Monday, December 12, 2011
Neil Simon then went on to write sitcoms, specifically THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW – to this day one of the funniest and smartest sitcoms in TV’s checkered history. It won Emmys and was seen by millions of viewers weekly.
And yet, for Neil Simon, and other A-list comedy writers at the time, he hadn’t yet made it. Why?
Because he hadn’t written for the theater.
TV was a stepping stone. But having a hit play on Broadway was the Holy Grail. That’s where the stature, and in success, riches were. (Larry Gelbart was once asked if you could make a living in the theater. “No,” he said, “You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.”)
Simon wrote COME BLOW YOUR HORN, got it produced on Broadway, it was a hit, and he never looked back. You know the string of mega-hits that followed.
As the 1970s approached (think Pleistocene Era), aspiring comedy writers still wanted to write for the theater first. Sitcoms were GREEN ACRES. They held very little sway over wannabe Noel Cowards.
There was a shift in the ‘70s though. Sitcoms got smarter. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, and (ironically since it was adapted from a play) THE ODD COUPLE raised the TV bar considerably.
So aspiring comedy writers (like me) wanted to do both. Broadway was still filled with wonderful plays by gifted playwrights. In addition to Simon there was Woody Allen, Herb Gardner, Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, and others turning out inspiring work.
I bought a couple of volumes of Neil Simon plays and studied them voraciously. I still recommend those books to young writers. See how you can create distinctive characters and how they can move a plot along through hilariously funny dialogue. There’s pace and flow and heart, and it all seems effortless. Certain references may be dated but as a primer for good comedy writing early Neil Simon plays are still the gold standard.
As we segued into the ‘80s (read: Industrial Revolution) two things happened: Sitcoms continued to get more sophisticated and sitcom writers started making way more money. Oh yeah. And you won Emmys. This caused a shift. Suddenly, TV was favored and why not? More money and a much larger audience. And Emmys. Yes, you sacrificed creative control but if you worked on a good show surrounded by good people that didn’t matter as much.
So there were fewer comedy plays on Broadway and aspiring playwrights migrated out west. I would immodestly argue that the writing on CHEERS and FRASIER at its best was every bit as good or better than what was being seen on Broadway.
Come the ‘90s and fewer comedy plays were making it to Broadway. The economics of the theater were changing and big splashy musicals with recognized stars or well-known revivals were becoming the rage.
That’s alright. Comic playwrights still had a forum – television.
But what about today? There are precious few original comedies on Broadway. And even fewer sophisticated television comedies. Gone is FRASIER; the new heralded sitcom is 2 BROKE GIRLS complete with cum stain jokes.
Where can you go to write erudite comedy these days? Cable? Just saw an episode of THE LEAGUE with maybe twenty cum stain jokes. Features? The big holiday release is JACK AND JILL. Cum stain jokes would be an improvement.
FRASIER was not a niche show. CARNAGE was not a niche play. There is an audience – a large audience – that appreciates and wants sophisticated entertainment. And there are a lot of writers out there, lying in the weeds, who would be thrilled to provide it.
As we approach 2012, how about we begin a NEW era? Or at least go back to a better old one? I'd hate to the think that the next Neil Simon will wind up writing questions for JEOPARDY.
By Ken Levine at 5:57 AM