposure to a live comedian in the Catskills; and his first appearance on a stage.

“It makes you think about your own family,” Crystal said. “It makes you think about your own relatives. It makes you think about what’s important in your life. At the end of it, I usually say to an audience, ‘Go home and call somebody you love, and tell them that you love them.’ ” 

Crystal added that he is very proud of the way director Des McAnuff taped the performance, forging it into an intimate audience experience. The actor felt it was time to stop performing it onstage.

“I’d like everybody to see it. How many times can I do it? You do it for 1,500 people a night, and that’s a lot for Broadway. How many times would I have to do it to reach the millions that we’ll reach with the broadcast? So, I think it’s very strong, and that people will get a chance to see it and can see it again. But also, it’s a permanent, beautiful record for my kids and my grandkids of who I was and who came before them.”

Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” debuts April 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Check listings for additional showtimes.