In all my years hosting live television, most notably as host of Dancing With the Stars, my absolute favorite live TV hosting moment was…someone else’s. Billy Crystal’s, to be exact. Billy’s classic ”in the zone” moment is the gold standard against which I always judge my own performances.
It was March 30, 1992. The 64th Annual Academy Awards. Billy was introducing 100-year-old film legend Hal Roach, who rose slowly from his audience seat to tumultuous applause from the crowd. Roach was only supposed to take a bow. But after signaling them to settle down, he began to speak. Without a microphone. All we at home saw was a sweet-faced, extremely elderly man in a tuxedo inaudibly moving his lips. As anyone in broadcasting can tell you, dead air is deadly. And here, on a show watched live by a billion people worldwide, Billy Crystal was suddenly faced with a boatload of dead air.
Did he panic? Nope. As the camera occasionally cut back to Billy, he wore a patient, easy smile. Finally, when Mr. Roach sat down, Billy took a beat, smiled a little wider (because he knew he had a beauty locked and loaded), and casually remarked, ”I think that’s fitting because Mr. Roach started in silent films.” Three points, all net. The audience exploded in laughter and applause. Watching from my living room just outside of Boston, I too cheered and applauded. It was a thing of live-hosting beauty.
If I can presume to get inside Billy’s head for a moment, I’d bet the line presented itself to him almost fully written, as if a gift from the comedy gods. He may have tweaked the phrasing a little as he waited for Mr. Roach to wrap up, but I imagine he had to take a breath to control his excitement and make sure he lobbed it out just right. And, of course, he did. He was completely at ease and in control in a situation that would provoke a massive coronary in most others. And that’s the key. Being totally in the moment, centered, listening to everything, ready for anything. That’s the Zen of ”LIIIVE!”
On Dancing With the Stars, when Marie Osmond famously fainted next to me following an oxygen-deprived samba, I was a bit startled, to be sure. I had never seen even an Osmond look that white! But I was able to react naturally and do what anyone would have done in a similar situation: I tossed to a commercial.
During that extended break, as paramedics and others gathered to assess Marie’s condition, I plotted how I’d welcome our viewers back to the show. I decided that I’d simply share Marie’s first words as she had blinked back to consciousness and locked eyes with me, the full realization of passing out in front of 20 million people taking hold. She said, ”Oh, crap!” The explosion of relieved laughter that followed my quoting her helped get the show back on track. But I was lucky. Had she muttered, ”Where am I?” it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.
More recently, after my buddy Maks ”Sex on a Stick” Chmerkovskiy admitted that DWTS wasn’t just his show, Brooke Burke tossed to me and I deadpanned, ”Damn. And I was going to ask him for a raise.” The mild curse word was deliberate for comic effect and, I hoped, within the comfort zone of the censor. It’s not always easy to be sure. When the group LMFAO performed, judge Bruno leaped onto the judges’ table and began wildly gyrating to the music. ”That was LMFAO,” I said after the performance, ”with a dancing assist from Bruno ‘WTF’ Tonioli.”
The line got a big laugh in the ballroom, but it was censored on the West Coast feed. ”You can’t say ‘WTF,”’ I was told. ”Really?” I replied. ”You do know what LMFAO stands for, right?” But that’s part of the high-wire fun: finding the zone, and knowing that your own Hal Roach moment might be just around the corner.