From Superfan to Showrunner: 'The Comedians' Boss on Working With Idol Billy Crystal (Guest Column)

Ben Wexler recounts his childhood adoration for the comedian in an essay for THR.
Ray Mickshaw/FX; Courtesy of Anchor Media Strategy
Josh Gad, left, Billy Crystal and Ben Wexler (inset)

So I'm 14 years old. My parents have decided it would be a good idea for me to "emcee" my sister's bat mitzvah, because apparently bat mitzvahs need emcees. And who better to ask than a 14-year-old?

Looking back, I suppose it should've been clear even then I was destined for a life in comedy.

I go up, and I make some joke about one of my aunts that lands with an absolute thud. Crickets. I'm dying up there. I need to think fast or I'm going to lose the crowd. And not only are they my relatives, they're my ride home. The suburbs of Chicago get cold in the winter.

So I do the first funny thing that pops into my head: a Billy Crystal impression. Or, more accurately, several Billy Crystal impressions. I do Sammy. I do Cosell. I imagine I threw a little Fernando in for good measure.

And I kill.

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Cut to college. UCLA; much warmer. By this point I've memorized every word of Billy's "Howard Cosell: Right There!!" routine and performed it literally dozens of times for the amusement (hopefully) of my roommates. This is a five-minute routine where Billy plays five distinct characters, and I've got it down. Then one day, my buddy Mike walks into the dorm with big news: Crystal himself is coming to campus to accept the Jack Benny Award for lifetime achievement in comedy. We have to go!

Through my involvement in student government (if it's not already clear by this point in the column, I did not get laid a ton in college), I'm able to procure two tickets to the event, plus a backstage pass. I bring Mike. The ceremony's great; Billy's acceptance speech is heartfelt and funny. Now it's time to go backstage.

I send Mike.

"You take the pass," I tell him. "You love Billy Crystal."

This is a weird thought for an 18-year-old to have, I admit … but I wasn't ready to meet Billy Crystal. I didn't want to be just some fan who'd shake his hand and be forgotten seconds later. If I was going to meet him, I wanted it to be as someone who would stay on his radar. And so, I decided, I'd meet Billy Crystal if and (hopefully) when that was ever the case.

Two years ago, I got that opportunity. By this time, I was working as a showrunner. A producer friend came to me with an obscure Swedish series he wanted me to adapt for American TV … and Billy Crystal was interested. I watched and loved the series; the next step was sitting down with Billy.

Even if I'd watched and hated the series, taking the meeting would've been a no-brainer.

I've had a lot of meetings in my career. Hundreds. Some have been good, some have been bad … but almost all of them lasted about an hour. This one went two and a half hours. I can't remember exactly what we talked about; what I do remember pretty vividly was how good it felt the first time I made Billy Crystal laugh.

I got the job.

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Suddenly I was making a TV show starring Billy Crystal [FX's The Comedians]. Not to mention working with three other heroes of mine — Josh Gad, Larry Charles and Matt Nix.

Anyone who has ever run a show knows it's a tough job. All creative collaborations are. Getting all the players on the same page, especially on something new, is rarely easy. Add five distinct comic voices to the mix and it's downright tricky. But I believe our show was unique, at least from a creative standpoint.

Our show, The Comedians, is a mock "documentary" starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as two comedians named … Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. And they're both insanely great; these are the roles they were born to play. But in addition to being a great actor, Billy Crystal is an Actual Comic Icon. A guy with a legacy to think about. Portraying himself as something of a, well, schmuck wasn't going to be as simple for him as it might be for others. Yet for our show to work, "TV Billy" (the term we began using to refer to the fictional "Billy Crystal" character) couldn't just be a Nice Guy With a Heart of Gold. He had to be at least a little petty and self-centered. Otherwise, The Comedians was not going to be terribly comedic.

Now, make no mistake — our show was a team effort. But as the person ultimately responsible not just for every script, but the overall tone of the series, I saw it as my job to push Billy as far as he was willing to go into the uncomfortable territory of "making fun of himself."

Billy was on board for this, of course; otherwise he never would've signed on. We all knew that, whatever his character did in any given episode, the audience would understand the real Billy Crystal was in on the joke.

Still, it's one thing for everyone to know this rationally; it's quite another to look one of your heroes in the eye — a guy whose comedy bits you spent your adolescence imitating, a guy who's one of the reasons you decided to do this with your life — and say: "I think it'd be really funny if you were a total asshole in this scene."

I'm thrilled (and more than a little stunned, even now) to call Billy a friend. What's more, our collaboration — with each other, with Larry, Josh and Matt — resulted in a show we're all ridiculously proud of. Making The Comedians was, by far, the best professional experience of my life.

Eventually, I wound up telling Billy all the stories. The bat mitzvah, the Jack Benny Award, all of 'em. Occasionally, during down time on set, I'd even launch into 20 or 30 seconds of the "Right There!" routine. I still know it verbatim.

He finds it frightening and bizarre, borderline stalker-y.

But I do it anyway. It still gets a laugh.

The Comedians debuts April 9 at 10 p.m. on FX. Follow Wexler on Twitter at @mrbenwexler