My Favorite Year (1982)

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, and Jessica Harper
Grade: B+

My Favorite Year is about a young man whose life is changed in a singular, very eventful week. If so, why wasn’t this just called My Favorite Week?


In 1954 New York, television was live, and comedy was king. Through narration, Benjy Stone (Linn-Baker) talks about how stars like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason reigned supreme. Stone himself is a freshman writer for the hugely popular variety show The Comedy Cavalcade. It stars comic Stan “King” Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) and is filmed live from NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza Saturday nights at 8PM. This week’s guest star is the biggest movie star in the world and Stone’s hero, Alan Swann (O’Toole). Two years previously, Stone was kicked out of Brooklyn College, but he’s now earning more money per week than the entire fourth floor of his mother’s apartment house on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Anyway, Stone says this week with Swann changed his life.

Upon getting to 30 Rock with a cardboard cutout of Swann for work, he gets into the writer’s room and hands out food to other writers Sy (Bill Macy), Herb (Basil Hoffman), and Alice (Anne De Salvo). After everyone gets their food, they watch clips from Swann’s movies for inspiration. They are mostly swashbuckler films. They discuss Swann and say he’s landed in New York, but no one knows where he’s at. Head writer Sy quips that he’s probably “drinking and humping” while arguing that he’s never made a decent movie in his life. Meanwhile, it turns out Sy is right, as we see Swann waking up in bed with a young woman. Back at the studio, all the writers go to King Kaiser for the run-through of the “Boss Hijack” sketch. On the way to Kaiser, Sy tells Stone that he read his “Bullfighter” sketch and didn’t think it was funny, though Alice liked it. Then, Stone sees K.C. (Harper) and chases her to another floor. She works as an office assistant to producer Leo Silver (Adolph Green), and he’s been pursuing her for quite some time. Sadly, she’s not interested in the slightest. K.C. gets to costume designer Lil (Selma Diamond) and tells her Silver wants to see Helen’s costume for the “Three Musketeers” sketch. Stone interrupts to bring the costume for K.C. and walks with her while trying to suggest dating ideas. Again, she turns him down because any time he’s near, he embarrasses or humiliates her. Back at the random girl’s place, a flight attendant is also there (that Swann presumably had sex with as well), and she tells Swann it’s 9:25AM. He knows he’s late, but he’s not sure for what because he’s a careless drunk. At 30 Rock, Sy is told by Silver that his monologue has been cut by Kaiser himself. Out of frustration and threatening to quit, Sy tries to approach Kaiser about it when he walks into the room, but Kaiser embarrasses him in front of everyone as a response, calling it trash. Following this fiasco, Kaiser tells K.C. to get Sy a car as an apology because he realizes he went too far.

Next, they run through the “Boss Hijack” sketch. This is where Kaiser plays this gangster with an outrageous temper and whom everyone is afraid of. Following this, Stone, the writers, and Silver head back to the writer’s room to work on the rest of show this week because they still have 27 minutes to fill. Kaiser joins them. Immediately upon entering, he asks if Swann has shown up yet. Silver says not yet, but driver Alfie (Tony DiBenedetto) has picked Swann up and they’re on their way. They put on some more clips of Swann’s movies just as Swann walks in, horribly drunk. After some initial conversations, he quickly passes out after front flipping onto the table to prove he isn’t drunk. Silver yells at Alfie because he was just supposed to take him to the Waldorf, but he was at the mercy of Swann because of his status. Following some airport troubles, Swann wanted to make a few stops, so Alfie had to listen. Seeing this mess, Kaiser says he wants Swann replaced. Before Kaiser exits the room, Stone jumps in to defend Swann and has Kaiser imagine a scenario where Kaiser is in Swann’s position, saying how he hopes no one would treat him in the future like he’s doing to Swann now. Surprisingly, the ill-tempered Kaiser gives Stone a chance while admitting he has some serious balls to disagree with him. Swann can stay on, as long as Stone is able to be his handler for the week. It’s now Stone’s responsibility to make sure Swann is there for every rehearsal sober. Otherwise, Stone is screwed. Just then, K.C. tells Silver that gangster Karl “Boss” Rojek (Cameron Mitchell) and his lawyer Myron (George Wyner) are here, and they are upset about the “Boss Hijack” sketch because it’s making fun of him. Knowing Rojek isn’t happy about the sketch, the fearless Kaiser goes with Silver to the meeting while still wearing the costume from the sketch.

