They rehearse the scene, Kirk leaning back into the counter—Crystal, wearing scrubs and a white lab coat, leaps up onto it—and saying, “Work the shoulders, Rizzo.” As Gunderson, standing out of frame, cues her with hand gestures and says, “Rub, rub, rub, rub, rub, rub, rub,” she vigorously rubs Kirk’s shoulders as if she’s a D.J. scratching. “Oh, yeah, good stuff,” Kirk says, closing his eyes and lolling his head like he’s receiving some deep-tissue Swedish kneading. After each run-through, Gunderson “pays” Crystal, dipping his finger in a small container of yogurt and letting her lick it off. (Other preferred foods: chocolate, Nutella, grapes, pistachios, peanuts, the odd crafts-services banana, a weekly egg for protein, and, off-set, spiders and flies.) Her hands are so small that Russo decides the scene “reads better for the camera” when Crystal massages a single shoulder with both hands.
During rehearsals and between takes, idle crew and extras stand around watching, transfixed by her—Crystal exudes bona fide showstopping, head-turning, magnetic star power. (One crew member, gazing helplessly at her, murmurs that she’s “mesmerizing. Every time I walk by her I can’t not look at her. It’s crazy.”) And they understand that she is an ink magnet (see: article, this). A reporter who may or may not have been photographed with Crystal licking his face, but who in any case retained total objectivity and was not at all co-opted, might hypothetically have posted the picture on Facebook and received a greater response to it than to any prior post in his five years on FB. At lunchtime, when Crystal, on a handler’s shoulder, joins the long line for a retro burger truck parked outside the soundstage, the American Graffiti–esque burger girls ooh and aah. Someone in line actually says, out loud, that Crystal is “single-handedly making the show a hit.”
“Never work with children or animals,” W. C. Fields is often credited with having said. They’re harder to deal with, and they always upstage their adult-human co-stars, which can fuel resentment. Susan Orlean, in her biography of Rin Tin Tin, reported as fact an apparently apocryphal story that the German shepherd was the top vote-getter for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards, even though the Oscar went to a human, Emil Jannings. Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in the original Tarzan movies, referred to Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimpanzee sidekick, as “that bastard,” according to her daughter Mia Farrow, “saying he bit her at every opportunity.”
More recently, Kelsey Grammer, speaking of Moose, a Jack Russell terrier whose job was to stare him down on Frasier, has said, “I don’t care for working with [dogs] … I prefer to pet them rather than rely on them to give me the proper cue … He’s a trained circus act.” (A circus act who, perhaps relevantly, received more fan mail than any of Frasier’s human actors.) Another Jack Russell, 10-year-old Uggie, was the breakout star of last year’s silent film The Artist, but when the suggestion was floated that Uggie might merit a gold statuette, his collaborators revolted. “It’s just a dog!” scoffed human star Jean Dujardin. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts explained Uggie’s ineligibility for an award by saying that his “unique motivation as an actor was sausages.”
Crystal isn’t the first capuchin to star in an NBC sitcom. In Friends, two other capuchins shared the role of Marcel, a pet belonging to David Schwimmer’s Ross. The cast were reportedly repulsed by the monkeys’ habit of vomiting live worms and throwing feces, and Schwimmer and the rest of the actors grumbled until the character was finally written off the show in the first season. (The monkeys’ trainers subsequently accused Schwimmer of insecurity over being upstaged.) But while dancing monkeys are the hoariest cliché of populist entertainment, there has never been a capuchin, pre-Crystal, on whose tiny, hairy shoulders so much depends.
Greenblatt is said to be very involved in Animal Practice, and the pilot aired twice, both times with a massive lead-in: the Olympics closing ceremonies and an episode of America’s Got Talent. (The first of these gave it a viewership of 13 million.) The promotion has not gone without its hitches. First, in a cringe-worthy juxtaposition, right after airing Gabby Douglas’s gold-medal-winning gymnastics routine, the network ran an ad showing Crystal the monkey … performing on gymnastics rings. Twitter horror ensued. Then, when the closing ceremonies ran long, the network cut to the Animal Practice pilot, scheduled to air right after them, preempting part of the Who’s performance and infuriating viewers.
The stakes for NBC are not lost on the cast. They see the level of promotion the show’s getting. They were there when Greenblatt attended a table read. And it’s also hard for them to avoid the impression they’re being groomed as successors to Community. A recent count of Animal Practice’s IMDb page revealed no fewer than 36 crew members—including the directors, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo—who previously worked on that show. One afternoon on the Paramount lot, in the company of an NBC minder, I ran into Chevy Chase, who was heading back to the Community set after lunch. When he learned I was writing about Animal Practice, he said, “I bet,” scowled, sputtered his lips, and gave a thumbs-down. “No,” he grumbled. “They’re okay. I’m just—my Russos took all my boys.”