Billy Crystal And Josh Gad: Separated By A Generation But United By Laughs

Billy Crystal And Josh Gad: Separated By A Generation But United By Laughs

5:58pm Apr 15, 2015
Billy Crystal (left) says that onstage Josh Gad (right) "lights up."
Billy Crystal (left) says that onstage Josh Gad (right) "lights up."
Ray Mickshaw / FX
  • Billy Crystal (left) says that onstage Josh Gad (right) "lights up."

    Billy Crystal (left) says that onstage Josh Gad (right) "lights up."

    Ray Mickshaw / FX

  • Josh Gad (left) and Billy Crystal co-star in The Comedians on FX. While on the show they pretend there's a big generational gap, Gad says, "I happen to have a lot more in common with Billy than not — so it was almost more difficult to create this sort o

    Josh Gad (left) and Billy Crystal co-star in The Comedians on FX. While on the show they pretend there's a big generational gap, Gad says, "I happen to have a lot more in common with Billy than not — so it was almost more difficult to create th

    Frank Ockenfels / FX

In the new FX series The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad star as satirical versions of themselves. The show is about how the two comedians are hesitant to work together and share the spotlight, but they do, and they begin a strained relationship, in which they're separated from each other by a generational comedy gap.

But in real life, when Crystal and Gad met, they hit it off.

"Even though there's 30-something years between us, there's a lot of commonalities and a lot of interesting parallels in our careers," Crystal tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"It really was kismet," Gad says.

Gad, who was on Broadway for The Book of Mormon and did the voice of Olaf for Frozen, says he wasn't planning to go back to TV, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"I wasn't looking actively for any reason to go back," he says. "And I have sort of been unlucky in love with television and it's hard ... to find a comedy that really works for your voice and is going to be something that connects with audiences."

On The Comedians, the characters Crystal and Gad play are heightened versions of themselves.

"I like to think of myself as a lot more jovial and easygoing than this guy, who sort of does have an egocentric personality, this guy who is constantly jealous or neurotic or what have you," Gad says. "My guy in the show is a vessel for anything but responsibility. He sort of doesn't have anything he's committed to other than himself and you see that reflected in his personal choices and his professional ones."

Crystal says his character is a lot more insecure about the success of the show and is often uncomfortable about the direction it is going.

"He senses more about the danger of messing this one up," Crystal says. "I don't feel that way. Whatever happens, happens now. I have much more of a carefree attitude than I ever had."


Interview Highlights

On seeing the Swedish series upon which The Comedians is based

Billy Crystal: Within five minutes I loved this thing so much, I basically committed to it because the premise was so terrific: It was a veteran comedian, he has a show that he wants to do and they can't really let him do the show and they want to team him with somebody else. And they force him to be teamed with a younger — what they think [is] an edgier — comic to make this sketch show. I thought the premise was so strong. Then comes the decision: "All right, who is going to be the guy? Where do you find this guy who can play with me and be funny and do all the things that I'm going to do, just his own version? And who is going to be the Sancho to this guy's comedy Don Quixote?"

On finding Josh for his partner in the series

Crystal: I had seen Josh in Book of Mormon and he was a revelation to me. I saw him once or twice as a Daily Show correspondent and you can tell he's a very skilled writer and very funny and has a really interesting charming charisma about him, but onstage he lights up. To me he's a new Zero Mostel. He embodies all the good things about many great musical comic performers.

On the generational comedy gap

Josh Gad: There's certainly a disconnect that exists, I think, in a lot of comedy out there and different approaches to comedy. I happen to have a lot more in common with Billy than not — so it was almost more difficult to create this sort of gap between the two of us. ...

Crystal: It happens a couple of times in the show where I have to go in front of an audience of young people and bomb and make it really uncomfortable. And that was really hard to do. The instinct is to go out and get 'em. But to deliberately do stuff that looks out of touch and out of date was really difficult. And it'll be very painful for the audience because it was for me, but in a really funny way. ...

It's really just awkward references. [It takes place] at a place called the Comedy Living Room ... [and] everyone is sitting on the floor and I just say, "You know, back in our day we used to call these sit-ins. We'd protest Vietnam. So what are you protesting, lumbar support?" And you could hear this "What is he talking about?" "We had these protests during the Vietnam War. Vietnam. That was the war that Forrest Gump fought in." It just dies. It's just so painful.

