Laughter On The 23rd Floor
In 1982, actor Richard Benjamin made his directorial debut with My Favorite Year, a schmaltzy but endearing valentine to the early days of television, redeemed in large part by Peter O'Toole's entertainingly hammy turn as a hard-drinking, larger-than-life, washed-up matinee idol. Eighteen years later, Benjamin returns to Year's nostalgic setting with 2000's Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a stage-bound television adaptation of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical play about his experiences as a young comedy writer for Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows. A predictably white-bread Mackenzie Astin plays the clean-cut Simon surrogate, but the real star of 23rd Floor is Caesar surrogate Nathan Lane, as a comic genius who fuels his demanding work schedule with a steady diet of scotch and pills. An adventurous, urbane, boundary-pushing artist in a medium rapidly discovering its limitations, Lane ends up at odds with the executives at NBC, who encourage him to turn his show into exactly the sort of bland, accessible, heartland-friendly fare that has typified Simon's career. Astin, meanwhile, struggles to hold his own among Lane's colorful staff of comedy writers (including Victor Garber, Peri Gilpin, Saul Rubinek, and My Favorite Year's Mark Linn-Baker), an extroverted bunch of cut-ups engaged in a never-ending game of comic one-upmanship. Well-acted and affectionately drawn but facile, Laughter romanticizes Lane's career-threatening commitment to art over commerce, but seems closer in spirit to mercenary late-period Simon efforts like Odd Couple 2 than to Caesar's groundbreaking work. In true middlebrow tradition, 23rd Floor plays upon its audience's sense of superiority over easy straw mencensorship, McCarthyism, clueless suitswhile serving up rimshot-ready one-liners and unabashed sentiment nearly as unchallenging and homogenized as The Lawrence Welk Show, which Lane derides. Though it ceaselessly champions originality and risk-taking, Laughter On The 23rd Floor is conspicuously devoid of either.