If we are to believe the ratings, NBC's ``Saturday Night Live'' is alive and well again for the first time since the days of samurai warriors, wild and crazy guys, killer bees, and bass-o-matic commercials. The late-night pastiche of comedy skits, news-of-the-absurd, film shorts, and musical guests changed the dating patterns of an entire generation in the mid-'70s with zany bits that included all of the above. But a decade later, SNL was definitely dog-eared after a long decline attributed partly to a lack of imagination in going beyond early formulas -- sendups of commercials, taking potshots at people, candidates, sex, and saying things that were funny primarily because they'd never been said on TV before.
To explain the recent rebound -- it has its highest ratings since the original cast left in 1979-80 -- producers, audiences, and pollsters are pointing one large finger at the many incarnations of one Billy Crystal (not to be confused with rocker Billy Idol): veteran of years on the stand-up comedy circuit; four years on NBC's ``Soap''; and star of his own, short-lived, prime-time comedy hour. The obvious standout in the latest batch of not-ready-for-prime-time-players, Mr. Crystal has paid his dues as writer, comic, and actor (TV as well as movies such as ``Enola Gay, The Atomic Bomb'' and ``Breaking Up Is Hard to Do'').
The truism for the SNL of old was that if you didn't watch it on Saturday, you didn't know what people were talking about on Monday: ``Excuuuuuuuse me,'' ``Never mind,'' and ``I'm Chevy Chase and you're not,'' are a few snippets that still resound in the mind from a kind of Smithsonian archive of Americana populated with SNL catch phrases.
Now, many of the things people are talking about Monday come straight from the lexicon of a stable of characters built by Crystal: ``You look maahvelous, dahling, absoluuutly mahhvelous,'' (a macho takeoff of the late actor, Fernando Lamas); ``I I I hate when that happens,'' (a fictitious messenger named Willie whose great love in life is a secretary for Shadelman Suits); ``It was simply unbeli-e-e-evable (from a fictitious bowler named Ricky, who besides serving in Vietnam has never left Brooklyn); ``You're from New Jersey? What exit?'' from Buddy Young Jr. (a takeoff of generations of wisecracking, borsch-belt comedians).
``Just when people were saying that canceling `Saturday Night' would be a mercy killing,'' says a recent TV Guide, ``a strange thing happened: the show got funny again. . . . Crystal brings what SNL has too often lacked in recent years, polish and professionalism.''
``He's the most professional, hardest- working, most dedicated person I've ever worked with in my life,'' says the show's producer Dick Ebersol, who wanted Crystal for the original cast back in 1974. ``When you talk about someone who's a star like he is, writes three-fourths of his own material, and works 18 hours a day, it's simply mind-boggling.''
Crystal also has an uncanny versatility for impressions. Four impressions he has done this season -- including voice, style, and mannerisms -- are Howard Cosell, Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Yul Brynner. Beyond that he can give you a generic rabbi, baseball player, writer, talk-show host, teen-age punk, or what have you.
``SNL is one of the last shows, if not the only show in show business where someone that's as multitalented as he is can show off his talents,'' Mr. Ebersol says.
What sets the Crystal brand of humor apart from much that has come before is a humor that is built from real characters -- usually people Crystal knew growing up or those he met in dozens of comedy tours that have taken him all over the country. Not that Crystal doesn't appear in the occasionally crude or irreverent skit, but by SNL standards he often has that lighter, more poignantly comic flair that arises out of true human impulse. ``He's a very humane comedian,'' says Ebersol.
``I don't set out to not do what they [early SNLs] did. I've always done the comedy I'm doing, and I always will. That's just who I am,'' he says. ``It's not to say that many of my characters are not shocking with what they talk about. But they do it with a playfulness that's not mean.''
Billy says he grew up around a rich potpourri of people from which to build his characters -- those associated with his father's family-owned business, the Commodore Music Store and Commodore Records, the premi`ere jazz label of its day.
``We had a lower than middle-class Jewish white family whose closest friends were black jazz musicians. Being around that element of concerts and nightclubs at a very young age, I got exposed to older, humorous, and lonely people all at the same time,'' says Crystal.
He says when he was five or six he met and knew such people as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton. The experiences made him gravitate toward performing. ``I always wanted to be a comic,'' he says, recounting the high school episode in which he memorized an old Bill Cosby bit off a record and performed it in a school assembly from memory.
``To this day, people are coming up to me and saying, `hey, this guy Cosby stole your material.' And when I see Cosby, he says people want to know why he didn't write his own.''
Add his diverse background and dreams of becoming a comic to a love of people and you have the Crystal formula. ``I see people and sort of file them away saying `I want to touch on this guy or do that guy,' '' he says. ``I care more about people than anything else, so the characters just come naturally and touch a lot of different kinds of audiences.''
He says his character Ricky, an amiable 37-year-old veteran who is bewildered by practically everything, comes from ``all of my friends in Long Island and Brooklyn and all of these sweet guys who never got out of their home town. Ricky just doesn't understand the world, so he calls everything unbelievable. He has one goal in life and that is, `I want to direct a major motion picture.' ''
His character, Fernando, which he uses in a talk-show bit entitled ``Fernando's Hideaway,'' is a much more direct takeoff.
``Fernando Lamas was my favorite guest on the ``Tonight'' show. He really controlled the show when he would come out. He looked marvelous, and he would just sit there and just say that to Johnny. He was always tan and elegant and Spanish and macho. He used to make me giggle because I knew he was putting it on, playing a character when he would sit down.''
Crystal says his favorite character at the moment is Buddy Young Jr., a fast-talking comic that Crystal makes sizzle by going off script when the occasion arises.
``When a show looks too slick it might as well not be live. When things go wrong, people know that it's live and they're in on it, and it's great.''
At a recent show, Crystal spied four celebrities in the audience and got the germ of an idea.
``I said to our director and producer, those people are sitting there, let me go. Give me a minute and a half, whatever. They trusted me and I got up and played with them and it was great fun.''
Crystal is one of three SNL actors who writes practically all his own material. Besides skits and monologues, that can expand to include editing the occasional movie short that must be filmed on location. He cites two of his favorite examples: a five-minute, mock documentary on black baseball players based on a true-to-life film called, ``Only the Ball Was White.'' Another co-starred fellow staffer Christopher Guest in portraying Al and Herb Minkman -- two old-timers who run a novelty store and pay money to go to a Mets baseball fantasy camp to play with the big leaguers.
To film the documentary, Guest, Crystal, and crew flew to St. Petersburg, Fla., for one day. They returned to cut, edit, film, and score it for the following Saturday. In addition, each performed in two live skits the same night.
``The thing about this show, it is the hardest job I've ever had to do in my life,'' Crystal says. ``It's 18 to 20 hours a day, and it's an amazing tribute to all of us that we get the show out every week. That's why the show is hit-and-miss also, because there's not enough time.''
Although interrupted by the Writer's Guild of America strike, three more episodes are airing this season beginning March 30. Crystal's remarks aside, critics say the show seems to be hitting more than missing this season. Is it because of a conscious redirection away from the days of old, or just the leavening of years and change of players?
``It's because I like my characters so much that I would not have them say those things that just test the limits of what you can say on TV,'' Crystal says. ``There are people within our staff who would say, we gotta be rougher. But I say you don't have to be rougher. If you're funny, it doesn't matter whether you're rough or not. If it's not something I want to watch on TV, then I'm not going to do it.''