Monday, May 9, 2011

TV Bites: My Favorite Year

Pot Stickers (Jiaozi)

My Favorite Year is one of those movies I go back to again and again whenever I feel the need for the warm & fuzzy. Even though I wasn't born yet, it reminds me of the New York I grew up in.... when real New Yorkers lived there, not people who say they're from New York but are actually from Ohio (no offense to Ohioans).

In the beginning of his commentary track on the DVD, director Richard Benjamin speaks about how this kind of comedy, those writers and comedians, could only have come from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side and that they "clawed their way out" of there. Both my parents grew up in Flatbush (part of Brooklyn to your out-of-towners). My grandparents never watched a baseball game after the Dodgers left to Los Angeles. Going to visit them on the weekends was a lot like the dinner Benji takes Alan Swann to in the movie (if only Rookie Carroca was there!). They had the only color television set on the block and, on Sunday evenings, all the neighbors would come over and cram into the living room to watch with us.

My mother grew up a few blocks from Alan Konigsberg (aka Woody Allen), and my dad was friends with Lenny Schneider (aka Lenny Bruce). Everyone in my family told jokes after dinner. And when we went on vacation, it was usually to the Catskills where I was fed a diet of Red Buttons, Shecky Greene, and Buddy Hackett, et al. The acerbic and abrasive way the characters talk to each - both in the studio and during the Brooklyn scene in the film - is the way all my relatives and parents' friends spoke to each other and to us. All of them are gone now. So I guess what I'm saying is that this movie is comfort food to me. It's like going home.

My Favorite Year is available for purchase or streaming at Amazon and is available for home rental from NetFlix.


Benji: "That was a movie! This is real life!"
Swann: "What's the difference?"

Let's start here. The year is 1954. Mel Brooks is a young writer on what would be the final season of Sid Caesar's #1 hit TV program on NBC, Your Show of Shows. Richard (Dick) Benjamin is a page at the studio. We don't know if they ever met then, but they both eventually became very famous and successful actors. Cut to 1982, Mel Brooks produces the movie My Favorite Year (the first film he produces which he doesn't star in), which Richard Benjamin directs (the first film he directs).

It originally started when this guy came in and pitched an idea to Michael Gruskoff [one of the producers of My Favorite Year],” recalled co-writer Norman Steinberg. Steinberg was one of the writers of Brook's classic Blazing Saddles. The guy he's referring to is the other writer of My Favorite Year, Dennis Palumbo. “[He] walks in and says I want to do a script about Wyatt Earp coming to New York. And he’s a drunk and he’s armed. He’s an armed drunk. And they put a young guy on him, you know, to protect him so he won’t shoot anybody. And [Gruskoff] said, ‘No, we can’t do that. It’s a period piece. Let’s do the 1950's. Let’s do Your Show of Shows.’ And this writer said, ‘What’s the Show of Shows?’ He didn’t know it.”

I have to interject to say I find this story a bit suspect. Palumbo had been working in television, writing for almost a decade by then and there's no way someone could write for television at that time and not know of Your Show of Shows. As well, Palumbo had previously written a TV series called Flatbush, a comedy about juvenile delinquents set in 1950's Brooklyn (It was a riff off the film Lords of Flatbush). Anyways, back to Steinberg's story....

"I got a call from Mel Brooks, and he said ‘I got a script called In Like Flynn and I hate it. And it takes place in the Bronx," Steinberg continued. So Brooks asked him, "Do you know anyone who can rewrite this?' and I said, ‘What’s it about?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s about Mel Brooks meets Errol Flynn on Your Show of Shows....’ I said ‘I’ll rewrite it.’ He said, ‘I can’t pay you enough.’ I said, ‘You can’t pay me enough?’ - I mean Mel will buy anybody lunch - ‘You can’t pay me enough or you won’t pay me enough?’ He said, ‘One of those two.'" And so Steinberg rewrote it.

Now Dick Benjamin has a slightly different version which he tells on the DVD commentary track. In his version, Gruskoff comes to Brooks with a story (we'll assume it's the Wyatt Earp story by Palumbo) and it is Brooks who suggests making it about Your Show of Shows, Errol Flynn, and then Steinberg is brought in.

And finally, in this interview with Brooks, it seems Gruskoff came to Brooks with a story already about he and Flynn, and set in Brooklyn. "I said [to Gruskoff], 'Wait a minute, you're singing my song. What is this - the story of a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a guest star on Your Show of Shows? I lived this life.'" Somewhere in here is the true story.