On their work in animation — Gad as Olaf in Frozen and Crystal as Mike Wazowski in the Monsters Inc. films

Gad: In general, when you're doing something like this, you sort of are looking over your shoulder at all of the amazing comedic sidekicks that have come before in the Disney or Pixar canon. ... I was blessed enough to be growing up in what they call the "second golden age of Disney animation," which was The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Lion King. And I remember seeing Robin [Williams'] performance as the Genie and I watched it over and over again in the theater and I just thought it was so unique and [it] so brilliantly captured the essence of him as a performer. And I sort of wanted to have that kind of freedom when I was approaching Olaf in the recording studio. And the creative team gave me that freedom, especially when it came to improv.

Crystal: [Mike's] a little one-eyed green guy but they videotape me and I said, "I want the hands of Sammy Davis Jr." They looked at film of Sammy and they would tape me when I was doing the voice work, so it's weird, it's this orb with this one eye but actually ends up having a lot of my expressions, it's very interesting that way.

To me, little Mike Wazowski is one of the best characters I ever got to play because he was funny; he was outrageous; he got angry; he was romantic; he was a full, well-rounded character.

On starring in The Book of Mormon on Broadway

Gad: I got a phone call one day from Bobby Lopez, who was working on the music with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and it was about four or five years before it ever hit a Broadway stage. And he said, "I'm developing this show about Mormons, would you want to be a part of it? It's with the guys who created South Park." I said, "Yeah, of course!" I listened to a demo they sent me and the first song is "Hello" and it's lovely, it's hysterical; the second song is "Two by Two"; then I get to this song called "Hasa Diga Eebowai." And I called my agent and I said, "I can't do this." And he said "Why?" And I said, "Because I'll be shot. This is the most offensive thing I've ever heard. You can get away with this in animation, not on a stage." I sort of took a leap of faith and I did the very first workshop we ever did and I white-knuckled it and the audience not only embraced it but was laughing harder than I've ever seen. And from that point on, I never looked back.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new FX series "The Comedians" stars my guests, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, as satirical versions of themselves. The second episode airs tomorrow night. In the first episode, Crystal is on his way to a meeting with FX Network executives. He's expecting to get the green light for his new sketch comedy show in which he'll play all the parts. But instead, the execs tell him they're giving him a young co-star, Josh Gad. In this scene, the execs first bring up the name of Josh Gad. Then the scene changes, and we hear Josh Gad seated at a restaurant bar, talking to the camera documentary style.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COMEDIANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As FX Network executive) Did you see "Book Of Mormon?"

BILLY CRYSTAL: (As himself) Yeah, I saw it twice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As FX Network executive) He was one of the leads.

CRYSTAL: (As himself) The fat one or the gay one?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As FX Network executive) No, Josh isn't - he's not the gay guy. He's - that I know of. Is he? No. We're big fans. We're big fans. And in fact, we think he could be - well, he could be the next you.

CRYSTAL: (As himself) Really? OK, so when he's me can I be Clooney?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As FX Network executive) You know, we have a little wrinkle we'd like to propose.

CRYSTAL: A wrinkle?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As FX Network executive) Just a little wrinkle that we think will keep what we all love about "The Billy And Billy Show," and...

CRYSTAL: And wrinkle it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As FX Network executive) We think the two of you together would be a slam dunk.

JOSH GAD: (As Josh Gad) When I found out Billy Crystal wanted to work with me (laughter), nobody was more excited than my grandparents. Obviously, you're flattered. The guy's a living legend. I was also very impressed. You know, for a guy in his position, at this stage, to realize that there comes a point in your career when it's time to, you know, play more of a supporting role, it's brave.

GROSS: So despite the fact that Crystal and Gad are hesitant to work together and share the spotlight with anyone, they begin a strained relationship in which they're separated from each other by a generational comedy gap. I spoke with them about the new show and about some of their other work. Gad really did co-star in "The Book Of Mormon." Billy Crystal had his own hit one-man show. They've each starred in animated films. Gad was the voice of Olaf the snowman in "Frozen." Crystal played Mike in the "Monsters, Inc." movies.

Josh Gad, Billy Crystal, congratulations on the show and welcome to FRESH AIR.

CRYSTAL: Thank you, Terry, great to be here.

GAD: Thank you so much.

GROSS: So, Billy Crystal, you got the ball rolling with this show after seeing DVDs of the Swedish series that this is based on.

CRYSTAL: Right.

GROSS: So what did you relate to about the Swedish TV series, and why did you see a place for yourself in it?

