Oprah: When did you know you could make people laugh for a living—that comedy was serious for you?
Billy: It was always serious for me. I can't do much else. I can field ground balls. I taught for a while. And with help, I can raise babies into women. You see this picture? [Crystal points to an old black-and-white photo.] This is from a high school show in 1964. I did Bill Cosby's "Noah." Just took the routine from him, word for word, and didn't even think it was stealing. Years later my friends started calling me up saying, "There's this guy, Bill Cosby, who's doing your stuff!" And Dad would always bring home comedy albums—Stan Freberg, Jonathan Winters, Cosby.
Oprah: You lost your father young.
Billy: I did—and right now I'm working on a show called "700 Sundays." My dad had two, sometimes three jobs. Besides running the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan, he did jazz concerts, and he ran this great jazz label, Commodore. So our only day together was Sunday. I figured out the math one day and realized that, starting from the time I could remember, it was about 700 Sundays we had together—days that molded me and pushed me into the right place in what I've chosen to do.
Oprah: Were you funny as a kid?
Billy: I could always improvise. Some of my teachers remember me standing in front of the class with a flower on my head, talking about photosynthesis. I'd stop and say, "Is this working for any of you?" The kids were like, "What is he doing?"
Oprah: Did you perform for your parents?
Billy: Yes. Mom was so funny and loving to us kids. She was our first audience. When my dad died, I was suddenly alone in the house with her, because my two older brothers were away at college. I was the man of the house, and she was the grieving woman.
Oprah: Didn't you have an argument with your father the day you lost him?
Billy: I did. It was about a girl, my first love. She had dumped me the week before: "I just want to be your friend." I was grief stricken. I had a chemistry test and couldn't even open the book. Dad was mad at me. He said, "What are you doing?" We got into it. I'd never been fresh with him my entire life—he was my idol—and I said something to him like "You don't know what it's like." He was pissed when he left to go bowling, and a couple hours later he was dead. The weight of it was horrible.
Oprah: Did you think you'd caused it?
Billy: I sometimes thought so. I got him all worked up, and he had a terrible heart attack. Later a really brilliant therapist asked me, "Did you ever think about what he was feeling that night?" I never had. But I know that if I have a bad moment with my children, I can't wait to say "I'm sorry." When I realized that, it eased up a lot of stuff.