It's been a while, but Billy Crystal once again looks mahvelous. After a series of lackluster movies and a last-minute, halfhearted effort hosting the 2012 Oscars, the 67-year-old entertainer returns to fine form in FX's "The Comedians," a sitcom in which he plays an exaggerated version of himself, a veteran comic forced to team up with a more contemporary performer (Josh Gad) for a "Saturday Night Live"-sketch show.
The format allows Crystal to do what he does best — playing broad characters in silly bits, mugging for the camera and displaying the same kind of exasperated looks he provided in his most celebrated film, "When Harry Met Sally."
"At this point in my career, it's like a blessing to have this show because it reinforces and reinvigorates everything that I started out doing and have loved to do my entire career," Crystal said. "It was easy to say why. The real question is, 'Why not?' "
Crystal has had his share of success on the big screen and Broadway, but he'll forever be linked with television, even though he hasn't done as much of it as one might think.
"Soap," in which he played one of TV's first gay characters, lasted only four seasons and went off the air more than 30 years ago. He created several "SNL" highlights, but he was only a cast member for 17 episodes and has rarely returned to the show. We associate him with the Oscars, but he's hosted only eight ceremonies, a paltry number compared with Bob Hope, who presided 18 times.
"The Comedians" offers Crystal a chance to tap dance a little closer to the edge, but don't expect him to suddenly transform himself into, well, Louie C.K., the sitcom world's version of Evel Knievel.
"I've seen some stuff recently on TV where the language and explicit sex — you know, sometimes I get it and sometimes I just feel like, 'Ah, that's too much for me,' " he said. "I don't want to sound like some former baseball player bemoaning the fact that I only got paid $25,000 my entire career. But there are times it's just pushed a little too far for my tastes."
Gad, 34, may have a hipper résumé, thanks in large part to his Tony-nominated role in the irreverent musical "The Book of Mormon," but he's well aware who deserves top billing.
"The most intoxicating part of this entire process was getting the call that I was going to work with an icon that I grew up admiring," he said. "When I first started watching Billy, I decided that was the kind of entertainer that I wanted to be."
For Crystal, "The Comedians" is his best chance in decades to prove to a mainstream audience that he can get laughs beyond providing the voice of a one-eyed monster in Pixar movies.
"I don't think I've ever done stupid stuff, although you may think I have," he said. "I've always aspired to do intelligent comedy, and this is as smart as it gets."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431