CRYSTAL: The premise was so terrific. It was a veteran comedian. He has a show that he wants to do, and they can't really let him do this show. And they want to team him with somebody else. And they force him to be teamed with a younger - what they think - edgier comic to make this sketch show. And I thought the premise was so strong. And then comes the decision, all right, who's going to be the guy who can play with me and be funny and do all the things that I'm going to do but just in a - you know, in his own version. And who's going to be the Sancho to this guy's comedy Don Quixote? And I had seen Josh in "Book Of Mormon," and he was a revelation to me because I had never seen him before. I had saw him once or twice on "The Daily Show" as a correspondent. You could tell he's a very skilled writer and very funny and has a really interesting, charming charisma about him. But on stage, he lights up. To me, he's a new Zero Mostel. He's - he embodies all the good things about many great musical comedy performers. He sings great. He moves. He knows his body. He's - he was really charming and great. So his name was brought up. And then I was getting an award at the Geffen theater in Los Angeles, and Josh was a guest performer. And then backstage, we met and talked, and I just got the feeling of him as a human being. And we just started hitting it off right away. And then we met the next day. It was - I thought it would be a 35, 45-minute meeting. It was three hours. And when he left, we were already doing bits. We were already talking about costumes and characters and things. And when he walked out, I said to the guys, I think he already has the job. You know, so let's - you know, don't call Jack Black. We got him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I love the premise of "The Comedians," which is it's a generational comedy gap. Josh, does that happen with you now with older comics and older performers who you know? Does this ever happen that you don't get the frame of reference that they're - that they're saying things that are about their generation and about the generation that preceded them, and it's just not going to translate to people who are of a younger generation?

GAD: I happen to have a lot more in common with Billy than not, so it was almost more difficult to create this sort of gap between the two of us because Billy's introduction to comedy, which he speaks about so poignantly and brilliantly in his show "700 Sundays," references the first time he ever discovered that he wanted to do comedy. It was in the Catskill Mountains. And he saw this Borscht Belt comedian. And he knew in that moment that he wanted to do it. That was also my first foray into comedy. I was - it was my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. My parents took me to the Catskill Mountains I think at the same age that Billy made that discovery. And I sort of saw this comic doing his routine. And I was laughing, at 5, harder than anybody else in the audience. And I didn't understand the punchlines. I didn't get any of the jokes. But I viscerally responded to this idea of making people laugh. And I knew that I wanted to do that.

GROSS: So...

CRYSTAL: Well, we have an episode - we have an episode, Terry, where - it happens a couple of times in the show - where I have to go in front of an audience of young people and bomb and make it really uncomfortable. And that was really hard to do. You know, the instinct is, go out and get them. And - but to deliberately do stuff that looks out of touch and out of date was really difficult and very - it'll be very painful for the audience because it was for me, but in a really funny way.

GROSS: So is it...

CRYSTAL: So, yeah...

GROSS: It's material you wrote intentionally to bomb for a younger audience?

CRYSTAL: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Can you give us a taste of one of those bombing jokes?

CRYSTAL: It's just really awkward references about - it's a place called the Comedy Living Room, which actually does exist and is a great thing. Josh takes me to perform at this guy's living room, where they turn into a little nightclub and everyone's sitting on the floor. And I just say, you know, back in our day, we used to call these sit-ins.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: We would protest Vietnam. So what are you protesting, lumbar support?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: And you could hear just the - what is he talking about? See, we had these protests during the Vietnam War - Vietnam. That was the war that Forest Gump fought in.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: And then it just dies. And it's just - it's just so painful...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: ...And, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Well, I remember - I remember, you know, like, when I was young and watching "The Ed Sullivan Show," and, like, The Beatles would be on. And then one of the comics, maybe even Alan King, who I know you worked with, would come on, and he'd go, oh, the young people today, they all like to twist. And he starts doing the twist. And he'd go like, ooh, my back. I'd just think, like, you guys sound so old.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, well, it...

GROSS: And these jokes are so, like, out of touch - or like when Bob Hope would tell gay jokes and, like, jokes about the size of women just like bazooms and (laughter)...

CRYSTAL: (Laughter).

GROSS: It's just like, these guys don't realize how out of touch they are.

CRYSTAL: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're in a way playing your version of that guy.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, but it's interesting. In the movie "Mr. Saturday Night," my character follows to The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." And they're still screaming, and his first line is, you're excited? I just bought a house.

(LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: It's - oh god, it's so painful. It's just so pain - yeah. So, you know, you have to embrace that and play with that. And we do. And it's wonderful fun that way, and - but a real test of my ego, my reality - for both of us...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

CRYSTAL: ...The things that we say 'cause it's very real that way. And I think it's refreshing.

GROSS: So in terms of, like, a generational differences in comedy, Josh, are there things that you think younger performers do that older people don't get?

CRYSTAL: Not really.

GAD: You know, I don't - I think Billy is actually (laughter) - I mean, Billy will sometimes encourage us to go further on the show (laughter).

