Published on May 4th, 2015 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Heckling Billy Crystal
Robert Barry Francos once insulted the famous comedian Billy Crystal at, of all places, a Dan Hill concert in New York City in the 70s.
In 1975, just before the time I started going to CBGB, I was an undergrad. One of the friends I made there was a married woman named Sheryl who was a few years older than me (I was 19, she was about 26).
Sheryl announced one day that one of her favourite artists, Dan Hill, was going to be playing at the… Well, honestly, I can’t remember now if it was the Bitter End or the Other End, two names for the same club at different times. I suppose I could look it up; anyway, the club was on Bleecker Street.
Dan Hill, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian folk singer. I had never heard of him before that, as his one big U.S. chart reacher, ‘Sometimes When We Touch,’ had not hit the radio just yet. As of that point, he was more of a cult singer. She asked me to go, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to spend money on him. Then she told me that the opening act was comedian Billy Crystal.
I certainly knew of Crystal. He had just been on the sitcom, Soap, and he had appeared on a bunch of talk shows doing a stand-up routine he did back then about an old jazz musician who called him ‘Face’ when Crystal was a child. Crystal’s dad owned a jazz record label when he was a kid, and little Billy had the opportunity to hang out with many famous musicians of the day. Since I liked Crystal, I figured what the hell.
We paid our cover (and overpriced two-drink minimum, I might add, as the drinking age back then was 18) and we sat at a table near the middle, waiting for the first set. The place wasn’t packed, but all the tables were taken, and the audience that was there was filled with mainly women who wanted to see Hill. No one else seemed to care about Crystal.
Billy Crystal came out, and was funny, of course. Not side splitting, but he definitely kept us entertained. He even did the ‘Face’ bit. He performed for about 45 minutes and was a class act. We were happy.
After he left, Daniel Grafton ‘Dan’ Hill IV came on. Hill is a short guy who was a guitar-and-stool performer. He also had a pretty long, but scraggly beard. And he seemed to go on forever. His songs were kind of listless and bland, which reminded me of a review by Dorothy Parker, who once famously described the talent of Katherine Hepburn as running “the gamut from A to B.” I kept looking at my watch. Between songs, he would smile and banter, while picking at his beard and pulling out things stuck there (old food?). Not a pleasant experience.
Finally he was done, and none too soon. There was a second set, which meant another two-drink minimum, so I was ready to go. But Sheryl had other plans: she wanted to see Hill play again. And, she was adamant about it. Sighing, I figured, well, at least I get to see Billy Crystal again, so it’s not a loss. The whole audience felt the same as Sheryl, so nobody left, and we all stayed to see the second set.
After what seemed like a long time, Crystal came back. Then, despite it obviously being the same audience, he started doing the exact same material in the exact same order, word for word. Damn!
About 15 minutes into his set, he said something like, “Did you hear what happened out on Long Island?” I replied, louder than I realized, “Yeah, about two hours ago.” He turned bright red, literally threw down the mic, and stormed off the stage. He’s a big star now, but I think perhaps back then, with his career sort of plateauing pre-Saturday Night Live, his ego was bigger than his career, and it touched a nerve. I never meant to tread; part of me is not sorry I said it, as it was true to what I was feeling, but at the same time I thought he’d at worst laugh it off or insult me, not leave in a huff.
For the rest of the night, I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting him to come out and clock me. It was my own paranoia, I know, but it was palpable. Hey, I was not a fighter, but I guess I was a heckler. I was at least that night, anyway.
Dan Hill finally finished his second set, and we got ready to leave. I kept looking around all the way out of the club, and didn’t relax until I was on the subway home. Sheryl didn’t speak to me for a few days after that.
And every once in a while, I wonder if he remembers that night.