And speaking of the truth, according to Brooks, the premise of the movie is pretty based on the real events. "I made sure that we were telling the truth," he recalled. "I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed, Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with The Show Of Shows. He was a tough guy to corral and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman [the show's producer] assigned me to him and said, 'Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!' Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I'd say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head."

Being this was to be Benjamin's first directorial effort, and toss in the fickle nature of the film business, there was some question as to whether this project would get off the ground. Benjamin received a short list of actors from MGM who said if he can get one of them to play Alan Swann, they'd green light the movie. Benjamin's wife, the actress Paula Prentiss, had costarred in What's New, Pussycat? with Peter O'Toole, had first suggested him... and he was on the MGM list. So Benjamin decided to go after him for the role.

"So I went looking for him," Benjamin recalled. "[H]e lives in Ireland. Let's try to find him, I said. We call some pub there. Someone takes a message to his farm, and if you're lucky, you'll get some response. But no one knows where he is exactly. He's not in London. Then I said, 'Well, here's an idea. Let's call his agent.'" He did and it turned out O'Toole was about ten minutes away from Benjamin's office, staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

So they send the script over and shortly thereafter Benjamin goes to the hotel to speak with him. As Benjamin tells it, O'Toole told him, "I've read the script. Actually everything except the last ten pages. So I have to be very professional about this and tell you that I like it. I'm inclined to do it, but I don't want to say yes until I've read the last ten pages." So Benjamin leaves.

In Robert Sellers' book, The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, O'Toole recalled he initially refused the role "because of the possible danger that someone might think that this washed-up, clapped-out drunken old fart was actually me.” O'Toole had been a notorious drunk in his day, but by the time My Favorite Year was made he was literally allergic to alcohol and thatthat even a drop of it passing his lips could prove dangerous.”

But back to Benjamin's story. The next day, he received a call from O'Toole who had finished reading the script. But before he would give Benjamin his answer, he had a series of questions relating the last scene in the script. At that time, there was a coda at the end of the story wherein Swann has passed away, and the Mark Linn-Baker character goes to his grave every year and pours a bottle of cognac on it. So O'Toole asked Benjmain to turn to that last page and asked, "You have dates on the gravestone. There’s a birth date and a death date.... Do you know my birthday?" Benjamin said he didn't. O'Toole continued his questioning: "So the writer - no one - knew I was going to play this part or anything?" Again Benjamin said no, the dates were just picked by Steinberg apparently "out of the air." So O'Toole explained that the month and day of the character's birth date were his, and "if you add it up, that’s the age that I am now. And therefore I have to do this film," because, as Benjamin explained, O'Toole "believed in omens and that stuff."

Years later, O'Toole said how much fun he had playing Swann and that, "it did provide an opportunity for hilarious self-caricature which I enjoyed thoroughly.”

Mark Linn-Baker, who plays Benji, O'Toole's keeper and the junior writer on the show (the Mel Brooks role), had been working in theater in New York, and according to Benjamin everyone was telling him Linn-Baker was the perfect choice for the part. He was supposedly the first person Benjamin saw for the role, but again, being that it was his first directing job, he was nervous about casting the first actor he saw for the role. So he saw several other actors, including Rick Moranis and Tom Hanks, but in the end gave the part to Linn-Baker.

The rest of the supporting cast are all just perfect. Joseph Bologna also refused to be in it at first, but eventually (and thankfully) said yes. One of my favorite character actors of all time, the late, great Lou Jacobi, is there. Lainie Kazan (who many don't realize wasn't a dowdy old Jewish mama in real life!), Bill Macy, Selma Diamond (who had been a writer on Your Show of Shows!), and the lovely Jessica Harper. And I shouldn't forget the great Adolph Green, either. It's hard to imagine anyone else in any of these roles. A last bit of casting trivia is that the elderly woman who dances with Swann in the restaurant scene was none other than Gloria Stuart, who most folks know from playing "Old Rose" in the James Cameron film Titanic.

Harper remembered her time working on the film stating O'Toole was "a consummate professional. He showed up, did his scenes in a blaze of glory, and went to bed early. His on-set tales of times past were mesmerizing, and his presence was, well, it was like being in a room with Lawrence of Arabia."