CRYSTAL: Yeah.

GROSS: Unlike your character, Billy.

GAD: Unlike the character of Billy.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, yes, unlike it, yeah. I mean, what I've chosen to talk about all my career is real things in my life. So, you know, a lot of my material has been, you know, biographical material, the stuff - my observations in life about who I am. But offstage, you know, there's a lot - there's a whole different guy that always surprises people, especially when we were creating a show where they were like tiptoeing - well, you're not going to want to do that. I go, do what? Oh, yeah, but how about we do this? My dear - my dear, sweet friend Robin, when I sent him the show to show him what I was going to do - and Robin knew me comedically better than anybody, both onstage and off - said to me, are you going to let the dark man out?

(LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: And I said, I think so. He goes, good, it's time for him to leave. And, you know - and I revel in that stuff. I think I kept pushing it further what we could do with me and what I'd be willing to do than I think anyone thought I would do.

GROSS: Who's the dark man?

CRYSTAL: That's my - you know, that's the things that I'll write for myself. It's the things that I choose to talk about with my friends. It's my jokes. It's my point of view about life sometimes. It's a lot more edgy than the stuff I would do on stage.

GROSS: So you each play a version of yourself.

CRYSTAL: Yes.

GROSS: But the version of yourself you have to play is a little more egocentric, probably, a little more jealous and selfish, so describe, like - Josh, why don't you start? Describe who the TV version of yourself is.

GAD: The TV version of myself is obnoxiously heightened to epic proportions (laughter). I like to think of myself as a lot more jovial and easy-going than, you know, this guy who sort of does have an egocentric personality, this guy who's constantly, you know, jealous or neurotic or what have you. You know, in real life, I'm married. I have two kids. I was introduced to the idea of responsibility early on. My guy on the show is a vessel for anything but responsibility. He sort of doesn't have anything that he's committed to other than himself. And you see that reflected in his personal choices and his professional ones.

GROSS: Billy, how would you describe the TV version of you that you've created?

CRYSTAL: I think he's much more vulnerable and defensive and much more egocentric, but he's threatened. He's threatened by this guy. He's also - he's comfortable in himself in certain ways but really uncomfortable about where they're going with this - with this show. He senses more about the danger of messing this one up. I don't feel that way. I - you know, whatever happens happens now. I have a much more carefree attitude than I ever had. So I think he's different that way. And I think he's a little more acerbic to people than I ever am.

GROSS: One of the episodes of "The Comedians" is about how you're each nominated for The Kids' Critics Award, and...

CRYSTAL: It was a true story.

GROSS: Oh, there is such a thing?

CRYSTAL: Well, no, we created that...

GAD: There's not such a thing, but, yeah.

CRYSTAL: ...But we were both - yeah, we were both nominated for a thing they call The Annie Awards, which are the animated Oscars. And it came up in the paper. We were both nominated - Josh for "Frozen" of course and me for "Monsters University." And we both I think emailed at the same time going, this could be an episode, so...

GAD: (Laughter).

GROSS: Oh, oh.

CRYSTAL: And it became a really funny episode. So we created The Kids' Critics Award.

GROSS: My guests are Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. They star in the new FX series "The Comedians." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. They play satirical versions of themselves in the new FX comedy series "The Comedians."

Well, since you brought up animation, you've both had interesting work you've done in animation. So why don't we talk about that a little bit too.

CRYSTAL: Sure.

GROSS: Josh, you were in "Frozen" as the snowman. And you dream of how wonderful summer would be. And you don't actually understand that you would melt in the sun in summer.

CRYSTAL: (Laughter).

GROSS: So why don't we hear my guest "Josh Gad" singing that song from the soundtrack.

CRYSTAL: Oh, again? Do we really have to hear this again?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And the song was written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

GAD: Make sure Billy cannot mute it out of his ears.

GROSS: (Laughter). OK.

CRYSTAL: I'm putting on my cough button now.

GROSS: Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN SUMMER")

GAD: (Singing) Bees, they'll buzz. Kids will blow dandelion fuzz, and I'll be doing whatever snow does in summer - a drink in my hand, my snow up against the burning sand, probably getting gorgeously tanned in summer. I'll finally see a summer breeze blow away a winter storm and find out what happens to solid water when it gets warm. And I can't wait to see what my buddies all think of me. Just imagine how much cooler I'll be in summer. The hot and the cold are both so intense. Put them together, it just makes sense. Winter's a good time to stay in and cuddle. But put me in summer, and I'll be a happy snowman. When life gets rough, I like to hold onto my dream...

