Saturday, September 1, 2018

In Memoriam: Neil Simon 1927-2018


Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of medication--an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with "I've got to get another play”  

--Neil Simon



Simon grew up in Upper Manhattan in the 1930s. It wasn't an easy childhood, as his parents marriage was anything but idyllic:

To this day I never really knew what the reason for all the fights and battles were about between the two of them ... She'd hate him and be very angry, but he would come back and she would take him back. She really loved him.



 Simon often took refuge in the movies. He especially liked comedies.

Simon also spent time at the library, reading the works of famous humorists, such as Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman, and Robert Benchley, as well as, and this I suspect may have had a particular influence on him...


...the plays of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.



After a stint in the Army Reserves, Simon and his older brother Danny became writers for Robert Q. Lewis, a popular radio star of the postwar period.



The two brothers were hired by television producer Max Liebman to write for this man...



...Sid Caesar


They weren't Caesar's only writers. The TV comedian had the best in the business. This is just some of the writing staff for Your Show of Shows. That's Danny Simon of the far left, standing. On the fa r left sitting and jotting down something on a notepad is Mel Brooks. Immediately to the left of Caesar is head writer Mel Tolkin. And Neil? Why, he's looking right at you!


In 1954, Your Show of Shows went under a kind of reorganization and became Caesar's Hour. Neil Simon wrote for that, too. That's him standing on the left. Standing on the far right is Larry Gelbart, who would go on to create the long-running military comedy MASH.



Though it was far less life-and-death than Gelbart's series, Simon also wrote for a military comedy, The Phil Silvers Show (informally known as Sgt Bilko.)



The final season of Silver was filmed in Los Angeles, a town Simon never liked very much. The problem was, it was rapidly becoming the center of the TV industry. What was Simon to do?


 The answer: Simon would switch from television to the theater. After all, his home town had a rather famous theater district called Broadway.



Come Blow Your Horn, a 1961 comedy about a young man's clumsy attempts at the playboy lifestyle was Simon's first Broadway hit, running for 678 performances.

 


Premiering in 1963, Barefoot in the Park, starring a young Robert Redford as a frazzled newlywed, was an even bigger hit, in fact, it eventually became Simon's longest running play. It was 1967 when the show finally ended. Today it stands as Broadway's 10th longest running non-musical production.

 
Corie: My divorce! When do I get my divorce? 

PaulHow should I know? The marriage license hasn't even come in yet!

Ethel:  I had to park the car three blocks away. Then it started to rain so I ran the last two blocks. Then my heel got caught in a subway grating. When I pulled my foot out, I stepped in a puddle. Then a cab went by and splashed my stockings. If the hardware store downstairs was open, I was going to buy a knife and kill myself.


Bellboy: [Dropping newspaper on pile of unread ones outside the door] How long they been in there?
Maid:5 days.
Bellboy: That must be a hotel record.
Maid: For a political convention. Honeymoon record's 9 days.


 The Odd Couple, Simon's best-known play (thanks in large part to the subsequent TV series), which premiered in 1965. A recently divorced man named Felix Ungar moves in with his friend, another divorced man named Oscar Madison. The two get on each other's nerves, resentments and jealousies flourish, as they themselves begin to resemble a married couple (albeit one where the honeymoon is long since over.)

 
 Walter Matthau, left, played sloppy Oscar, a role he repeated in the 1968 film (and which finally made him a movie star after years of supporting roles.) Art Carney portrayed neat freak Felix. Those of you (and this includes me) who know him as laid-back, somewhat slovenly Ed Norton of The Honeymooners may have hard time envisioning him as Simon's neurotic, lachrymose divorcee. Yet his performance got rave reviews in its day. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have been captured on film or tape, and is thus lost forever. We'll never know how Carney stacks up against Jack Lemmon or Tony Randell.



