The Animal Practice team knows that the show needs to accomplish what Community didn’t, threading the needle of an entertainment that is popular without being dumb. And it wasn’t always clear that the monkey would help. Kirk was initially concerned that a network show on Wednesdays at eight would eventually mean dilution of his character: “You worry they’re going to sand those edges down over time.” When Tyler Labine, who plays a sensitive vet recovering from a breakup, first sat down with the Animal Practice producers, “I was like, ‘Just to be clear, this isn’t sort of going to evolve into an animal show, right?’ ” Reassured that it wasn’t, he again grew concerned after Crystal scored so highly with test audiences. “It was like, ‘This isn’t going to be The Crystal Show, is it?’ ”
“I try to stifle comments like, ‘Oh, there’s the star of the show,’ ” Gunderson says. “You’re not going to have the show without the actors. At the same time, I had a conversation with Justin Kirk about this right in the beginning. He said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to upstage that monkey.’ I said, ‘You know what? It’s good for me to hear that, because I’ve worked with people in the past who don’t embrace it, and it seems to fall apart for them.’ They write the animal out of scenes, or they write it out altogether.”
In fact, the cast and creators suspect that a little animal humor paradoxically could allow the show to be more ambitious. As Scot Armstrong, an executive producer, says: “Being able to do a really smart, sophisticated bit that may go over some people’s heads is easy to do when you can then pan to a monkey afterward.”
The cast do seem genuinely enamored of Crystal. “I had a friend who saw the pilot the other night,” Kirk says, deadpan, “and she’s like, ‘I want to see more close-ups of that monkey. I need to see it tighter.’ And then I hung up on her. I said, ‘How dare you? Do you know that I’m No. 1 on the call sheet?’ ”
The inevitable Crystal biopic (Eat Me, Lassie: The Crystal the Capuchin Story) would start sixteen years ago, when Birds & Animals Unlimited, a top animal-actor company in Hollywood, dispatched a trainer in Florida to buy a capuchin monkey. The seller proffered a 2½-year-old female, but she was already aggressive, with her canine teeth coming in; the company likes to start training its monkeys as young as possible, and was seeking an animal closer to 1. The trainer ended up buying three capuchins, including the 2½-year-old.
At the time, Gunderson had only been with the company a few years, mostly working at the Animal Actors Stage show, at Universal Studios in Hollywood, but he was one of the three lucky capuchin recipients. He let the other two guys pick their monkeys first, and the 2½-year-old, the oldest of the three, was the last one left. She was a weeper capuchin, and Gunderson named her Crystal, as in Crystal Gayle.
For the next eight years, Crystal worked with Gunderson in the Universal show. With its pyrotechnics and large crowds of clapping and cheering people, Gunderson says, the show was “a boot camp” and “a great way for a monkey to grow up and become habituated for this kind of environment.” Crystal was unusually mellow, remaining calm in the face of children and loud music, which upset most monkeys. Instead of tearing apart a stuffed animal, as a more typically aggressive capuchin might, she was content with less destructive entertainments, such as grooming herself or playing with the buttons and levers of a toddler’s activity center. It was like she was born to perform.
Since 1997, when she made her first star turn, in George of the Jungle, Crystal has racked up an impressive résumé. She has been exposed to speeding motorcycles and cars and ATVs and trucks and planes and gunfire. She is unfazed by lights and camera strobes. Her style of play has translated, on-camera, to an interest in manipulating props, and Gunderson has found her more adaptable, and quicker to assimilate new behaviors, than other capuchins he’s worked with. “She takes to people really well,” Gunderson says. “Things don’t seem to bother her that bother most monkeys.” She has no trouble, for instance, performing 20 to 30 takes of a single scene, and on the red carpet at the Hangover Part II premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Crystal, in a pink gown, pearl necklace, and corsage, was unflappable, pogoing and mugging for the paparazzi. (Animal-rights activists, it should be said, hate when dancing monkeys are treated like, say, dancing monkeys; producer Gavin Polone even called for a boycott of Animal Practice last week on Vulture.)