GROSS: That was my guest Josh Gad in - from the soundtrack of "Frozen." And Josh Gad co-stars with my other guest, Billy Crystal, in the new FX comedy series "The Comedians." So "Frozen" is such an incredible movie and soundtrack for kids who are growing up with it. So has it helped you, like, with kids and with their parents, getting to know them?

GAD: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's definitely a source of engagement when I go to a party for my daughter and everybody comes up and goes, that's Olaf. But that's so not Olaf.

CRYSTAL: (Laughter).

GROSS: Are your kids impressed with you because of it?

GAD: My 1-year-old is...

GROSS: She - too young, too young.

GAD: ...Still doesn't know not to poop herself, so she's too young to get it. My 4-year-old has known ever since I ironically took her to her first movie ever, "Monsters University," with Billy. And she looked at me as...

GROSS: That was her first movie ever?

GAD: In the theater, ever.

GROSS: Oh.

GAD: And she looked at me. And they showed a trailer, and it just featured my laugh, not my voice. And she said, that's Dada - more Dada. And I swear I started crying.

GROSS: Well, since you brought up one of "Monsters, Inc." movie, let's hear Billy Crystal in a scene from "Monsters, Inc." And this is a scene in which - the character that you're playing is basically a one-eyed creature, and the creature is basically the eye (laughter).

CRYSTAL: Yes. We used to say - I said, John - to Lasseter - he looks like walking CBS.

(LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: That's what this guy looks like. He's a little one-eyed green guy. But you know, they videotaped me, and I said, you know, I want the hands of Sammy Davis Jr. So they looked at film of Sammy, and they watched - they would tape me when I was doing this - the voice work. It's weird that there's just this orb with this one eye actually ends up having a lot of my expressions. It's very interesting that way (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, well, in this scene, he's actually doing standup 'cause one of the premises of the movie is you can generate...

CRYSTAL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Energy by making children laugh or scream.

CRYSTAL: Right.

GROSS: So you're playing the comic in a kid's room, trying to make the kid laugh to generate energy. So here's my guest Billy Crystal in a scene from "Monsters, Inc."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONSTERS, INC.")

CRYSTAL: Hello, hello, testing, testing. Hey. Good evening. How are you? How are you? Nice to see you. I tell you, it's great to be here in your room. Where are you from? Never mind. You're in kindergarten, right? Oh, I loved kindergarten - best three years of my life - of my life. But I love sports. Dodgeball was the best. Oh, yeah. I was the fastest one out there. Of course, I was the ball, but I - I was the ball, see? All right...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: Talk about bombing in front of an audience and an age group. Yeah, the kid doesn't get it, and then I do some sort - I belch, I think, is what I do, right? (Laughter).

GROSS: I'd like you to talk about the voices you developed for the character and what it's like to come up with an animated version of your voice.

CRYSTAL: Well, they - when John Lasseter said, I want you to play this guy and he came over and showed - he had this little model and then they had some crude animation, I just - I played with a couple of voices. And that guy sort of sounded right. And it was really a voice I did on "Saturday Night Live" as a - the I-hate-when-that-happens guys that I did with Chris Guest.

So it was - it just looked like that, but that would - (imitating Mike Wazowski) I sounded like this because I thought that he always was a little sweaty and a little under pressure.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: So I - that's - you know, I thought of, like, a high-pitched Jack Weston kind of actor, if you remember him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: So that's - yeah, that's where it - that's how it happened. I just played around with the looks and with all the video material that they brought to me. I thought that would be - I'd rather it than my own voice, which is what people usually do.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, one of the things you have in common is that you've both been in animated films. And the interesting thing about these animated films, they imprint themselves on children.

CRYSTAL: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, for all of us, those films that we've seen as children stay with us forever and leave this indelible memory.

CRYSTAL: Yes.

GROSS: It's a huge responsibility 'cause, like, you know (laughter) if kids do see that movie, it's going to really - they're going to remember it forever, for better or worse.

CRYSTAL: Well, for me, it was - I'm thrilled that people around the world know Mike Wazowski, but for me, the real joy was when my grandchildren saw that movie for the first time. That's the first thing they saw of my work. When they started realizing I was Mike Wazowski and I have to do the voice for them, then that's all they want to talk to. They only want to talk to Mike. They didn't want to talk to grandpa. They want to talk to Mike. Then they saw "Princess Bride." Now I'm Miracle Max in "Princess Bride." (Imitating Miracle Max) Have fun storming the castle. So now, they would call up the house wanting to talk to Max. They didn't want to talk to me for almost three years.

