Saturday, January 26, 2008
Writing Comedy In California
“You can’t write comedy in California! It’s not depressing enough”! spits out Sy Benson, played by Bill Macy, late in MY FAVORITE YEAR. It’s just about the only indication of what would happen to any of the film’s characters after it ends and, obviously, you know that at least a few of them had to eventually make it out to California to continue writing comedy. But what I have to ask is right now, this week, are you sure that California isn’t depressing enough? With this rain? With this cold I’ve had? With this entire damned month of January that I want to be over so bad? It’s perfectly depressing right now, if you ask me. Not to mention that, as we all know, there’s definitely not enough writing going on in this state right now.
Yet another viewing of MY FAVORITE YEAR is at least a tiny little aid in all of this. A movie I love which takes on additional resonance as time goes on, it falls on that list of movies that make you feel better, a little happier to be alive. When I was a kid I enjoyed it for the laughs. Now that I’m older the laughs remain, but there’s also the bittersweet tinge to it which makes me think of my own life when things just were simpler and more carefree.
The year of the title is 1954. Mark-Linn Baker plays Benjy Stone, the young writer of the Comedy Cavalcade, a very thinly veiled fictional version of Your Show of Shows—Stone is by all accounts based on Mel Brooks, who, though it was produced by Brooksfilms, takes no credit though he was apparently closely involved with the production. The film is set in the week when legendary movie star Allan Swann (Academy Award nominee Peter O’Toole) is set to guest star. When the clearly washed-up legend shows up so drunk he passes out, Benjy is assigned to be Swann’s keeper, to make sure he stays sober and actually turns up for the show.
This was Richard Benjamin’s first film as director and it remains far and away his best. Much of this has to do with the warm likability that comes from the script by Denis Palumbo and David Steinberg but it also has to do with his expertise in bringing out the perfect-timing laughs from one of my very favorite ensembles in all of film. In addition to O’Toole and Baker, there’s Joseph Bologna, SUSPIRIA's Jessica Harper, Bill Macy, Lanie Kazan, the legendary Adolph Green, Anne DeSalvo, Basil Hoffman, Lou Jacobi, Tony DiBenedetto, Selma Diamond, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE’s Cameron Mitchell, George Wyner and a silent Gloria Stuart. These are actors who rarely get as much of a chance to shine as they do here and there are a few who I honestly never like very much otherwise. Here, they are all perfect.
And it’s a wonderful New York film as well, giving us an array of people from that city, writers and others, who fought their way into these positions and are looking to keep on fighting. Some of this feel lives on today in episodes of 30 ROCK (the absence of which is another reason to be depressed) and MY FAVORITE YEAR gives us an antic world of people who bite each others heads off, yet they remain likable. And when we have a sequence like the one with Boss Karl Rojeck’s meeting in the Comedy Cavalcade offices, it plays for all the world like it could be a sketch on Your Show of Shows and it perfectly fits into this world, as if it’s an everyday occurrence to toss things out a window in the middle of Manhattan. If the film isn’t perfect—and I’m saying if, like maybe the romance doesn’t work, maybe there’s some abruptness to the plot which gives the feeling that a few things are missing—and even if these things are true, it ultimately doesn’t do anything to affect how many huge laughs there are or how ultimately affecting it is.
We’re a few months past the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of MY FAVORITE YEAR, but right around now is actually the twenty-fifth anniversary of its second-run appearance at the late, lamented Scarsdale Plaza, an old time movie palace which I saw countless movies in while growing up and was torn down a few years ago to build condos. I’d seen it already, but I remember going with my family to see it on the Saturday night of that week to see it again. I remember it playing like gangbusters for the crowd with huge laughs and cheers at the end, as good a response as I’m sure it ever got. After it ended my father, who was seeing it for the first time, turned to me beaming and exclaimed, “You didn’t tell me it was that good!” I wish I could tell him right now how much that memory means to me. In some ways, that memory is what MY FAVORITE YEAR is all about.