There is a reel of "Alan Swann's greatest hits" that Benji and KC (Harper) watch and is also seen earlier in the film. While some of the clips were from Lord Jim and other early O'Toole films, the sword fighting film clip was not. It was actually shot for the movie and copies the similar scene in Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood. "[O'Toole] rehearsed this for... weeks and weeks with the other actor," recalled Benjamin. "[O'Toole] said, 'We must rehearse every day because there can be no faults.' He gave me the sword and said, 'Take the sword and swing it.' Well, it's so heavy that once you start moving it, you can't change it. They rehearsed all the time because they're looking into each other's eyes, and he said, 'It's the only way to do this.'" And for the book, there were no stand-ins nor doubles for O'Toole. He did the whole fight scene himself.

Because of Brooks' input, the movie accurately depicted much of what it was like to be on the inside of Your Show of Shows. Further, we get to witness a moment in time, and perhaps that nostalgia - even if one wasn't alive then - is one of the reasons so many people fall for the film. As Benjamin explained, "The essence of the picture is that here’s live television.... It’s brand new. It’s young. It’s courageous. It’s live. And here’s the new in Joe [Bologna] playing King Kayser, and here’s what’s leaving, what’s fading out - the Errol Flynn-like movie stars. And that’s what’s really at the heart of the picture. The beginning of something incredible and wonderful and new, and the ending of a whole golden age of motion pictures."

Brooks also discussed the film's essence and said, "I love when Peter O'Toole realizes that he's going to be working in front of a live audience. That is the essence of the movie - when he says, 'I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star.' There's a big difference."

But O'Toole is a movie star - and an actor. The film would earn him his SEVENTH! Oscar nomination and his SEVENTH! time not winning the damn thing. The Academy finally gave him one of those "Honorary" Oscars in 2003 for his “remarkable talents [which] have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters.” At first he wasn't going to accept it and told the Academy “[I'm] still in the game [and would still like to] win the lovely bugger outright.” He gave in to vanity, I suppose, and went and received it. Then, he was nominated again (8th time!) for Venus in 2007... and lost again.

And in truth, who cares about awards. As O'Toole once noted: “One of the lovely things about being an actor is that you can go on forever, although I have no intention of uttering my last words on the stage in fucking Macclesfield or something. No thank you. Room service and a couple of depraved women will do me quite nicely for an exit.”


Richard Benjamin noted in his DVD commentary track that, "Your Show of Shows was a live hour & a half comedy show, 39 weeks a year. With long sketches not short sketches, no little black outs, not one-liners, but long comedy sketches live every week. These guys had all of this on their shoulders and it took a tremendous toll on them. I mean, they behaved in very erratic ways.... because of the pressure and stress they were under." And that is the truth.

Sid Caesar had started out working the hotels in the Catskills, then after WWII became a hit on the Broadway stage. He quickly grasped how important television was going to be and jumped on it. Your Show of Shows only ran four years (or five seasons) from 1950-1954, but would forever change television and comedy.

It began as the Admiral Broadway Revue in 1949 (one of the only shows to ever be broadcast on two networks simultaneously) which brought together many of the stars of Your Show of Shows. Actually, it began on Broadway itself, when in the post-WWII years sophisticated sketch comedy revue shows had become very popular. But the Admiral show was canceled after one season because it was hugely successful. "Huh?" you ask. "Admiral was used to selling 500 to 600 television sets a week in those days and all of a sudden they were selling 5,000 to 6,000 a week," said Caesar. And Admiral couldn't afford to both invest in building more TV sets and producing the show that was getting people to rush out and buy the TV sets. So, in a move that speaks volumes about how the television industry still works today, they canceled the show.

But the man behind the success of it all was really producer/director Max Liebman (played by Adolph Green in the movie), another former Borscht Belt turned Broadway graduate. NBC asked him to put together something after the Admiral show and that became Your Show of Shows.

"We set out to innovate television, which was an evolving medium in its infancy. Our first conception was to deliver to the audience the first act of a Broadway show," wrote Caesar. "Most of the audience had never seen live entertainment. Even today, the vast majority of the people in this country will never see live entertainment outside of sports, large musical concerts, or a comedy club.... Max wasn’t interested in the American public’s lowest common denominator. He wasn’t going to dumb down, he was going to lift up. Taste, class, and style were going to be the order of the day."

We wrote things that made us laugh, not what we thought the audience would dig," Mel Brooks said. "What really collapsed us, grabbed our bellies, knocked us down on the floor, and made us spit up and laugh so that we couldn’t breathe - that was what went into the script.”

"Max was heaven and hell," Brooks recalled elsewhere. "When he was in a good mood, he was the kindest, sweetest, most loving father imaginable, but when he was in a bad mood, you had to watch out. If I told him a joke he didn't like, he'd throw a lit cigar at me. But I was younger and more agile in those days, so I could always duck.... We used to call the job ‘Max Liebman University.'."