 Felix:Who the hell do you think I am, the Magic Chef? I'm lucky I got it to come out at eight o'clock. Wh-wh-what am I gonna do?
Oscar: I dunno, keep pouring gravy on it.
Felix: Gravy? What gravy?    
Oscar: Don't you have any gravy?
Felix: Where the hell am I gonna get gravy at eight o'clock?
Oscar: I dunno, I though it comes when you cook the meat.
Felix: [under his breath] Comes when you cook the meat.
[stares at him for a moment]
Felix: You don't know what you're talking about, Oscar. You just don't know, because you have to MAKE gravy, it doesn't come!
Oscar: Well, you asked my advice...
Felix: [explodes] Your advice? You didn't even know where this kitchen was until I came hear and showed it to you.
Oscar: Listen buddy, if you're going to argue with me, put down that spoon.
Felix: Spoon? Haha, you dumb ignoramus, that is a ladle! You did not know that's a ladle!
Oscar: Get a hold of yourself, will ya?
Felix: You think it's so easy? Go ahead, kitchen's yours, all yours, you make a meatloaf for four people who come a half-hour late. Go on.
Oscar: I can't believe I'm arguing with him over gravy.
Felix: [doorbell rings] They're here - the dinner guests. I'll get a saw and cut the meat!


Here's Simon with the man who directed the last two of the above three plays, Mike Nichols.

Some more hits from Simon:


The Eugene trilogy:



 
 

Many, many others. As well as books for musicals (Sweet Charity). And screenplays (The Out-of-Towners, Murder by Death, The Goodbye Girl,) I've just scratched the surface. But I'm going to be away from the computer for the next couple of days, and can't really do the man justice, so let me just try to sum things up. 




In the comment section of a previous post, I jokingly held up television as the highest achievement of Western Civilization. Then less jokingly took it back. I realize TV is looked down upon. Yet that's what spawned Neil Simon. He took the best of sketch and situation comedy writing and left the worst behind. What was that worst? Jokes, no matter how well-written, that exist only for themselves that neither advance plot nor help explain character. Simon plays avoid those pitfalls. The humor comes naturally, the characters don't even realize they're telling jokes. They DO know they're being sarcastic, but in real life, sarcasm is used less to make people laugh than to piss them off. Simon's plays shows how hilarious those pissing matches can be to a third party: We, the audience.


Though they liked him when he first came on the scene, theater critics eventually became the poison pen in Simon's side. As a response he used this time-honored comeback: They hate me because I'm popular. They're might be some truth to that. Critics loath giving in to the mob, which is what mass popularity can come to seem like. But are any of their complaints about Simon legitimate?


Critics have found fault with Simon's worldview. He didn't seem to have one. Simon was no George Bernard Shaw, offering a critique of the larger society that his characters operated in. True, urban angst was Simon's great theme, but in the end that urbanity was mainly a set up for the angst-ridden punch line. Simon occasionally acknowledged that there may be socials forces at work that batted his characters around, but seemed to regard those forces as Mark Twain regarded the weather, which everyone complains but nobody ever does anything about. Civilization is something people clumsily adapt to, but never (clumsily or otherwise) bring about. Instead, the characters in his plays love and argue within it boundaries. Oh, well, maybe that IS a way if critiquing the larger society 


One complaint is that Simon's plays sort of peter out, that there's no third act. It's certainly true his third acts are often the LEAST funniest parts of his plays. He doesn't try to top his own jokes as he nears the finish line. In addition, I personally have noticed a kind of ambiguity. The characters may achieve a truce of sort, but the play's central conflict remains basically unresolved. Oscar and Felix remain pretty much the same at the end of The Odd Couple as the beginning. You can't imagine Oscar ever straightening up, either his life or his apartment, and seems doomed to one day asphyxiate under his own debris. Felix may end up with the Pigeon Sisters at the end of the play, but they'll eventually tire of him. It certainly won't turn into a ménage à trois; that would be too untidy for him. There's a resolution of sorts in The Sunshine Boys. The two elderly vaudevillians finally admit they don't like each other! But I don't really have a problem with any of that. As is the case with many, many humorists, Mark Twain and James Thurber included, Simon's jokes may mask a more basic pessimism. Simon himself once said:

 I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude...do something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting.