Rojek has Myron argue with Silver over the sketch and wants it dropped. At the same time, Kaiser antagonizes Rojek by mirroring everything he does. Even when Rojek threatens him by talking about how he’s in the “removal business” and tosses a picture in Silver’s office out of the window, Kaiser still refuses to cut the sketch because it’s funny. Then, he furthers talk about the “removal business” by tossing Rojek’s cashmere coat out the window. They almost get into a fight, but they’re separated. Before leaving, Rojek promises this is only “Round One”. Exiting, Rojek puts on the wrong hat, as it’s the one Kaiser brought in from the sketch. Following this, Stone takes Swann back to his hotel and Alfie helps, though Swann is attached to a dolly while sitting atop his luggage because he’s still very drunk. He can barely stand when he’s brought into the bathroom, so Stone stands him up by tying his hands with his belt to the hanger on the wall. Next, Alfie comes in and talks about how Swann is wearing his “drunk suit”, a special tear-away suit he had made. This allows for Alfie to strip him easily for moments like this, and him and Stone put the inebriated Swann into his bath. Privately, they unpack Swann’s things for him. His luggage contains some clothes, more alcohol, and a framed picture of his daughter Tess who lives in Connecticut. As they talk and bond a little, they both hide all of Swann’s alcohol including what Alfie thinks is his secret stash that he has on him for emergencies. Unfortunately, Swann still has some on him and drinks in the tub. Stone talks to Alfie some more about private lore involving Swann and his life like the time Swann accidentally shot himself.

Eventually, Swann comes down from his bath dressed in a tuxedo and ready for the night. He has to be reintroduced to Stone, and Stone lies and tells him that since this is Swann’s first time working in television, he was asked to stay with him and help him over some “rough spots”. Swann suggests “showing up” is one of these rough spots, and Stone confirms this, as well as “not passing out”. Seeing that Stone is an honest young man, he has Alfie phone The Stork Club for the both of them, so they can discuss the show over dinner. Stone is surprised at the dinner offer, but Swann reveals that he wasn’t entirely passed out when he was at 30 Rock that morning. He heard Stone’s plea to defend him and knows he’s a fan. He compliments the “Musketeer” sketch that he read on the plane, and it turns out Stone wrote that one. Upon getting to the Stork Club, the two are treated like royalty, mostly Swann though as Stone just tries to act like he belongs. Once they get to their table, Swann has his sights set on a beautiful young woman at a table, and she notices him too. Then, Swann and Stone talk about Swann’s failed marriages for a bit. Before they eat, an older gentleman approaches the two and talks about how he’s celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary and would love it if Swann could greet his wife on his way out. Seeing an opportunity arise, Swann decides to do it now. Before he leaves the table though, he tells Stone that he will require a diversion soon. Swann dances with the older man’s wife, and the young woman watches as it happens. In fact, the whole room watches Swann. Eventually, Stone comes busting out of the kitchen with a plate of desserts and distracts the guy who was sitting with the young woman, making a huge scene. Of course, this allows for Swann to run away with the woman he wanted.

The next morning, Swann and the woman make nationwide headlines for being arrested in the nude at Central Park.

Well, the week and this adventure has just begun, but Swann’s unpredictable behavior will make it increasingly hard for a young Stone to keep up.

My Thoughts:

Who would’ve thought working in comedy could be this chaotic, this stressful, and taken this seriously?

In these times, we need to remember the words of Edmund Kean as reiterated by Alan Swann: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”.

The golden age of television is something that should be explored more often. The environment behind making weekly variety shows viewed by millions, comedians doing everything possible to keep up the pace and to keep their star as bright as possible while under the limelight, and the writers behind the scenes doing anything they can to appease them while still trying to be relevant and funny is a great recipe for cinematic entertainment. My Favorite Year is one of the select few to showcase this road less travelled but does so in a shockingly harmless way, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s consistently amusing, it’s very well handled at every turn by director Richard Benjamin in recreating a great homage to the time period, and the fantastic Peter O’Toole is loads of fun.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, O’Toole makes My Favorite Year worth watching with his role as Alan Swann, a somewhat obvious parody of swashbuckling stars of yesteryear like the classy Errol Flynn, a megastar he emulates magnificently in his performance. The idea behind Dennis Palumbo’s screenplay came from Flynn’s lone guest appearance on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, a variety program in which executive producer Mel Brooks was a writer for. Now, it has been made clear that Errol Flynn was not the person Alan Swann was written to be, but the inspiration is there. A hero to millions of Americans because of his roles fighting evil afoot, Swann is someone who is recognized everywhere he goes and is a major playboy because of his star status. Swann is the movie star of the 1950s. His appearance on King Kaiser’s show is treated as a big deal, as he’s the biggest known movie star guest starring on television’s biggest show, during a timeframe when TV was regularly being watched by half the country. However, the problems with Swann are known from the beginning. He’s a skirt-chasing alcoholic with not a care in the world. As he explains to Stone’s Uncle Morty (Lou Jacobi) once he bluntly asks Swann if some illegitimate kid is his, Swann gets blamed for stuff he had nothing to do with. On the other hand, he gets away with murder. This is the life of an A-list celebrity. It’s a perfect balance, and for the most part, Swann makes it look like so much fun, with O’Toole’s debonair style (even while intoxicated) expertly expressing how such a star would act in his position. Secretly though, there’s a hole inside, which considering how much he drinks, isn’t a surprise. After being with Stone’s family and his mother, he gives insight into Tess, his daughter from one of his wives.