"We called Max ‘Herr Doktor,'" Carl Reiner added, "because he did a lot of doctoring on scripts. For the writers and the comics, he was a great counterpuncher, a worthy adversary who was terrific at taking work and honing it."

"Experience is the best teacher of all and Max had the experience," wrote Caesar. "He was the coach who knew how to develop his players, maximize their talent, and play into their strengths. He was the doctor who had seen the ailment, could identify all of the symptoms, and know immediately how to treat or fix whatever you had."

Over the years, many of the show's writers have offered us a glimpse of what it was like in the writer's room of Your Show of Shows. Besides Mel Brooks' version in My Favorite Year, we have Carl Reiner's The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Neil Simon's play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (which was filmed for television directed by Richard Benjamin and costarred Mark Linn-Baker). But I'm sure we'll never truly grasp the level of madness that went on in that room. (Just wanted to throw this in: Woody Allen did not write for the show as many people mention. He worked on the later Caesar show, Caesar's Hour.) In an interview, Mel Brooks said (PDF) all the writers were in therapy while working on the show. The interviewer (Calvin Trillian), asked what was wrong with all of them? Brooks answered simply, "Being Jewish."

Caesar once noted (PDF) that since they couldn't talk about issues like sex, politics and religion, so they opted to explore "the human condition." “The humor sprang from everyday events and was a mixture of sad & funny," he wrote. “The guy in trouble is a very funny guy. Chaplin knew that in 1910 and we knew that in 1950.

When Your Show of Shows was canceled, Caesar continued to try and make more successful television, but didn't. The situation comedy shows were now king. As Gerald Nachman wrote in his book about the comics of the 50's & 60's, "[W]ithout Liebman, Caesar was lost. He never recovered when Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour ended.... The critics who had begun by praising Caesar ended up burying him.... His career was short-circuited by alcohol and pills, setting off drunken rages that grew into a 20-year lost weekend." Eventually, Caesar did check himself into a hospital and got healthy, but he never got his career back. Still, Your Show of Shows remains "one of the most ambitious undertakings on television, ever."


"Katherine, Jews know two things: Suffering, and where to find great Chinese food."

And with that line, the screenwriter summed up all you need to know about us Jews. Yes, it's a joke, but like all great jokes, it's also the truth. And we suffer without great Chinese food. Seriously. Come to Austin and see me suffer (but we do have great Vietnamese food).

I just want to note that this is the last in an unintended series of recipes involving dough things filled with things. First we had Sin Nombre with tacos, Buena Vista Social Club with empanadas, The Palm Beach Story with hot dogs, then Amarcord with piadine, even the hushpuppies for A Fistful of Dollars are essentially dough with stuff. And now pot stickers. Pretty strange, eh?

In the movie, Benji offers up to Katherine, his love interest, a mess of Chinese take-out for their little date after-hours in the office. "These are all dim sum, Chinese dumplings," he explains. "These are pan-fried. Those are steamed. They're good just with vinegar. [This is] chili sauce. Stay away from this baby. A couple of drops of this, your tongue dials the fire department."

Once again, our food history is a mystery lesson with several alternative tales. Here are two from this site. The first: "[T]hey were so named because they were horn shaped. The Chinese for 'horn' is jiǎo (角), and jiaozi was originally written with the Chinese character for 'horn....'."

The second comes from Chinese folk tales. "[J]iaozi were invented by Zhang Zhongjing, one of the greatest practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in history. They were originally called jiao'er (娇耳) because they were used to treat frostbitten ears."

Okay. But here's the more accepted story (whether it's true or not is irrelevant, I suppose). The entomology "dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty. During this time, merchants in Chengdu distributed one of the earliest known paper money. The currency was called jiao zi.... [Then] jiao zi then began to be used as a general term for money." And since Jiaozi the dumpling supposedly look like the gold ingots (used during the Ming Dynasty for money), that's how they got their name.

But allow me to toss this into the mix - they look more to me like the earliest form of money used in China... seashells. Am I right or am I right?

Anyways, they are typically served at midnight on the Chinese New Year as a way to signify good fortune in the new year. Sometimes a candy or even a coin is hidden in one for an extra special good new year. "Those who receive sweets will have a sweeter life, peanuts symbolize long life, and dates and chestnuts represent the imminent arrival of a son." You can try and figure out the symbolism of chestnuts and breeding on your own, I think, but in Chinese "son" and "chestnut" are homophones.

