Getting into Bed Before the Room Gets Dark

June 14, 2016
I’m working on a baseball article that will be posted soon, but I wanted to post this non-baseball article while the subject was still topical.
 
Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016.  Of course, many pieces have been written reviewing his life: his Olympic gold medal, his championship boxing events, the changing of his name, his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces, his suspension, his speaking out against injustice, his quiet dignity while lighting the cauldron at the Atlanta Olympic Games, and so on. 
 
His funeral was held this past Friday, June 10th.  As happens more and more now, the funeral was captured on video and available for all to see.  In particular, I was interested in watching the eulogy delivered by Billy Crystal, who started a friendship with Ali over 40 years ago. 
 
Humor can be a very tricky balancing act in a eulogy.  I’ve delivered 3 eulogies in my life:  my father, my mother, my brother-in-law.  In each one, I used just a little bit of humor to convey something to the people in attendance about the departed.  A well-placed bit of humor about the person can provide valuable relief to those in attendance.  They are already saddened by the shared loss, and sharing a humorous experience or thought can have the effect of making the departed seem not so far away, and allows everyone to share in the joy of that person one more time.   As you might expect, Crystal delivered a perfect balance of respect, loss, reflection, friendship, insight, and humor about his longtime friend.  Watching that video provided the inspiration for this article.
 
Origin of a Line
 
"I’m so fast, I can turn out the light in my room and get into bed before the room gets dark!"
-Attributed to Muhammad Ali
 
I say "attributed" to Ali, because I think that’s who most people associate the quote with.  Ali said it before his fight with George Foreman, and Crystal referenced it often when doing his famous impression of Ali (more on that later), and it always was good for a big laugh.
 
But, Ali didn’t originate it.  Long before Ali used it, Satchel Paige used to say the same thing about James "Cool Papa" Bell, who had legendary speed.  According to Bell, they stayed at a hotel one time, and he discovered there was a problem with the wiring in the room that resulted in a delay between the time of flipping down the switch and the lights actually turning off.  Knowing this, Bell bet Paige that he could turn off the light and be in bed before the room got dark, and then he demonstrated it.  Paige used this incident to start telling everyone that Bell was so fast that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.  However, according to Bell, Paige would always leave out the details……
 
(Incidentally, another famous line about Bell was that he was so fast that he could hit a ball up the middle and be hit by the batted ball as he slid into second base.  This is a similar "tall tale" to one told about Josh Gibson.  As the story is told, there was a game played in Pittsburgh one day, and Gibson hit a game winning home run so high and deep into the sky that it disappears from sight.  The next day, the same two teams played again, but now in Washington.  As the teams took the field, a ball came falling out of the sky and a Washington fielder catches it, and the umpire says to Gibson "You’re out.  In Pittsburgh, yesterday!" )
 
Paige and Bell were teammates on the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the mid-1930’s, so the incident at the hotel (assuming that it actually happened) would have been from that era.  It’s certainly easy to see how Ali would have picked up usage of the line later on. 
 
However, the line apparently goes back even further than that.  A comedy team called Moran and Mack, who performed in minstrel shows in blackface, used this line in their act, and there’s a reference in print of their usage of it in 1919.  And, according to QuoteInvestigator.com, it goes back even further than that.  They located a reference from 1919.
 
The Ali-Cosell-Crystal Triangle
 
I’d have to say, quite honestly, that I was not a huge fan of Ali’s during most of his career.  I don’t mean that in a bad or a disrespectful way, at all.  I was not a big boxing fan in particular, although whenever one of the big boxing events of the ‘70’s would take place, I was certainly aware of it.  I mostly remember Ali as the champion, and it was much more interesting to me when someone beat the champion rather than the champion continuing to prevail, so I usually pulled for someone to defeat him.  So, I didn’t root for him, but it had nothing to do with Ali himself.  I just liked seeing others win.
 
I kind of felt the same way about Howard Cosell.  He was annoying, vain, and had a huge ego.  I can’t say that I was a big fan of his either.  However….when the two of them got together, it took on a whole different appeal for me.  In essence, they were a vaudeville act, playing off each other, challenging each other, arguing, playing, clowning around, bantering, Ali always threatening to rip off Cosell’s toupee and to knock him silly……a battle of intelligence and egos, of two men who loved to talk.  It was wonderful entertainment.  The contrasts between the two were sharp and obvious, but, you could tell, at the heart of it, that they had tremendous respect for each other.  Cosell was the first sportscaster to call Ali by his new Muslim name after he changed it from Cassius Clay, and was very vocal in opposition to Ali’s suspension.  There seemed to be a certain mutual admiration.
 
One of my favorite exchanges between the two involved an interview where Cosell observed that, in his opinion, Ali was taking a fighter too lightly and exuding too much confidence, and Ali countered with the fact that he’s always been confident that he can beat anybody, and why would Cosell imply that this was something new?  Cosell told Ali he was being extremely "truculent", and Ali responded with "Whatever truculent means, if that’s good, I’m that!".  Perfect.
 
