As host of the Oscars, Billy Crystal will spend more than three hours Sunday trying to keep an audience of millions on their toes.
But first he had to get comfortable on his.
The comedian emerged from his dressing room Friday taking baby steps down the corridor leading to the Kodak Theatre stage, his glistening black formal footwear shining up from the cuffs of his blue jeans.
“Just breaking in my new shoes,” he said as a caravan of joke writers, stagehands and assistants followed his slow progress.
A small detail, but an important one.
When he hosts the Oscars for the eighth time, he’ll serve as master of ceremonies, jokester, writer and maybe even song-and-dance man. In the past, he has described himself as the live telecast’s “jockey.”
The key is turning his insecurities into energy.
“If you don’t have a little nerves, then something is wrong with you,” he told reporters when he was first announced as the host. “If I don’t have a little bit of dry-mouth before I go out onstage, I get concerned. ... Fear is a good motivator.”
While he’s quick-witted and chatty onstage, Crystal is mellow and contemplative backstage. He doesn’t like to discuss the show when he’s in the midst of actually preparing for it.
But in an earlier interview with The Associated Press, he talked openly about his preparation on the big day.
“I usually have to be here at 8:30 in the morning, so I’m up real early and I work out with my trainer. We do stretching and get ready, then I leave and I’m here.”
Crystal, 55, said he has one tradition whenever he appears at the Oscars: He carries a toothbrush in his jacket pocket. It’s something he’s done since his first hosting duty in 1990.
The reason? As a child growing up on Long Island, he’d rehearse Oscar speeches in the bathroom mirror while holding his toothbrush like an award.
Getting into the zone
Little traditions like that help keep him grounded, he said. The morning before the telecast, he tries to take it easy.
“I do part of the run-through, because I don’t want to do all the jokes. The rest of the time is just quiet and I sort of sit and stare at my stuff, and then I hang out with the guys. You just try to stay as loose as you can.”
Although he’s known for singing comical medleys about the top-nominated films, and showing clips of famous movies with inserts of himself making wisecracks, that only carries him through the first 10 minutes of the show.
After that, he depends on instinct and improv to keep things interesting ... and funny.
“You hope something good happens. You can’t plan to improvise. It just has to be there,” he said. “It depends on the show. You really pray that something bad happens.”
His favorite surprises: When his “City Slickers” co-star Jack Palance, who had just won best supporting actor in 1992, tried to prove his 72-year-old virility by dropping to the stage floor to do one-armed push-ups.
Luckily that major award came near the top of the show, giving Crystal a running gag for the rest of the night. Crystal would give occasional reports to the audience that Palance was performing increasingly unlikely stunts, such as bungee-jumping from the Hollywood sign.
The same evening, Crystal introduced 100-year-old motion-picture pioneer Hal Roach, the producer of the “Our Gang” shorts. Roach responded with an unmiked, impromptu speech from his seat.
“It came back to me and I said, ’It makes sense he got his start in silent films,”’ Crystal remembered.
That one came to him on the spur of the moment, but he also has a team of writers huddled in a little room behind the stage where they watch the show and try to tailor his next introduction with a fresh joke.
But on Friday, as he walked onto the stage for a practice run, the writers, stagehands and onlookers gradually fell away.
Soon it was just Crystal, standing in his shiny shoes, alone at center stage once again.