On July 24, at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, the cast of the new NBC sitcom Animal Practice were finishing up a panel presentation for the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour when a siren pierced the auditorium. From the wings, a miniature, remotely controlled ambulance raced onto the dais; perched atop it was a small monkey wearing blue surgeon’s scrubs and holding a card emblazoned with the peacock logo. Hovering conspicuously in the background at the event was NBC’s perennial fourth-place ranking in prime time, and the symbolism of an ambulance-riding capuchin—can a monkey save NBC?—was barely latent. But this wasn’t any old monkey.
At 18, Crystal has an IMDb page longer and, though it’s curiously incomplete, more hit-studded than most actors three times her age. You may have seen her in American Pie, 3:10 to Yuma, Dr. Dolittle, Zookeeper, or We Bought a Zoo. “We feel this is Crystal’s breakthrough performance,” said Zoo director Cameron Crowe. “It is her Carnal Knowledge. The role brings out colors we have yet to see.”
In Night at the Museum, that was Crystal speed-bagging Ben Stiller’s head with her simian paw. In The Hangover Part II, she was the chain-smoking, denim-vest-wearing Bangkok drug mule. By reputation, she can break dance, too—“monkey break dance,” her trainer, Tom Gunderson, clarifies, a vaguely break-dance-y routine involving high leg kicks, jumping, spinning, backflips, and a concluding downward flop onto her back. USA Today dubbed Crystal “Hollywood’s Hottest Monkey,” and in July, the L.A. Times called her “the most powerful pet in Hollywood.”
On Animal Practice, which debuts September 26, Crystal plays Dr. Rizzo, a “medical assistant” sidekick to Justin Kirk’s misanthropic vet who wears tiny scrubs and a tiny lab coat and rides around on the tiny ambulance. The show, an ensemble workplace comedy set in a veterinary hospital, is a centerpiece of NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt’s fall strategy to dig the network out from years of last-place loserdom by broadening its programming beyond niche shows like Community and Parks and Recreation, which have enchanted critics but pulled low ratings.
Whether or not the strategy works, it positions Crystal to swing into the screen-animal pantheon, alongside the likes of Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Flipper, and Mr. Ed. Or above them. Gunderson suggests Crystal’s gig as Dr. Rizzo “would probably be the most famous episodic animal role in television history.” And he’s not above a little trash talk. “Crystal is Crystal,” he says. “How many people even know what the real Lassie’s name was? There’s dozens of them. Can anybody even name one?”
NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke has told advertisers that Crystal is the highest-testing character on any of the network’s new slate of shows. But the capuchin’s fame has already spread well beyond focus-group screening rooms. On a plane back to L.A., a passenger turned iPhone paparazzo took a snapshot of Crystal belted into her business-class seat on American Airlines, a full human meal in front of her. (Celebrity monkeys: They’re just like us.) At LAX, TMZ filmed her as she rode on Gunderson’s shoulder out of baggage claim.
Animal Practice is a single-camera show, and its set, in Soundstage 24 on the Paramount lot, is a matrix of vet-hospital spaces, from a large reception area to operating rooms to an Astroturf physical-therapy area featuring small jumps and obstacles. But it’s distinguished most of all by the terriers, beagles, tigers, pythons, and other non-hominid creatures standing by, tongues and tails wagging as they wait to hear “Action!” In most scenes, extras in scrubs move in and out of frame walking dogs and toting animal carriers.
Crystal reportedly earns $12,000 per episode of Animal Practice, and she is a presence in every one, whether cheering on an illicit turtle race (a guinea pig riding on each turtle’s back) or crawling inside and animating a puppet to haunt a puppet-phobe. When I meet her in the Astroturf atrium, Crystal, wearing spangled denim board shorts that conceal a diaper, shakes my hand with a miniature paw. She is standing on the lap of her trainer and moving from one of his knees to the other, over and over, while making occasional high-pitched tee-tee-tee sounds. She seems anxious, but Gunderson says she’s probably just bored.
This afternoon, director Anthony Russo is shooting a bit in which Crystal gives Dr. George Coleman, Kirk’s character, a shoulder massage. Over the years, Crystal has built up a repertoire of tricks, ranging from leaping like a pogo stick to pretending to smoke a cigarette. Gunderson estimates she recognizes 60 different English words, encompassing commands like “hit, wipe, slide, stick out your tongue, open your mouth, bare your teeth, hands on head, hide it, catch, throw, pick it up, set it down, drop it, throw it,” and so on. For this scene, Gunderson started with a behavior Crystal already had—wiping a table with a rag in her right hand. “The challenge we had was to get her to do it barehanded, and vertical, on someone, but that’s how it transferred. And we started incorporating the left hand, which she’d never done before.”