Saturday, May 03, 2014

Don't forget Neil Simon

A number of 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...

40 comments:

Scooter Schechtman said...

Being a corn-fed midwesterner I was always turned off by the New York setting of his plays,as if that city was the center of the universe. Of course we know Ratner's Deli, who doesn't know Ratners?!?
I prefer the SCTV parody of the early 80s. "Like the Cross-Your-Heart Bra!"

normadesmond said...

i almost gave him a heart attack one time in nyc. walking on a busy-ish sidewalk, i shrieked as he walked by me. i really scared him.

probably not the best way to
interact with celebrity.

Hamid said...

Ken, you're far too modest. You've written plenty of jokes as good as that one.

I do need to read/watch more of Neil Simon's work, but I saw The Prisoner of Second Avenue a few years ago in London, performed by the brilliant Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl. It was frequently hilarious, albeit a tad too long if I can be completely honest.

A favourite of mine since childhood is Simon's very underrated Murder by Death. Lots of great lines in that. Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan in particular were hilarious. I loved Falk's Sam Spade style character who keeps ending every sentence with "know what I mean?" When Maggie Smith's character asks his wife, played by Brennan, "What DOES he mean?", she replies "I'll tell you later. It's disgusting". And there's Peter Sellers' brilliant performance as a Chinese detective who's brought his son along with him to the house. His son asks "Why do I have to carry all the luggage?" and he replies "Because your mother not here". At the end, his son asks "I'm confused. Was there a murder or wasn't there?" and he says "Yes. Killed good weekend".

Michael said...

Hamid, I loved "Murder by Death," and yet it is almost never mentioned, possibly because it was a farce that was meant to be a farce.

If I am correct, Neil Simon is the only playwright who had a wife who demanded a pre-nup that he wouldn't write about their life together, given the great material that had come before. Now he's married to Elaine Joyce, one of my childhood crushes, so I have all the more reason to admire (hate?) him.

Mike McCann said...

Scooter: Ratner's was not a deli. It was a kosher dairy restaurant, home for such Eastern European/Jewish delicasies as blintzes, pirogies and cheese cake. No meat items on the menu. For deli, think Katz's or the Carnegie.

Ricky Lertzman said...

Great commentary and it is so true. To the younger generation, much of Simon's work seems creaky and slow moving. Personally, he is not the most generous person and is rather arrogant. His brother Danny was much more approachable and had an amazing knowledge of comedy writing. While The Odd Couple had incredible, crisp dialogue, many of his later works sounded too much like the dialogue from an episode of Happy Days with a set up and then punchline. His work with Marsha Mason & Jimmy Coco in "Only When I Laugh" is actually painful to watch. The characters are so false and the situations do not ring true. For great comedic playrights I love George Kaufman or even Moss Hart, whose work is truly timeless. Neil Simon was more fitted to working with Sid Caesar.

Mitchell Hundred said...

It's true that his work generally didn't translate well to the big screen (sorry, but Murder by Death basically sucks), but I wonder if that wasn't a problem of translation between media. The Out of Towners was written by him specifically for film, and it's one of my all-time favourite movies (the Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis version, that is; I haven't seen the remake).

Also, I'm 25 years old. So there are at least some millennials who know about him.

Mike in Seattle said...

I got to take a weekend seminar with Danny Simon in the early 90's. How fun. I was in awe, not just of him, but of the people he had worked with who considered him a great. But he was very human at the same time and had a big old shadow. Which gave me hope the more I learned. I wish it had been a lot longer than just a weekend.

One of my favorite movies to revisit when it comes around on TCM is BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. I enjoy how Jane Fonda and Robert Redford interact, both so young. And in my eyes, Fonda the stronger actor of the two.

Not above the title but right with it is "NETWORK by Paddy Chayefsky" in an author style. I understand Sidney Lumet insisted on that title design.

KevinC said...

That is my favorite joke in the Odd Couple.

I've always wondered if Simon gave the Felix Unger character those initials just so he could do that joke.

Carolyn said...

“I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. It's either very new cheese or very old meat. - Oscar Madison, from The Odd Couple”

My favorite line from the movie.

BobbyL said...

There's a good deal about Neil (hey, that rhymes) in my upcoming book, THE ODD COUPLE ON STAGE AND SCREEN from McFarland Publishing. He's married to Mrs. Bobby Van, Elaine Joyce, nowadays.

Dixon Steele said...

A huge Simon fan, and I also love MURDER BY DEATH, absolutely hilarious (and still holds up). As someone mentioned, the Peter Falk/Bogie character is hilarious, and the rest of the all-star cast is terrific.

However, when they spun Falk's character off into his own movie, THE CHEAP DETECTIVE...crickets.

VP81955 said...

I understand Myrna Loy declined to appear in "Murder By Death" because she refused to parody her Norma Charles character. Perhaps things might have been different if Bill Powell (who was ailing and hard of hearing in his later years) had agreed to come out of retirement...