GROSS: (Laughter). My guests are Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. They star in the new FX series "The Comedians." After a break, Josh Gad will talk about his big break on Broadway co-starring in "The Book Of Mormon," and Crystal will talk about declining a role in a huge Broadway hit. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. Crystal is a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live," has starred in many films and hosted The Oscars many times. Gad co-starred in the original Broadway production of "The Book Of Mormon" and was the voice of Olaf the snowman in the animated film "Frozen." They star in the new FX series "The Comedians" in which they play satirical versions of themselves. Crystal plays an older comic who is reluctantly matched with a younger comic, Gad, on a TV sketch comedy series. Their generational differences create a lot of friction. In real life, Crystal and Gad say they get along well and have a lot in common.

Another thing that you have in common, you know, is that you've both starred on Broadway - Billy Crystal, for you, it was your one-man show "700 Sundays."

CRYSTAL: Right.

GROSS: And Josh Gad, for you, it's "Book Of Mormon." And you played Elder Cunningham, one of the young Mormons going on their mission to Africa. Josh Gad, were you the only Jew in the cast? (LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: ...Who was not in the audience?

GAD: Wow, you know, I may very well have been unless one of the Ugandans has a secret I don't know about.

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: I think - yeah, I think I might have been.

GROSS: So how did you get the part? I don't mean, you are Jewish; how did you get - I don't mean that. I mean, (laughter) how'd you get the part?

GAD: How did you get the part being a Jew? Well, there's a funny story.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

GAD: A lot of us work in the industry, surprisingly (laughter).

GROSS: I didn't really mean as a Jew, I just meant...

GAD: No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding.

CRYSTAL: Well, they wouldn't let me in the country club, so I figured I'd be in the show.

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: I got the role - I got a phone call one day from Bobby Lopez, who was working on the music with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and it was about four or five years before it ever hit a Broadway stage. And he said, I'm developing this show about Mormons. Would you want to be a part of it? It's with the guys who created "South Park." I said, yeah, of course. I listened to a demo they sent me. And the first song is (singing) "Hello," and it's lovely. It's hysterical. The second song is "Two By Two." Then I get to this song called "Hasa Diga Eebowai." And I called my agent, and I said, I can't do this. And he said, why? And I go, because I'll be shot. This is the most offensive thing I've ever heard.

CRYSTAL: (Laughter).

GAD: You can get away with this in animation, not on a stage. And I sort of took a leap of faith, and I did the very first workshop we ever did. And I white-knuckled it, and the audience not only embraced it, but was laughing harder than I've ever seen. And from that point on, I never looked back.

GROSS: Well, since we're talking about religion, Josh Gad, your father or grandfather was from Afghanistan, and...

GAD: Yes, my dad was an Afghani Jew. You do the math.

GROSS: Was he the only one?

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: I don't know. I mean, his family...

CRYSTAL: Where's your drummer, Terry? Where's your drummer?

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAD: His family was sort of in transit and got kind of stuck in Afghanistan as they were making their way, I think, to Israel. And he lived there until he was about 13. And Afghanistan actually used to be a fairly tolerant place, and it was like, you know, Persia. It was one of those places where you would actually find a lot of Jews, or at least a decent amount. And then, of course, my grandparents on my mother's side were Holocaust survivors, so it's sort of a hodgepodge of different tragedies and craziness that defines my family history. But yeah, people are fascinated by that. I'm fascinated by it as well.

GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" - Billy Crystal, you became known both through your TV sitcom "Soap" and through "Saturday Night Live."

CRYSTAL: Right.

GROSS: And I think you probably reached a much larger, broader audience with "Saturday Night Live." You didn't grow up with it 'cause it wasn't on when you were growing up. Josh Gad, you probably did grow up watching "Saturday Night Live," so Josh, what was the cast that meant the most to you when you were growing up?

GAD: Wow. Well, I grew up as - and Billy's not going to want to hear this - as Billy was on "Saturday Night Live." I mean, that was - what year were you on, Billy?

CRYSTAL: (Imitating crying) I don't remember.

GAD: I know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAD: Don't cry. Don't cry.

CRYSTAL: 1984, '85...

GAD: You've got to be honest. '84, '85 - I would've been 4 years old.

CRYSTAL: ...When your dad was 13 and escaping from...

GAD: My dad was 13 in Afghanistan still, right.

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: I sort of grew up, you know - I had two older brothers - one 10 years older, one eight-and-a-half years older. So I sort of remember - the first time that I remember seeing "Saturday Night Live" was the Eddie-Murphy-Joe-Piscopo era, and then I remember, very vividly, seeing Martin Short. And I remember watching an episode with you and Marty. I just remember these flashes - again, I was, like, 4 years old - but these flashes of you guys performing together and my brothers, you know, having to explain to me what was going on.

