My Favorite Year Should Be Remembered as a Comedy Classic

Movies Features Peter O'Toole
My Favorite Year Should Be Remembered as a Comedy Classic

Contrary to what last year’s Lucy & Desi biopic Being the Ricardos would have you believe, there have been enjoyable, cinematic accounts of live television comedy being created in the ‘50s. A very funny one came out 40 years ago this weekend: The 1982 film My Favorite Year. Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s embarrassing-ass Oscar bait, which characterized the I Love Lucy stars/bosses (played by Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem) as miserable despots who, despite running a toxic, deeply unfunny workplace, somehow churned out a classic hit sitcom every week, Year made Eisenhower-era television look like a raucous, unpredictable ride. And, also unlike Ricardos, there was someone behind the scenes who made sure it was an authentic one: Mel Brooks. The Blazing Saddles director got his start writing for Sid Caesar on his variety programs Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, alongside future comedy icons Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen.

My Favorite Year takes us back to 1954, inside a production week of the Your Show of Shows-esque Comedy Cavalcade, hosted by Caesar stand-in Stan “King” Kaiser (Joseph Bologna), broadcasting out of New York’s famed 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The story follows Benjy Stone (future Perfect Stranger Mark Linn-Baker), a junior comedy writer who gets assigned to look after that week’s special guest, movie-star-turned-washed-up-boozehound Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole). Since Stone is a diehard fan of Swann’s swashbuckling features, he’s up for the challenge, even if it means setting up diversions for Swann to steal another guy’s girl at a restaurant or holding onto Swann tightly as he gallops around Central Park on a stolen police horse. And that’s not even when Swann is in such a drunken stupor that he has to be strapped in and wheeled into his hotel room like Hannibal Lecter.

My Favorite Year wasn’t supposed to be about TV’s Golden Age. It was originally set at the turn of the century. Writer Dennis Palumbo approached producer Michael Gruskoff about a story where Doc Holliday comes to Manhattan to publish his memoir, with his ghostwriter serving as his leash/tour guide. Gruskoff replaced Holliday with an Errol Flynn-type movie star wreaking havoc in NYC when he guest stars on a TV show. (Unbeknownst to Gruskoff, this actually happened: Comic actress Martha Raye had to look after a past-his-prime Flynn when he guested on The Martha Raye Show in 1955.) Gruskoff teamed up with Brooks (fresh off of producing David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man, believe it or not), who got Saddles co-writer Norman Steinberg to come up with the joke-filled script. This film also marks the directorial debut of veteran actor Richard Benjamin (Westworld, Catch-22), who actually worked as an NBC page at 30 Rock in his younger days.

Year may be the most charming comedy about how lonely and crazy it is being a celebrity. While O’Toole amps up the dashing, charismatic swagger as the bed-hopping, bottle-stashing Swann, he never forgets that he’s still playing a sad, depressed alcoholic who can’t even get himself to visit his teenage daughter, who lives in Connecticut. (As a former matinee idol whose drunken adventures are just as legendary as his movie performances, O’Toole probably didn’t need to dig that deep for this role.) The same goes for Bologna’s hopelessly neurotic Kaiser, who tries—and often fails—to keep a cool head, even when he gets threats from a corrupt union boss (B-movie vet Cameron Mitchell) to stop making fun of him in sketches. Bologna is a side-splitting joy to behold, playing Kaiser as a suave yet manic diva who’ll publicly humiliate his head writer (sitcom vet Bill Macy), then arrange to buy him tires for hurting his feelings. (The scenes with him and his long-suffering producer, played by Broadway songwriting legend Adolph Green, are equally hilarious.)

I’m actually kinda surprised My Favorite Year isn’t considered more of a comedy classic. After all, this $7.9 million production became a modest hit, grossing $20 million. The critics adored it, and O’Toole eventually scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It’s chock full of quotable lines (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Swann yells when he learns he has to—as Bill O’Reilly would say—do it live) and laugh-out-loud sequences. In the movie’s yuk-filled centerpiece, Stone takes Swann to Brooklyn to have dinner with his family, which includes buxom entertainer Lainie Kazan as his mom (who calls Swann “Swannee”) and veteran character actor Lou Jacobi as his autograph-seeking uncle. (Kazan would recreate the role on Broadway, in a short-lived, 1992 musical adaptation. Coincidentally, a year later, Neil Simon would drop his own fictionalized, Broadway account of his live-TV days, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which co-starred Linn-Baker as a writer.)

Of course, since it’s set in the ‘50s, today’s audiences might find a couple things problematic, like the subplot where Stone incessantly pursues Kaiser’s assistant (Jessica Harper) to the point of full-blown harassment. (Ol’ girl eventually falls for the doofus after Swann encourages him to stop being a creep and start thinking like a romantic.) But the film is much too adorably screwy to despise, especially in the wackadoo finale where things get out-of-control on the air and Swann swoops in to save the day.

For hardcore comedy nerds, My Favorite Year is one fun trip in the wayback machine to TV’s anything-goes early days. Critic James Wolcott said My Favorite Year is “sugar-frosted with nostalgia and affection,” capturing “the most fascinating and underexplored periods in pop culture—the pioneer days of live television, where variety shows like Comedy Cavalcade were thrown together with spit and desperation.” Things may have been thrown together desperately back then, but as My Favorite Year shows, those who worked on those shows looked like they were having a good-ass time while doing it.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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