She lives in Connecticut, but Swann doesn’t have much of a relationship with her. More time has passed over the years and he feels more distanced from her now more than ever. It’s scary for any parent to go through this, but it’s intensified when you’re constantly under the spotlight and don’t have a moment to yourself. As careless as Swann seems to be, there is another side to him that is a lot sadder than he initially leads on. Not being able to enjoy your personal life because of your status as a public figure can take a toll and having these moments with Stone and the special people encompassing his life reminds Swann of this. Following another night of drinking, Swann admits his real name is Clarence Duffy once Stone admits his real Jewish name of Steinberg. As was typical during that timeframe, the studio made a whole new life for Swann, and he’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t know where his real life begins. In fact, he’s only doing King Kaiser’s show to make money to give to the I.R.S., so he’s not deported. Though a lot of the movie seems to be all fun and games because of how funny O’Toole is in his drunken state, with him nailing the delivery of every joke written for him, it’s a lot deeper than one would initially think with how the story is set up. It’s just enough emotion to give the film depth, without taking away from the comedic side of things.

All Swann has is his chauffer Alfie. He’s the only one who helps him out, but he thinks Swann is a lost cause as well and just does his job accordingly. If Alfie wasn’t there to help the troubled movie star out of his clothes to bathe or to drive him to places, there’s no telling where Swann would be. He’s that far gone, having secret stashes of hard alcohol all over the place. Of course, this is the perfect time to slot in Benjy Stone to help out. He’s a writer for The Comedy Cavalcade but has the least amount of experience. Of course, this means he’s the lowest on the totem pole and is treated like it. Even so, he takes it in stride and just loves that he’s there. The only time he really steps up is when Kaiser himself says to fire Swann because of how intoxicated he is. Then, we see the first inclination of who Stone is as a person. He demands a second chance for Swann because he believes in the persona Swann plays in film. He can’t just disregard all the work he’s done as an actor because it meant a lot to him as a fan. With his small but impassioned speech to Kaiser, telling him that he wishes the reverse to never happen to him, he’s given the job of being Swann’s handler for the week. In that moment, the audience sees the goofy Stone as a different person. It’s a good tone-setter for the wide-eyed Stone looking to make a name for himself on the show, amongst his colleagues, and for Swann’s eventual redemption. Later, we are given a little more insight into Swann’s abilities as a functioning alcoholic as well. Though he was seemingly passed out on the table in the writer’s room when Stone pleaded with Kaiser to keep Swann on, he was actually coherent enough to hear what Stone said, and it creates an early bond between the two because he appreciates Stone as a fan.

Herein lies the only problem with the feature as a whole, and that’s main actor Mark Linn-Baker. His casting alongside acting legend Peter O’Toole is comically bad, especially because everyone else in the movie acts relatively normal. The entire story revolves around his character and Linn-Baker overacts his heart out, isn’t funny at all, and isn’t emotional when he needs to be, with the lone exception being the speech he gives to inspire Swann to help Kaiser out in his fight with Rojek’s gangsters. On the other hand, the lines were very well-written and would be exponentially hard to fuck up.

In almost every scene where Stone is supposed to be the key to making the scene work with a joke or humorous response, he comes off as cartoonish because of his goofy demeanor, his try-hard sarcasm, and his terrible attempts at trying to be ironically funny. A great example of this is when Swann leaves a message in the mirror that he went to see Tess on the day of the show, and Stone is about to leave to go after him with just his underwear on. He literally says aloud to himself, “I can’t go like this. I have to get dressed”. Yeah, no shit. Saying a line to himself with no one there to react to him is the definition of unnatural. Nobody does that. If you absolutely have to say something here, at least say something funnier. He’s a writer after all, right? The only time his acting works within the movie, like his exaggerated responses and written-in quips that never come off as natural, is when he’s embarrassed by his family. Much like the golden age of television that My Favorite Year represents, Linn-Baker’s performance as Stone would fit right at home in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show rather than an 80s movie trying to win an Academy Award. This type of goofiness could work for someone like Mel Brooks himself, but since he NEVER looked like the “eager young kid” the main character is written to be, there’s no way he could play this role believably. He would’ve KILLED with the material given though. Honestly, it felt like Brooks wrote all of his lines and picked this jackass to act them out for him. Mark Linn-Baker has the look of what is needed for someone like Benjy Stone, but the performance was subpar and noticeably rehearsed. It was as if director Richard Benjamin tried to tell him in-between takes, “Okay that was good. Just try to be funnier this time”, and they just went with whatever they felt was the best one.