Gary said...

The Odd Couple II was not very good, but it had at least one great Neil Simon joke in it. Felix has a new lady friend named Felise, and he calls her "Lise" for short. Oscar asks him, "What does she call you -- Lix?"

Cap'n Bob said...

Nora Charles.

I'm a big Simon fan but I wonder if he was too New Yorkish for some people's tastes as the one poster indicates.

Breadbaker said...

I own the Ratner's cookbook. It was indeed a dairy restaurant.

My library had a free audiobook of all of Simon's plays. Listening to them and seeing them in my mind's eye, particularly Biloxi Blues, made them work for me that the films could not. But how many plays can make entire sense without being able to see any of the business? That is a pure tribute to Mr. Simon's words.

Hamid said...

It's been a while since I've seen Murder by Death, so I looked up quotes on IMDB and there's a lot of gems I'd forgotten.

Peter Sellers' character, Sidney Wang, with his son Willie:

Willie Wang: I don't hear nothing. What do you hear?

Sidney Wang: Double negative, and dog.

Peter Falk's Sam Diamond: "The last time I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940. She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France".

Another Sam Diamond line: "Locked from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don't know what it is".

VincentS said...

I grew up on Neil Simon and I'm so much the better for it. It seemed as though he was constantly writing a movie or a Broadway play. I will always be grateful for the mirth he provided for me in my life. I think THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE should also be thrown in there. I think it was one of his funniest. Who else could make an hilarious story about a man who lost his job and is having a resulting nervous breakdown? The movie with Jack Lemmon and Ann Bancroft is terrific, but I would have killed to have seen the original Broadway production with Peter Falk and Lee Grant!

Johnny Walker said...

Loved THE ODD COUPLE (who doesn't) and really liked BILOXI BLUES, too. I wanted to catch THE SUNSHINE BOYS (with Judd Hersh and Danny DeVeto) last time I was in LA, but missed it... But at 35, I guess I'm old enough that I SHOULD know who Neil Simon is.

Johnny Walker said...

Oh, and don't forget Brighton Beach Memoirs! Some great lines there. That and Biloxi Blues always seemed to be playing on TV in my formative years.

Dubin said...

Most of the kids in my comedy writing class don't know Neil Simon. Never heard of him. They have no idea that anything funny happened before Tosh 2.0. Never heard of George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Never heard of Preston Sturges, or Dorothy Parker, not even Igor Stravinsky. ~Dubin

Toby O'B said...

I was just thinking of him, that "F.U." joke, and the major differences between his style and Mel Brooks. And now I read this. Not a good sign.... But a good post and I hope the young aspirants to be writers take your advice.

Don Scales said...

@Durbin: That's really disheartening to hear. If Daniel Tosh is currently an inspiration to today's comedy writers, then I guess in the very near future we can expect sitcoms to basically be a half hour of a character saying "penis penis vagina boob rape", followed by something racist. Wow...I can't wait....

Canda said...

"After The Fox" is the Neil Simon movie few know he wrote. It stars Peter Sellers as a gold thief who convinces an Italian Village that he's a famous director and needs them as extras to unload a gold shipment from a boat as part of the movie. When the boat is delayed, he must pretend for 24 hours that he's making an actual film. Very funny, much, much different than any other Neil Simon. Worth checking out.

RCP said...

Of Simon's films, I particularly enjoyed "The Out of Towners" (Lemmon and Dennis). Also the silliness of "Murder By Death", which was worth the price of admission (an outrageous $3.25 in 1976 if memory serves) just to hear Elsa Lanchester say, "Up yours, fella." And who can forget the host's (Lionel Twain) street address: 22 Twain.

VP81955: I'm rather glad that neither Loy nor Powell appeared in the film; I prefer to remember them in black and white, '30s elegance.

Klee said...

This post makes me sad...it sucks that as newer generations come along certain people get forgotten.

Pete Grossman said...

The "FU" exchange is a great fave. Another priceless piece:

Oscar Madison: Now kindly remove that spaghetti from my poker table.

[Felix laughs]

Oscar Madison: The hell's so funny?

Felix Ungar: It's not spaghetti, it's linguini.

[Oscar picks up the linguini and hurls it against the kitchen wall]

Oscar Madison: Now it's garbage!

Arion said...

Hi Ken, great post about Neil Simon, and those quotes are amazing!

By the way, I've been reading most of your recent posts, and I really enjoyed your comments on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I just wrote a short review about it; in case you're interested you can check it out here:

http://artbyarion.blogspot.com/

Cheers!

Jason Roberts said...

A little known fact about Neil Simon was that he owned a small duplex apartment in West LA off of Beverly Glen just South of Wilshire. Strangely this is where he did a lot of writing (At least from around 1990 - 2003). I only know this as I lived two doors down and would see him all the time. Once my dog was off leash and ran up to him as he was leaving the apartment, I trailed quickly behind letting him know not to worry that the dog was friendly and wouldn't bite, he replied without hesitation, "But I do."

