Saturday, October 19, 2013

The time I rewrote Neil Simon

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.    That play is assigned reading for my USC Comedy class. 

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.   My daughter Annie was trying to get into the drama club at her high school. (This was before she wised up and became a writer.)  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 Doc's 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.

21 comments:

Mitchell Hundred said...

Nothing anyone writes is beyond improvement. The majority of Neil Simon movies prove that.

Jim said...

*Everybody* needs an editor! Great story.

Professor Longnose said...

Simon's autobiographies are wonderful, but he loses points for not saving the original third act to The Odd Couple.

I once wrote a short one-act play that was essentially a monologue. A friend of mine wanted to use it in an acting class but it was way too long. I found I could cut it down to half its length and preserve the story, but it really was a totally different animal. Different things work in different contexts.

Dodgerdog said...

Hey professor, thanks for sharing some of your reading list and assignments. What kind of exams are you giving in this class?

Michael said...

When we got married, my wife-to-be and I had to choose music. We had seen "Kiss Me Kate" and wanted to include "So In Love With You Am I." But the chorus actually is about love gone wrong, so ... I rewrote Cole Porter. No lightning bolts, but the singer did shoot me a look.

Anonymous said...

Way back in the mid 90's I would go to the Westwood Hamburger Hamlet for breakfast on Friday mornings before seeing my shrink and I would see Neil Simon there eating breakfast. He (like all of my writer friends) looked up to Neil. He was our hero. Our comedy god. Just being thisclose was a thrill. One morning we paid our checks at the same time and exited the restaurant. With all the courage I could muster I told him how he made me want to be a comedy writer. And that I emulated him. And I always asked myself when writing a script, "what would Neil do?" Well, Neil couldn't have cared less. He looked right through me and walked away. I was crestfallen. Four or five years later I moved to NY to have a life as a writer rather than simply a career as one. On my 3rd night here I walked up to the Barnes and Noble in Columbus Circle. I stopped at a table just inside the door and picked up Neil Simon's first autobiography remembering that disappointing day in Westwood a few years earlier. Thumbing through the book I heard someone behind me say, "you should buy that book." And when I turned around it was Neil Simon himself with a few friends. I could've made a joke, or said nothing, but I just couldn't. So, I told Neil the story, how much of a disappointment it was, and why I couldn't bring myself to buy his book. Sometimes it's sad to meet a hero and to see what a jerk they are. This was one of those times. Sorry Ken. But this is a true story.

Anonymous said...

RSS

Scooter Schechtman said...

"And that whole third act has got to go. I mean, they're losing the war! It's so depressing!"

tb said...

You also did a blog about having people talk like people. You don't want it to sound like they're reciting dialog. People stammer, they say "ummm", etc. So I'm wondering how these two topics reconcile. Is there a danger of editing a speech too much?

Chris Muir said...

This just might be the funniest one-liner you've ever written: "(And amazingly, he did it without the invaluable help of network notes.)"

DBenson said...

Anonymous: I've never really craved meeting heroes or celebrities for that reason. Not because they're jerks, but it must be tough being My Idol 24/7 (especially to total strangers talking about what they feel is a relationship). I'm not in "the business", and even I've been known to be surly with persons getting too effusive about a piece of work I did, even if I was pleased with the work.

Comedians are expected to be funny, sex symbols are expected to be flattered by lechery, athletes are expected to live up to every kid's fantasies, and Idols are expected to dispense blessings and encouragement to everyone in their field. And all evidently become contemptible and unworthy if they fail to recognize that they owe everybody who likes their efforts.

Make no mistake, a serious percentage of celebrities are jerks or worse, regardless of the quality of their professional achievements. But even the good guys among them are entitled to go off duty.

gottacook said...

Yes, it's always good to have someone else as an editor, although it's certainly possible to tighten up one's own work. This becomes easier if you've had experience yourself tightening someone else's work.

Unfortunately, training opportunities in writing and editing for print are rapidly dwindling; all papers and magazines have websites with none of print's length restrictions. What other venues exist for people to edit each other's writing? Classrooms? Sure there are such classes, but there's no substitute for real experience (even if it's at a university paper).