And that was the first time I really remember it. Later in life, I sort of - all I wanted to do was "Saturday Night Live." I became so utterly influenced by the Chris-Farley-Sandler era. That was sort of when I was in my teenage years. And I was like, that's what I have to do one day. And suffice it to say, I - that wasn't my path, but that was sort of my dream.

GROSS: Did you try to get there? Did you try to get an audition?

GAD: I put myself - I graduated Carnegie Mellon Conservatory, and for whatever reason, I thought that that was enough to get on "Saturday Night Live."

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: And I put myself on tape. And I didn't really pursue it in the way that most comics would have pursued it, which was going to Second City or joining some sort of improv group or becoming a stand-up. I sort of just kept putting myself on tape with all of these characters. And it wasn't until I got "The Daily Show" that they were like, you know, we would love for you to come in and audition for Lorne. And by that point, it was kind of passed the time that I could do it. So yeah, I missed the boat on it. But I still watch it religiously, and I still think it's one of the most significant shows in the history of television.

GROSS: My guests are Josh Gad and Billy Crystal. They star in the new FX series "The Comedians." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. They play satirical versions of themselves in the new FX comedy series "The Comedians."

You've each had the chance to work with people who were heroes to you when you were growing up. Can you each tell us a story about meeting one of those people and having the chance to work with them?

CRYSTAL: Well, for me, show businesswise, Mel Brooks - "The 2000 Year Old Man" was the album, you know, you just - everybody knew it, who knew anything about comedy. And it was - he was so hilarious and that energy - that manic, crazy, Jewish uncle energy that I knew in my house, he had. And he was just so hilarious and so free and so unexpected, everything he said. And so I got to meet him as parents. His son Max and my daughter Jenny were in kindergarten together from they were 5. So we - I knew Mel as a parent, which was hilarious. Then we'd see each other socially on and off because of my relationship with Rob Reiner and then Carl, who also is another, you know - you're looking at this Mount Rushmore of comedy - that's two of the faces. And when I was on Broadway and I finished my run, Mel called me. And I always wanted to work with him and never happened, and he calls me. He says, Billy, hi, it's Mel. Listen, I want you to go into "The Producers." I think you'd be a great Max. You'll go and you'll do Max. You'll play it from now till the holidays - till Christmas - and that'll be great. What do you think? I said, Mel, oh, I've been waiting for this call for 30 years, but I just finished my run. And with all due respect, I don't want to be the eighth guy to play Max Bialystock. And he said you won't be, you'll be the 12th.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, Josh Gad, I want to ask you to tell an example of working with one of your heroes, and you're not allowed to talk about Billy Crystal 'cause that'll just sound too showbizzy...

(LAUGHTER)

GAD: Right, right.

GROSS: If he's in the room and you say he's terrific, so just someone else.

GAD: You know, two - the two examples that come to mind immediately are Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and, of course, Jon Stewart. With Jon, you know, I watched every night "The Daily Show" before I inherited the job. And I was - I was truly terrified. It was the most terrified I've ever been getting a job. And they were so amazing to me because originally they wanted me to come out there as a full-time correspondent and move to New York. And my wife and I, on that salary, we weren't prepared to move. And I sort of thought I was going to lose the job, and instead Jon was gracious enough to let me come in and do it whenever I was free. And so it became one of these things where they would fly me in, let me do a piece and then, you know, fly me out. And it was so incredible of them to do that 'cause they hadn't really done that prior to that. And the first field piece I ever did was this field piece about guns as investments. And the field producer was brilliant, and he came up with this great - these great ideas for it. And we go into Jon's office and Jon has this sort of cavernous office at the end of the hall. And you sit there on these two chairs facing him, and he's got this big gumball machine on his desk. And he - the image of Jon that I always have is he chomps on this - the large wad of gum and he dissects - he literally looks at it and he won't say a word. And he'll read the three pages and you have to pretend to read it with him, even though your heart is racing and you've - know this inside and out. And he goes mhmm, mhmm, mhmm, and you see, like, the machinations of Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind" working in his head, where he's just putting these math equations of what makes something funny together and what doesn't. And he dissected it and completely threw out everything but the main conceit, and within 10 minutes, it got so much better than the producer or I could've ever imagined. And it was this amazing testament to not only how smart he is and how brilliant he is, but how there's no one funnier in the room ever - with maybe the exception of Billy Crystal - than Jon Stewart.

GROSS: The most attention-getting piece, I think, that you did during the time when you were a correspondent on "The Daily Show" was a piece on a gay pride parade in New York...