Stone borders on the unlikable, and when you consider where they were at during the beginning of the film, there’s nothing he does in the parameters of this screenplay that makes me think he could win over the normal and deserved-better-than-him K.C. Downing. You’re telling me just watching some Alan Swann movies, eating Chinese food, and him acting more normal than usual was good enough? In the earlier part of the week, he had to PHYSICALLY CHASE HER just to talk to her! He proposed to her in the women’s bathroom with his grandmother’s ring, threw it away when she turned him down, and offered to buy her a car instead, and she still left him high and dry! You’re telling me a movie date is good enough to win her over that quickly? Yeah, sure. Anyway, I do appreciate the always underrated Jessica Harper. She should have had a much bigger career. Harper has this alluring quality about her in such a reserved way. It’s something you don’t see in many actresses. If you want to see an even better example of the secret and underutilized talent that Harper was, check out Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. She always made an impression no matter how big or small the role was. She should have been a much bigger force within the industry.

Along with this, there were some efforts to make other aspects of the story funny, but they never quite hit on the level we want it too. The dinner sequence with Stone’s family was exactly what you would expect, and Filipino bantamweight boxer Rookie Carroca being married to Stone’s mom was a funny idea, but they went nowhere with it. What does Rookie cooking parrot for them or Swann seeing him fight in San Diego one time even accomplish? Little moments like Stone showing K.C. how to be funny would work if he was funny. Then again, maybe this is why he’s a writer on the show and not a performer. On the other hand, I’m probably just overthinking this and giving everyone too much credit. Even so, I did like him walking K.C. through a joke setup step-by-step. Though not all of his advice is applicable such as “never tell a joke sitting down” or how accordion players aren’t funny (HARD disagree), the advice of using “This guy” instead of “A man” in the opening of a joke is completely true. What makes up for the missteps and potential goldmine opportunities for hilarity is the emotion found within the sad side of Swann’s personal life and not seeing his daughter, the extremely funny sequence of Swann using a fire house to climb down to crash the party below because he thinks it’s K.C.’s place (“The cardinal rule, they always love a big entrance”) and him subsequently remembering he had a stuntman do this type of stuff after he struggles, and the hysterical “B story” involving King Kaiser and his war with Karl Rojek and the “Boss Hijak” sketch he wants to air.

Joseph Bologna was a show-stealer. Though his character was secondary to the Stone/Swann drama, his intersecting storyline of being this hard-to-deal-with comedy superstar who’s willing to fend off mobsters to defend his comedy was very entertaining stuff. From his serious demeanor when giving his writers or producers shit and then immediately apologizing by buying them stuff, to his dedication to his craft while wearing ridiculous outfits and being anxious as all hell, Bologna does a great job in replicating what a Sid Caesar or a Jackie Gleason was probably like behind the scenes of their hugely popular shows. He is tough, funny, and he makes up for everything Mark Linn-Baker lacks in. It leads to a triumph of an ending that is worth every ounce of the buildup.

This idea interested me from the get-go and though this wasn’t a serious take on the behind-the-scenes stuff, it was a still a nice introspective on the life of a comedy writer during that timeframe.

Because it’s such a great representation of the era it takes place in, the throwback My Favorite Year is a bit of a dated comedy. Much like those old 50s programs, the humor is goofy, quick-witted, fun, and unserious almost to a fault. It may not have you cackling on the floor with laughter, but it’s consistent enough to keep a smile on your face. It never steps on any toes and gets nowhere near what some may call “edgy”, so keep that in mind if you’re not a fan of these types of harmless comedic movies. Truthfully, I’m a sucker for a premise like this. Exploring this era of television and the job of a comedy writer during this time period is downright interesting, and there’s a serious lack of projects concerning it. This hook alone keeps the audience invested throughout its runtime. With an entertaining enough narrative that is only aided even further by its subplot involving the antics of the show’s star, My Favorite Year succeeds in being easy to like because of its simplicity and heart. With a solid supporting cast to fill out the story and a light and humorous vibe throughout, this film does a great job in shining a spotlight on the minds behind entertainment television and how things were working for a popular comedy program while under the duress of being watched by a live audience of millions. Lastly, we learn the important and very amusing difference between being a “movie star” and an actor and how both are different from being a sketch comedian.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in My Favorite Year. If they changed the lead actor, you’d be hard pressed to complain about anything.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours