''It's pretty much like writing a manual for earthquakes,'' Billy Crystal says, likening his preparations for hosting the 62nd annual Academy Awards to an exercise in disaster-preparedness. His survival kit is an annotated script, complete with quips for any eventuality from a Brando win to a satellite-transmission failure that he has spent the past few weeks compiling with fellow comedian Robert Wuhl (best known as Batman's nosy newshound).
''It's almost like a playbook for football,'' Crystal says. ''What we try to do is cover every possible alternative. Every time I'm at the mike, I want to have something humorous to say. Always trying to look as if I'm a half step ahead of the game.'' His three stints as host of the Grammys, from 1987-89, have proved the puckish, 43-year-old Crystal adept at recovering when others fumble, even when the game goes into overtime, as it inevitably seems to during such live broadcasts. And, despite its superficial elegance, keeping the ball in play at the Oscars is grueling work.
For starters, no one will have warmed up the audience, still recovering from running the phalanx of fans and paparazzi as the lights go down. And even if the production numbers don't drag the show down a big if, given the show's bumpy track record they aren't likely to buoy it up, either. ''At the Grammys, every eight or nine minutes I'd have another great musical act to bring out,'' Crystal says, almost wistfully. ''This show doesn't have that. I think that's also why it appears longer.''
If the going gets dull, you'd think that Crystal would fall back on one of his patented characterizations like Buddy Young Jr., the show-biz legend in his own mind; Fernando, the mahvelous Latin lounge lizard; or Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments, the bit that earned him some of the few good words awarded to last year's universally excoriated Oscar show. But he insists he'll stick to playing Billy Crystal, explaining, ''What's been effective for me on the Grammys is to just be myself. I hope to make the show, which is so stodgy, a little more personal. The important thing is to have fun, be loose, and also respect the job that you have. ''
Given that his own performance as a relationship-shy romantic in When Harry Met Sally..., though warmly received in the Hollywood community, didn't win him a nomination, Crystal may not be able to resist going the Bob Hope route, turning the oversight into a gag. ''You have to be careful about sour grapes,'' he says. ''I was disappointed, and I was disappointed in myself for buying the hype. The night before the nominations were announced, two different news stations had me nominated. So you go to bed thinking, 'Wow, do you think it could happen?' At 5:30 in the morning, they announced them, and by 6:20, when no one had called, you go, 'Wow, what a schmuck I've been!'''
Crystal probably will try out some of his stockpiled material at Los Angeles' Improvisation comedy club a few days before the big show itself, but he knows there's really no way to anticipate every possible situation. ''A joke can work at the Improv, but will it work in front of all those people in tuxedos, who are nervous to begin with?'' he worries. ''In my mind, I just have to forget the fact that there's a billion and a half people out there. It makes the writing a little bit harder. Playing to Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, London, and Sydney, there's the possibility of offending people without meaning to offend them, just because our sensibilities and our point of view about comedy are different. That's the biggest challenge to me. ''
Does that mean Crystal will lay off Dan Quayle, the favorite punching bag of every topical humorist, in favor of a kinder, gentler Oscar show? ''I don't know,'' Crystal teases. ''There may be a My-Left-Foot-in-somebody's-mouth joke. But I don't know.''