(I'm a multi-year alumnus of a large Big 10 university daily, which 20 years ago produced 5 print issues weekly and 3 during summer term; today these numbers are down to 4 and 1.)

Of course I'm taking about not merely editing for length; what goes online even at professional sites tends to get no second read by anyone before it's posted. For example, last week TheWrap had a filler story/slideshow on books retitled for film adaptations, and one entirely suitable choice - Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy becoming Goodfellas - failed to mention that this was because the Stephen Cannell series Wiseguy was then in production. I can't imagine a print issue of Variety of 10 years ago, or some imagined print competitor, running a similar feature that wouldn't mention that little fact.

Doug said...

@DBenson: What you say is quite true. I have a friend who, quite a few years ago, was a performer in gay adult video. He's talked about how, when he was living in West Hollywood and was in the industry and working back then, it never ceased to amaze him how many men took his line of work as permission to manhandle, caress, fondle, grope and otherwise invade his personal space. People tended to think he should regarf all this as flattering, which he didn't.

D. McEwan said...

An old friend of mine who is a songwriter for musicals, also writes a lot of song parodies, mostly for benefits, but sometimes for cabaret performers also. (My favorite is his "Bewitched, Bothered and Bea Arthur.") Once, for a benefit, he rewrote Sondheim's "Buddy's Blues" from Follies, making it "I've got the 'God I don't believe that I'm rewriting Sondheim' blues." The whole song was about having the gaul to rewite Sondheim to write this song about rewriting Sondheim. He took a risk and sent it to Sondheim. Sondheim loved it and took my friend under his wing, becoming a mentor to him.

Eric said...

Neil Simon led me to thinking of the incredible writers room for Your Show of Shows, which led me to this great article: http://splitsider.com/2011/06/the-greatest-tv-writers-rooms-ever/
on the greatest writers rooms ever. I can't really argue with any of them except that Rosanne didn't actually use anything from several of the great writers she hired (Joss Whedon in particular.)

charlotte said...

@Anonymous: "You can't disappoint a picture!!!"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhOG3XwX9Yw

Cap'n Bob said...

I have no fears. I'll even rewrite Doug's gaul as gall.

Mr First Nighter said...

In high school in 1972, the drama class was assigned to put on "Thurber Carnival," a 1950s era revue based on 1930s work written by James Thurber. The problem was: many setups and almost every punchline was dated and meant nothing to a contemporary audience. So I rewrote almost half the play, on my own. The drama teacher accepted what I did and I got a co-writer credit on the Playbill.

D. McEwan said...

One of my college drama professers, after I was out of school, was staging a show called The Surprising Uprising," which was a musical he'd made out of Lysistrata. The problem was, it wasn't funny. He brought me in to punch up the script. So while I didn't "rewrite" Aristophanies, who practically invented Comedy, I did "punch-up" Aristophanies.

(I was credited with "Additional Dialogue." The LA Times reviewed the show in a caustic, scathing review, which was fully deserved. But the final line of the review was: "Douglas McEwan is credited with 'Additional Dialogue,' probably the weakest link." I was infuriated by that comment. This asshole had no way on earth of knowing what lines I'd written and what lines were written by others, so his slam at my writing was wholly speculative. Who gives a persona bad review in a major paper beginning with "Probably"? I saw the same performance the critic did, and while I would have slammed the production also, the ONLY things that got laughs in the show were the lines I wrote. And every line I'd written landed a laugh. Of course, I had the advantage over the critic of actually knowing which were my lines and which were not. That critic had no future as a psychic.)

JT Anthony said...

What's your point?
So you had a bad interaction-- a fleeting inconsequential experience with someone that didn't know you. What if the eggs he ate were about to blow his colon--and the contents therein--all over the inside of his underwear & pants? My point is that you don't know why he treated you that way. If he's a jerk to everyone, then that's his problem. Why should that change you, and why are you sorry that it's a true story?

scottmc said...

My daughter and I watched the episode of 'Instant Mom' that was co-written by your daughter. After the show my daughter had a question about the show's title. That got me to wonder about the genesis of show titles. 'Bilko',I think, was actually 'You'll Never Get Rich'. I thought 'Almost Perfect' was a great title for that show. Was 'Cheers' always 'Cheers'? (It seems that television show titles, and movie titles, are now more generic, bland.)