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The first time Billy Crystal used his iconic Mr. Saturday Night catchphrase "See what I did there?" on David Paymer, the comedian almost killed him. "I'd had a number of callbacks to play Stan, the brother of Billy's character Buddy in the Mr. Saturday Night movie," Paymer recalls. "At my final callback, I didn't feel that I really nailed it. And Billy said to me, 'You know, it's gonna take me a few days to decide. I'll let you know.' I got home and I said to my wife, 'I think I blew it.' Then the phone rang, and it was Billy. He said, 'How'd you like to play my brother?' I jumped up and down, I hugged my wife, I called my parents, I called all my friends. It was just one of those moments in life that you dream about, because I knew it was a big movie and a big costarring role. About 20 minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Billy and he said, 'Dave, it's Billy Crystal. Did someone just call pretending to be me?' I almost had a heart attack, wondering, oh god, did that really happen? Then Billy said, 'See what I did there?' That was the very first 'See what I did there!'"
Paymer's hearing that line a lot these days as Crystal's costar in Mr. Saturday Night, the new Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on their 1992 movie about an aging comedian who gets a second shot at fame and reconciling with family. Once again, Paymer is playing Stan Yankleman, the mild-mannered manager and brother of Crystal's narcissistic character Buddy Young Jr., who treats everyone in his life, including his loved ones, like second bananas. Stan spends much of the show in Buddy's shadow while his funny sibling commands the spotlight. But while Crystal delivers most of the humor, Paymer is the one who steals your heart. Paymer's Act II solo "Broken" is a searing assessment of the brothers' dysfunctional relationship, and it's one of the most moving moments of the evening.
Mel Brooks was the one who suggested Crystal turn Mr. Saturday Night into a musical. It took a while, but once Crystal got serious, he enlisted his longtime collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to cowrite the book based on their original screenplay, and Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green to pen the score. Paymer has been part of the project since its first workshop in 2017, and while he's primarily known as a busy Hollywood character actor, Mr. Saturday Night is not his Broadway musical debut.
"My first professional job was in a musical 44 years ago," Paymer says. "I was just out of college, and I went to an open call for Grease. I did the national tour for about six months and then they sent me to Broadway. That was how I got my Equity card!"
Paymer ended up moving to Los Angeles to focus on film and TV, but he always hoped to return to Broadway. So, he was thrilled when Crystal called and offered him the part of Stan again—this time without the fake-out. "It's been quite the journey," Paymer says, noting that the pandemic elongated the musical's development. But after a well-received production at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires last fall, the show was fast-tracked to Broadway.
Crystal and Paymer are the only ones reprising their roles from the movie, and it's understandable that the comedian couldn't picture anyone else playing his brother. After all, he wrote the part for Paymer from the get-go. "We met doing the movie City Slickers," Paymer explains. "While we were shooting, Billy was writing Mr. Saturday Night, and I guess he saw something in the way we related to each other, he began thinking to himself, this guy could play my brother. It was about a year later that he showed me the script," and invited Paymer to audition.
Paymer and Crystal were in their thirties and forties respectively when they made the movie and had to endure many hours in the makeup chair to play Stan and Buddy as seniors. "These days, as Billy says, 'We just show up!'" Paymer says with a laugh. "We walk in and we're already old!" But that's not the only benefit of revisiting these characters as more mature men. "I'm now 67," Paymer says. "When I did the movie, I had no children. Now I have two grown daughters. So, the whole thing about family and raising children, I'm much more informed through my own life experiences. How a family can be dysfunctional and not really know it, and the ways you make amends or fix things if they're not right. And my friendship with Billy has deepened. At the time we shot the movie, I had just known him for a year. Now I've known him since 1990! I don't have to manufacture those feelings or find some sort of Method-y acting substitution for loving Billy. I just have to look into Billy's eyes and it's all right there. It's within our relationship. The repartee and the rhythms that we've perfected with each other, it's just a joy to work with him. And he still makes me laugh. I mean, he's broken me up on stage. And yet it's in character because Buddy makes Stan laugh all the time—when he's not, like, totally putting Stan down."
In addition to the songs, the musical Mr. Saturday Night differs from the movie in tone and focus. It's less cynical and centers Buddy's relationships more than his career. Crystal has said this is the ideal way to tell the story and Paymer agrees. "Billy was doing a Q&A after the show and he said a musical comedy is the best way to present Buddy's whole saga," he says. "How Buddy finds redemption is working better than ever in this version. We're very, very proud about that."
Mr. Saturday Night is also frequently available at our TKTS Booth in Times Square.
Top image: David Paymer.