A few years ago at the Daily Grill in Brentwood I was waiting at the valet for my car and there was Neil Simon waiting for his (a nicer one by the way). I mentioned to my kids, who were quite young then, that Mr. Simon was one of greatest writers in America and my son said, “Then how come we’ve never of him?” I laughed of course. Everyone knew who he was. Then.
But now I wonder: how many people today do know who he is? From the 60s through the end of the centry Neil Simon was the king. Name me a comedy writer who got his name above the title of any play or movie he wrote. Or a screenwriter who the studios and directors were forbidden to rewrite. You’ve got to be pretty good and pretty successful to achieve that kind of clout. For God sakes, the man has a Broadway theatre named after him.
Today Neil is in his advancing years and his output of material has slowed considerably. Thus it’s quite conceivable that many young people don’t know who Neil Simon is.
So for young writers hoping to break in and just fans of mirth in general, I say don’t forget Neil Simon. Yes, he’s from another era. And I can’t imagine him ever writing SUPERBAD or FAMILY GUY. But any serious student of comedy will find much to learn (and enjoy) from studying the work of Neil Simon.
His jokes are all so well-crafted and all come out of character. Just once in my life I’d like to write a joke this good: From THE ODD COUPLE when slovenly Oscar confronts fastidious Felix –
“I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. "We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!”
There are two soft-cover collections of Neil Simon plays. Even though they may seem dated (since they are from the ancient 60s when dinosaurs still roamed the earth ), check out the early ones. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, COME BLOW YOUR HORN (his first play), and the incomparable ODD COUPLE. Notice the rhythm, the pace, how each joke moves the story forward, and how each joke just seamlessly flows into the next.
His later work adds drama and depth and of those plays I would suggest BILOXI BLUES, LOST IN YONKERS, and THE SUNSHINE BOYS but there are two or three others you might like even better. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his more serious work but hey, that’s the cross all of us yuckmeisters have to bear.
And again, read the plays. Sometimes the movies don’t do the properties justice. Obviously, aspiring scribes should inhale every script of COMMUNITY and 30 ROCK and MODERN FAMILY that they can find, but also add some Neil Simon. There’s pearls to glean from a guy who can write…
Oscar Madison: I know him. He'll kill himself just to spite me. Then his ghost will come back, following me around the apartment, haunting and cleaning, haunting and cleaning, haunting and cleaning...