He made us forget what was hurting, too.




11 comments:

  1. Won't be at a computer again until Tuesday, and haven't really had a chance to proofread. But I wanted this out today. So please excuse the many typos. I'll get to them eventually.

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  2. My favourite Neil Simon works are The Goodbye Girl and The Odd Couple. I don't know how well his plays will hold up in the future, though. I re-watch some of them now and they seem pretty dated. Not that they weren't hilarious in their time but I don't know if they will have staying power. That's not a criticism -- it's the fate of many playwrights and authors. They speak to the age in which they created.

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    1. Well, Debra, judging by Adam's comment, Neil Simon has already gone the way of Art Carney's Felix.

      As to your point of speaking to one times, or going beyond that, when I was searching for dialogue I came up with something from Barefoot in the Park that wouldn't fly well in the #Me Too era (for his own amusement, a neighbor PRETENDS to be a possible threat to a young woman alone in her apartment--that same neighbor ends up dating the woman's mother), but I don't know of any work by Simon where the whole thing had a backwards or old-fashioned attitude. Simon pretty much ignored the social changes going on around him (and remained very popular while doing so) but he never protested them.

      Sorry this reply is so long, Debra, but you caused me to do a bit of searching. I looked up the 20 most produced American playwrights in the 2017-2018 season, in theaters nationwide, large and small. Simon didn't make the cut, but you know who did? Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson, all deceased (in Williams case, 35 years.) They apparently broke through the of-your-own-time ceiling. Even though he hadn't been heard of from for awhile, Simon was still alive during most of the 2017-18 season. Maybe now that he's gone, they'll be a reappraisal. Time, as always, will tell.

      Simon may end up having a place in community theater, which has done all right by Kaufman and Hart (and Simon wrote ten times more plays than they did)

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  3. Hi, Kirk!

    I knew you were referring to Neil Simon the other day when you told us you had another post coming this week.

    As a boy I watched Your Show of Shows and Sgt Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show. In my teenage years I saw the 1967 film adaptation of Barefoot in the Park starring Jane Fonda (am I even allowed to mention her name w/o being dragged off to Gitmo?) and the 1968 film The Odd Couple. In the 70s I saw The Goodbye Girl and California Suite and in the 80s Biloxi Blues. I am not hard to please. I appreciated Simon's writing and characters and think it was unfortunate that critics occasionally gave his work unfavorable reviews.

    Thanks for another fine tribute to another great 20th century writer, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. Shady, when I saw all the flags at half-mast last week, I assumed it was to honor Simon. Then I found out some senator in Arizona died.

      Even though I often pretend to be one on this blog, I don't think I would make a very good professional critic, the kind that writes for newspapers or magazines. If I like someone or something, I tend to cut a lot of slack, and a critic really shouldn't do that. As infuriating as we may all find it at times, it's the critic's job to hold up work to a higher, more exacting standard. If they don't, you end up with arts and entertainment tribalism (which is what you pretty much got on the internet.)

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    1. Adam, you may be surprised to learn much of it is before MY time. Your Shows of Shows and Sgt Bilko went on the air before I was born (though I've seen bits and pieces of both shows) As for Simon's plays, I was three or four when The Odd Couple premiered on Broadway. I know Simon mostly through the many, many film adaptations of his plays that flooded movie theaters and eventually television in my teens and beyond. As your comment indicates, that flood has long since receded, but I guess I haven't dried off yet.

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  5. The man was brilliant. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Oh, Mitchell, I wish I could have shared more, but I was bedeviled by time constraints. I had originally planned to show dialogue from seven or eight of his plays instead of just two. And I wanted to talk about how the death of Simon's first wife may have impacted his work (they took on a more serious tone, even as they remained comedies.)

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  6. the odd couple - one of my all-time fave movies!

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