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.”
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.”
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.)
Over the past fifteen years, Crystal has worked alongside a lot of big stars, who’ve tended to describe her in the tone of a jocular, anthropomorphizing shtick. During the press tour for Night at the Museum, in which Crystal stole Stiller’s character’s keys, bit his nose, and, most memorably, slapped the bejesus out of him, Stiller recalled that on set, Gunderson would shout, “ ‘Get him! Get him! Hit him harder! Hit him harder!’ And then they give it a treat.
“I really dislike the monkey,” Stiller added. “There’s no way to feel great about having a monkey slap your face on any level.”
“It combines the worst aspects of working with children and animals when you have an animal that looks like a child,” said Robin Williams, who played Teddy Roosevelt in the movie, and whom Crystal went to the bathroom on in an unscripted moment (Williams, also on the press tour, seems to have been confused about Crystal’s gender, possibly because she can play both male and female). “He overacts like crazy. If he made those faces as a human, we’d be like, ‘What’s he on?’ Plus, what human can [defecate] on you in the middle of a scene and people would be like ‘Awww, great’?”
“She pretended not to know me on the first day of shooting,” recalled Hangover Part II co-star Bradley Cooper, “even though we worked together on Failure to Launch.”
Gunderson advises actors who are going to work with Crystal to ignore her, The Rules style. “Play hard to get,” he says. “Seriously. If you’re trying to solicit her attention in the beginning, she’s going to shy away from you, like, What are your intentions? But if you just play it cool, like she’s not even there … within five to ten minutes, she’ll be on you.”
When Crystal isn’t working, she lives with Gunderson and a small menagerie (dogs, horses, a cat, another female capuchin, named Squirt) at his home in Antelope Valley, in northern Los Angeles County. At night, Crystal joins him in bed. Gunderson puts your average Park Slope family to shame, sharing his mattress with (in addition to his wife and, sometimes, his kids) not just Crystal but Squirt and a Chihuahua. “It gets pretty crowded,” Gunderson says. Crystal sleeps at least eight hours a night.
The original Animal Practice pilot script called for a chimpanzee, but the people at Birds & Animals advised the producers that chimps have a narrow age window when they can be worked with, before they become too aggressive to risk putting with actors. And they’re more expensive, because of the cost of acquiring and training them. As Kirk points out to me, “by age 6, males will tear your face off.” A capuchin’s average life expectancy, on the other hand, is 40 to 50 years, with a professional life span nearly as long—Crystal might work into her forties, at which point Animal Practice would be in its record-breaking 25th season.
Plus she was already known to several of the creative team, who were crazy about her. The Russo brothers had worked with her on Community, where she played a recurring character called Annie’s Boobs. Armstrong, who co-wrote The Hangover Part II, had met Crystal in Thailand. “Once you work with Crystal, you think, ‘Oh, there’s going to be some other great animals we can work with that are just as well trained,’ ” Armstrong says. “And really, as soon as we started thinking about it, there’s nowhere else to go but to Crystal. She’s just the best. She’s really a uniquely talented animal.”