Zhao Rongguang, head of Institute for Chinese Food Culture, has said: "At the juncture of the passing and new year, Jiaozi are given special significance. These dumplings have always been regarded as the best food that people can ever have. So enjoying the best food wraps up the past and welcomes in good luck for the coming year."

One ancient Chinese saying goes like this: "Chu men jiaozi jin men mian," which translate into "One needs to eat Jiaozi when leaving home for a long time and eat noodle when coming back home." But just to be clear, Jiaozi needn't only be eaten at the New Year or before going on a trip, they can be eaten any old time - morning, noon, or night. Another popular Chinese saying goes: "There is nothing more delicious than Jiaozi." You betcha....

Jiaozi come in four formats - boiled, steamed, deep-fried, and pan-fried. While I enjoy all three, I'm definitely in the pan-fried camp if given a choice. You are absolutely free and welcome to take the finished product below and steam or boil them instead of pan-frying. And while I'm on the subject of choice, feel free to substitute minced chicken, minced turkey, minced shrimp, minced mutton... heck, you could put tofu in there if you must.

And to be technical about this, if you pan-fry the dumplings, they are now called Guotie in Chinese, or Yaki-Gyoza in Japanese (when they traveled to Japan the "j" became a hard "g" sound). However you call it, you know what to do... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Pot Stickers (Jiaozi)
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes 30

10 ounces ground pork, turkey, beef, chicken, or shrimp
3 ounces green or Napa cabbage, finely chopped (see Note)
2 ounces shiitake mushroom, finely diced (see Note)
2 scallions, green & white parts, finely chopped (1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon rice wine or cooking sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 package gyoza/potsticker wrappers (see Note)
1 tablespoons cornstarch & 1/4 cup water, for making slurry

NOTE: Some people add a little salt for a few minutes to drain the water out of the cabbage, I haven't found it to be a problem, so I don't.

NOTE: You can use fresh shitake mushrooms, frozen/thawed, or dried/reconstituted. You can also substitute other kinds of mushrooms.

NOTE: Do not use wonton skins if you can. Go to another supermarket and get gyoza/pot sticker wrappers as they are thinner and are round, wonton skins are square. Of course, if that's all you can find locally, I won't tell anyone. You could also make the dough from scratch.

In a large bowl, add all the ingredients through the white pepper and mix by hand to combine.

Make cornstarch slurry.

Have a large baking sheet, lightly floured, ready. Also, have some paper towels to dry off your prepping surface as needed.

Lay out one wrapper and fill the center with a scant tablespoon of filling. Use a finger to dip into the cornstarch slurry and wipe it along the outer edge of the wrapper (this is to hold the wrapper together when you fold).

It may take a couple of tries to learn how to close them correctly or you can fold them in half like raviolis if you give up after a few tries (thankfully you'll have a few extra wrappers in the package typically).

Fold the wrapper in half and pinch the middle. Then make your pleats and seal the edge. Here is a good website with pictures on how to fold them with pleats. I do three pleats on the left and three on the right. Reserve the finished product on your floured baking sheet. Repeat until done. Use paper towels to keep your prep surface dry as the slurry will muddy things up. (Also, I typically have to go back and seal the edges which can open up.)

Cook according to your desired format.
To Steam: place enough pot stickers in your steamer - don't overcrowd and steam until done.
To Boil: drop them into boiling water and stir, add 1 cup of cold water once, then again remove when they float and are done.
To Pan Fry: Add 2-3 tablespoons of oil to frying pan. When hot, add enough dumplings so as not to crowd them. Cook until done on one side, flip and 1/2 cup of water, cover pan until water evaporates.

Before cooking, you can also freeze all or some for later use.

Norman Steinberg & Mark Linn-Baker, Discussion @ Caught in the Act
This Week in Comedy w/Ed Crasnick: Norman Steinberg & Richard Matheson @ YouTube
Interview with Peter O'Toole @ Charlie Rose Show
Peter O'Toole @ Fresh Air Radio Interview
Video Interview with Sid Caesar @ Academy of American Television
More Video Interviews with Caesar, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin & Others @ Academy of American Television
BROOKSlyn, Mel Brooks Fan Site

My Favorite Year DVD
The Best of Sid Caesar DVD
Sid Caesar DVD Collection - 3 Discs
Sid Caesar on Comedy MP3, interviewed by Kelly Carlin
Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter, by Sid Caesar & Eddie W. Friedfeld
Where Have I Been? : An Autobiography, by Sid Caesar & Bill Davidson
Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch, by Ellen Blonder
Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More, by Andrea Nguyen and Penny De Los Santos

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