As the ‘70’s unfolded, I started getting interested in comedy and comedians.  Among the more prominent sources for seeing comedy on TV in those days were the Dean Martin roasts on NBC.  I have very vivid memories of watching many of those shows.  The first Martin roast honored Johnny Carson in 1973, the last one was for Michael Landon in 1984, but really the show ran from ’73 to ’79, then went away for 5 years, and then they did 3 more in 1984 before ending it for good.  The roasts were typically attended by comedic giants:  Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Redd Foxx, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Joey Bishop, and Don Rickles all participated at various roasts.  Foster Brooks was a recurring guest as the lovable drunk, and Charlie Callas was a frequent guest as well, providing his various annoying twitches and sounds to the proceedings.
 
In the middle of that main run, in 1976, Muhammad Ali was the "Man of the Hour".  The roasters included Freddie Prinze, Gabe Kaplan, Red Buttons, Tony Orlando, Wilt Chamberlain, Georgia Engel, Floyd Patterson, Howard Cosell, Ruth Buzzi, Gene Kelly, Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Rocky Graziano, Foster Brooks, Orson Welles, and Nipsey Russell.  Ahh, the ‘70’s……
 
There was one additional roaster at Ali’s event:  a very young Billy Crystal.  At the time, Crystal was largely unknown.  He was 28 years old, a struggling young comic.  He made a brief appearance on an All in the Family episode that year, playing a friend of Rob Reiner’s character, which led to many subsequent joint efforts between the two of them. This was a year before Crystal got his breakthrough role on "Soap", and many, many years before becoming a cast member on Saturday Night Live and long before his film career took off.  I suspect very few people watching knew who he was.
 
Crystal was not on the dais like the other roasters.  He was introduced by Dean Martin more than halfway through the roast as a sportswriter who had covered the recent "Thrilla in Manila" fight, which was the 3rd and final match between Ali and Joe Frazier.  Martin introduced him as a writer from the Louisville Courier (Ali’s hometown) named "Bill Crystal".  He walked in from offstage, stood at the microphone and immediately went into his routine where Cosell interviews Ali.  You can hear the audience react to the impressions, and everyone on the dais, including Cosell and Ali, were cracking up.  He included the line about being so fast that he could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.   It was a brief appearance (they probably cut out some of the routine due to TV time considerations), but it was a big hit, and it certainly was a stepping stone for Crystal in the industry.
 
It also, as it turns out, was not the first time Crystal performed this in front of Ali.  A couple of years earlier, when Crystal was even less well known, Sport Magazine had named Ali as its Man of the Year.  Dick Schaap, who was the magazine’s editor, was gathering talent to appear at a banquet to honor Ali in early 1975.  He wanted to include a comedian, and pursued Robert Klein, who was pretty well established at that time.  However, he wasn’t available, but someone recommended Crystal to Schaap.  He had no idea who Crystal was, but was told that he did a funny Cosell-Ali routine, so a desperate Schaap agreed to take him.
 
At the time, Crystal had been working as a substitute teacher at a Long Island junior high school, teaching social studies and girls’ gym.  The dais included not just Ali, but single Melba Moore, Neil Simon, George Plimpton, and other famous people.  Schaap, as he tells the story, felt that Crystal was "out of his league".   Schaap asked Crystal how he should introduce him, and Crystal said, "Why don’t you introduce me as one of Ali’s closest friends?".  And so, he did.  Ali had absolutely no idea who he was and looked at Crystal and Schaap like they were crazy.
 
Crystal went right into his Cosell-Ali routine:
 
"Muhammad -- may I call you 'Mo'?"
"Sure, Howard, but don't call me Larry or Curly."
"How fast are you, Mo?"
"I'm so fast, Howard, I can turn off the lights and jump in bed and be under the covers before the room gets dark."
 
According to Schaap, Ali laughed so hard he fell out of his chair.  As Crystal reminisced the other day during his eulogy at Ali’s funeral, after the routine was over, Ali stood up, gave him a big bear hug, and whispered in his ear "You’re my little brother", which is what he called Crystal from that point forward.  Thus began a 42 year friendship.
 
Years later, in 2001, the same year he passed away, Schaap published his autobiography, "Flashing Before My Eyes".  On the cover are Schaap, Ali, and Crystal, with Ali and Crystal both mugging for the camera, complete with the Ali "grimace" and wearing boxing gloves.
 
Crystal and Cosell would also hook up every now and then.  Crystal appeared on the premiere episode of "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell" in late 1975, which debuted (on ABC) about a month before NBC’s "Saturday Night", which later became officially known by its more familiar "Saturday Night Live" title once Cosell’s show went off the air in early 1976.  In addition, about a decade later, Crystal was a regular cast member on Saturday Night Light, and one week Cosell was the host.  There’s a particularly funny skit where Cosell and Crystal play Cosell’s parents at little Howard’s Bar Mitzvah, where he announces to them that he want to be a sportscaster rather than a lawyer when he grows up.  Of course Cosell’s mother (Crystal) sounds just like him.
 
Ali & Cosell.  Ali & Crystal.  Cosell & Crystal.  The interactions of those three resulted in an unbelievable triangle of humor and entertainment that still resonates with me today. 
 
As I watched Crystal’s eulogy on Friday, I started thinking back to all those years ago to when the three first crossed paths.  That was part of my youth, part of my growing up.
 
In delivering his eulogy, Crystal referenced a performance he once did at Ali’s retirement ceremony in 1979 called "15 Rounds", a one-man, 11-minute performance that led you through Ali’s career and events from an Olympic champion all the way through the first Spinks fight, complete with impressions of Ali and Cosell inserted throughout.  It’s a terrific tribute.  The thing that I really enjoyed about it was that someone made a brilliant decision to have a bit of a split screen effect and, as Crystal performs the piece, you are also able to observe Ali’s reaction in a little insert in the upper left hand corner of the screen.  Clearly, Ali loved it.  Crystal also performed it years later at Ali’s 50th birthday, in 1992.
 
Crystal tweeted the "15 Rounds" video just before Ali passed away, and it’s apparently footage that hadn’t been made available before this.  I watched it over this past weekend, and it was terrific, compelling stuff.  If you haven’t seen it already, I encourage you to watch that performance, as well as his 13+ minute eulogy.  Links are below.  I hope they take you back, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did, to help remember the lighter side of Ali.
 
 
 
Thanks for reading. 
 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Poincare
Excellent article Dan. I just wanted to say that I cannot put into words how much I absolutely HATED Howard Cosell when he was a sportscaster. I'm almost fifty now so I had the misfortune of growing up as a sports fan having to listen to him constantly (Monday Night Football, Monday Night Baseball, etc.) and also being just young enough to have missed what was probably his best, most memorable (and probably only tolerable) work with Muhammed Ali. I think I can succinctly sum up my feelings about him by saying that anytime they show a clip of Cosell on a sports show I reflexively flip off the TV screen. I know that sounds silly but I genuinely hated him that much. He didn't seem to know a damn thing about either football or baseball--and actually seemed proud of his ignorance. He constantly mispronounced players names and always spoke as if he were above the event he was broadcasting. I'll never forget when he left sportscasting that he said was going to do something more worthy of a man of his talent--like run for the U.S. Senate. I never understood his appeal to anybody, do not understand how he got a job as a sportscaster in the first place, and honestly believe the sports world would have been much better off if he had never existed.
8:26 PM Jun 26th
 
JohnPontoon
I can bring baseball into this discussion. I'm quoting from memory, so please forgive any paraphrasing: In Leigh Montville's biography of Ted Williams, a meeting with Ali late in Williams's life is detailed. The meeting elates Williams, who later recounts to a friend or relative, "He told me that he wants to spend every day of the rest of his life trying to make people happy. Isn't that wonderful?"

I think it's pretty wonderful.
3:02 PM Jun 17th
 
taylorgh
Thanks so much for this piece. The video links were amazing. I'm impressed with how poised and poiished Crystal was. Most people would have been scared spitless, but Crystal certainly didn't seem nervous.

I remember watching a pre-game exhibition at Dodger Stadium in the 70s -- the Hollywood Stars vs an old-timer squad. Billy played shortstop for the Stars, and was quite impressive, in the field and on the basepaths. A true ballplayer!
10:49 AM Jun 17th
 
flyingfish
Daniel: This is a lovely piece; thank you. Do you plan to publish it more widely?

Billy Crystal and Muhammad Ali are two of my heroes. As for Howard Cosell, I think it's safe to say we'll never see his like again.
10:16 AM Jun 16th
 
metsfan17
The Howard Cosell Bar Mitzvah skit might be the funniest skit ever on Saturday Night Live. Did you try the Stuffed Derma, its out of this world! Thanks for the memories. I remember everything you talked about in the article.
8:35 AM Jun 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Seems to me that the "before the light was out" story was explained, possibly by Bill, possibly here, as being a trick that Papa Bell pulled when he knew that the light switch had a delay in it, and he could actually do it, though the unsuspecting roomie he pulled it on wasn't aware of the delay.
5:42 AM Jun 15th
 
mauimike
Nicely done, Dan.

Ali was a giant. He lived by a code that only he understood. Which is the best way to live.

Do the best you can.

It's all you can do.

Resist Much, Obey Little.
2:29 AM Jun 15th
 
MarisFan61
Great beautiful piece. Thank you, Dan!

I'm also a fan of all that you mention here, every bit of it.
I very well remember the "truculent" thing. I also remember how Cosell followed it up, in another interview not long after: he asked Ali if he wasn't being "niggardly".....
10:48 PM Jun 14th
 
 
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