GAD: Right.

GROSS: Where you were trying to go out and see is it true that this is going to lead to total anarchy as we know it?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's like, it's going to be the end of the world as we know it. And so you talked to people who are, like, parading down the street in jockstraps...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And why don't we just hear a little bit of that piece?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

GAD: Now everyone from Albany to Rochester will have to deal with what people here in the city have long had to accept as part of their daily lives - leather daddies creating traffic snarls and sailors gone AWOL.

This is, like, an average day in the gay community, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, this is a very special day that we do every year.

GAD: Oh, yeah, tonight's BET awards. I forgot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's not why we're marching, though.

GAD: Sir, sir, may I ask you a quick question?

GROSS: That's an excerpt of my guest Josh Gad being a correspondent on "The Daily Show" doing a piece on the gay pride parade. And Josh Gad now costars with Billy Crystal, who's also with us, in the new series "The Comedians," and they play versions of themselves in a series that's really about generational differences in these two comics. So I have a question for you. You've said in interviews the past that when you were coming of age and going to acting school that a lot of people assumed you were gay, but you're not, but your brother is. And when your brother came out, people were surprised that he was the one who came out and not you.

GAD: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: So if you take that as a given that a lot of people assumed you were gay, what was the nicest way of telling people that you weren't without seeming like you had a problem with it? Do you know what I mean? Like, without seeming like it would be a problem if you were.

GAD: I, you know, I never faced that dilemma because when I was in college, for instance, every week it became a game of guess who's going to come out of the closet this week.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAD: I was - I was the last - pretty much the last man standing in my class who was still straight, so, you know, I was like the odd man out. When I was younger and I was - I guess I came off as slightly effeminate. I'm not sure what it was. I think people just presumed it. But they - you know, they never approached me and were like, hey, are you gay? Do you want to hook up? So it wasn't one of those things. It was just kind of this preconceived notion that I guess I gave people. Billy, did you think I was gay the first time we met?

CRYSTAL: You're not?

GAD: There you go. It something I give - it's a vibe I gave off. I'm honored. Thank you.

CRYSTAL: No, not at all.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAD: So yeah, my wife, the first time she met me, also thought I was gay. I don't know. I don't know what it is. I got to go speak to my therapist.

GROSS: Did you have to explain to her that you weren't?

GAD: Oh, I explained to her I wasn't.

(LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: You can cut that part out too, right?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And one more thing about the new show "The Comedians" in which, Billy Crystal, you play yourself and Josh Gad plays himself. And of course, you're more, like, neurotic, envious, egocentric versions of yourself - I hope (laughter). I hope you're not that way. But anyways, your home in the series, it's almost like a museum. You've got, like, sports memorabilia and all kinds of things people have given you. And there's, you know, like, awards, and these are all things you probably own, but is your house kind of like a museum?

CRYSTAL: That's not - first of all, that's not my house in the show.

GROSS: OK.

CRYSTAL: My house is three times as big.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRYSTAL: We actually have wings on the self-moving sidewalk. There are - you know, I accumulate a lot of stuff off, so I have a - I have one room that has things that I love in it. Some of them have nothing to do with show business. Some of them, you know - just a collection of photographs of me as a - and my brothers and my parents as kids. And I have a great deal of Yankee memorabilia that's only one thing that I buy, which was a Mickey Mantle glove, but the rest were things that were given to me. So they have a special feeling. It's not just I run out and buy stuff and collect. It's stuff that has been given to me over the years.

GROSS: Well, thanks to both of you. Good luck with the series, and I really appreciate you talking with us. Thank you so much.

CRYSTAL: Thank you, Terry.

GAD: Thank you so much for having us on.

GROSS: Josh Gad and Billy Crystal star in the new FX series "The Comedians." Episode two airs tomorrow night.

We're going to take a moment to remember soul singer Percy Sledge. He died yesterday at the age of 74. He had cancer. Sledge was best known for his debut single, "When A Man Loves A Woman," which was was the number-one hit in 1966. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN")

PERCY SLEDGE: (Singing) When a man loves a woman, can't keep his mind on nothing else. He'd trade the world for the good thing he's found. If she is bad, he can't see it. She can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down. When a man loves a woman, spend his very last dime trying to hold on to what he needs. He'd give up all his comforts and sleep out in the rain if she said that's the way it ought to be. Well, this man loves a woman. I gave you everything I had. Trying to hold on to your high-class love. Baby, please don't treat me bad. When a man loves a woman, down deep in his soul she can bring him such misery. If she plays him for a fool...

GROSS: Percy Sledge died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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