First off, let me just say that Neil Simon is one of my comedy Gods. I’ve devoured all of his plays, used them as a study guide. There was a period in the 80s and 90s that his new plays and musicals would open first here in Los Angeles before going on to Broadway (we were New Haven with palm trees). I would see them three or four times, watching to see how he revised and polished them… and often times marveling at the craft and ingenuity of the fixes. (And amazingly, he did it without the invaluable help of network notes.)
He has two autobiographies. I strongly recommend them both; especially the first one. The process of turning around THE ODD COUPLE is classic.
For awhile, several years ago, Neil used to workout at my gym. He was approachable and very gracious. Like I said, one of my comedy titans.
But I rewrote him.
Here’s the story. Probably close to ten years ago my daughter Annie was trying to get into the drama club at her high school. She was expected to deliver a comedy monologue. The one she chose was a long speech from a character in Neil Simon’s PLAZA SUITE. It might have been the mother trying to coax her daughter out of the bathroom on her wedding day; I don’t recall exactly.
The audition could be no longer than 3 minutes. Annie rehearsed it with me and I timed it. She was long by about 40 seconds. Speeding up the pace wouldn’t have helped. So I took a deep breath, said “give me the script”, and thinned out the monologue.
Even as I was doing it I was thinking, “Oh, I am surely going to hell for this!” You don’t take Moses’ tablets and say, “I think there’s a better way to phrase commandment six.” But I did. I found trims. I found some repetitions. I did not spontaneously combust.
Annie rehearsed the revised monologue and bingo! It was right on time. She used it for her audition, was accepted into the club, and no one knew the speech had been doctored with.
Why am I telling you this? Do I like looking over my shoulder for fear of being struck dead by lightening. No. I’m telling you this to make a point.
There are ALWAYS trims in big speeches. Whenever my partner and I finish a draft we always go back, re-examine any long speech and invariably find some cuts.
Long speeches are a bitch to write. You’re often including multiple thoughts. Usually the best way to attack them is let it flow. Just get it all on paper. Don’t go on to sentence two only after sentence one is absolutely perfect. Once you’ve said everything you want to say, even if you’ve said it five times, then go back and trim and eliminate and shape. At some point you will be satisfied that the speech is just where you want it and every word is absolutely necessary.
Then go back in a few days and take out another 10%.
I bet if he doesn’t sue me, Neil Simon would agree.