Pat Reeder said...

Dubin: Many of my comic idols (Kaufman, Benchley, Thurber, the Marx Brothers, and on and on) were long before my time. I saw a stand-up comic last week at the Addison Improv who had a bit that really hit home with me. It was about being fed up with young snots who think that anyone who came before they arrived is irrelevant. His comments were based on the recent Grammy Beatles tribute and all the young Internet posters sneering, "Who is this old guy, Paul McCartney?" He said, hey, you're the generation that thinks you know it all because you've got the Internet. So why don't you spend five seconds on Google and find out who Paul McCartney is and how his music changed the entire world? And then you can come back online and tell us all "Who the F--- YOU are?!!!

BTW, my wife took that class once from Danny Simon, but it was not a positive experience. She got the impression he believed he was the greatest comedy writer ever, and that his way of doing things was the only way. She's the type of writer who works best when she can go to a quiet spot and think. He was rude and dismissive to her, and told her that sitcoms were written in rooms full of writers fighting like dogs to get their lines in, and if she couldn't do that, she'd never make it. Ironically, her writing style is much more like Neil Simon, his far more successful younger brother. I've often wondered if that wasn't really what rubbed him the wrong way about her. This old article might shine some light on that:

http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20085362,00.html

BTW, she's been my writing partner for about 20 years of making a pretty good living as syndicated radio comedy writers, working on our material quietly in separate rooms.

bmcmolo said...

I love Neil Simon. (Max Dugan Returns and The Odd Couple were twin towers of my childhood and adolescence and still love them so much.) And not to mention Murder By Death, which my family more often than not quotes liberally when we all get together, a tradition observed as recently as two weekends ago.

When I was a freshman at University of Rhode Island and took a playwriting class, our prof asked if we had any authors we wanted to look at. I said Neil Simon. Everyone (literally) laughed and shook their heads at me. I'll never forget that. One of the first signs that what you come across in college, particularly in theater/ english departments, often makes no sense outside theater/ english departments.

Wayne said...

Not all of Neil Simon's screenplays were transposed plays.

Did you ever check out his screenplay for the original 1972 Heartbreak Kid starring Charles Grodin, Eddie Albert and Cybil Shepherd, directed by Elaine May, from a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman?

Mike Barer said...

Definitely aware of Neil Simon. I watched the Odd Couple show on TV. Great chemistry between Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. I thought maybe the Grumpy Old Men movie could be done as a TV show with Randall and Klugman.

Gourilla said...

We saw a local theater production of The Odd Couple Friday evening. His stuff is every bit as funny now as it was when it first appeared.

daniel from Cherry Hill said...

One play that never gets its due: "G-ds Favorite." Its a modern (1960's) retteling of the story of Job.

one of my favorite jokes.

Son, do you know what it says in the bible?

Yes Dad, This book belongs to the Sheration Plaza Hotel

Pete Grossman said...

Regarding Danny Simon - As someone who studied with him for a few years I can tell you he was tough, critical, and made you sweat when he asked you defended your work. He was also kind, helpful and open. When he saw what he called "gold" in your writing, he'd perk up, get wide-eyed, and help you mold it into something great. His techniques could take work from passable to knocking it out of the park. He taught structure, character and how to let brilliant lines organically bubble up rather shoehorning them in for a cheap "Joke, joke."

It's well documented that Danny's relationship with Neil was tenuous, but IMHO it was loving nonetheless. When Neil was seven years old, Danny told him "You're going to be the greatest comedy writer who ever lived."(Seven!) Should Neil have held back to please his brother when he struck out on his own? Hell no. Instead he honored him by writing him many times over as a brother in his plays.

Back in the 90s Danny invited Neil to our class to teach for an evening. Surely, Danny knew Neil would once again take the spotlight away from him, but he had Neil come in anyway. At one point during the class when Neil explained that he hand wrote his first drafts on yellow lined sheets of paper, then handed them over to a secretary type up, a display of their relationship surfaced. “Neil,” said Danny, “I’ve tried to get you to get a computer. This way you can type directly into it and easily edit your work on a screen instead of hand writing it on the sheets, then writing again on the typewritten sheets, which have to be typed again. You could get a lot more work done.” “Danny,” Neil replied, “I’ve written more successfully produced plays than anyone in the 20th Century. How much faster do you want me to write?”

God bless Danny and all his "mishigos" for nurturing Neil when he did. We're all the richer for it.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the line from Odd Couple verbatim, but still laugh in my head when Oscar remarks, "it took me all day to figure out what F. U. meant".
Classic N.S.!

Jim Russell said...

I was fortunate enough to act in a production of "Come Blow Your Horn" some years ago, playing the dad (Lou Jacobi originally played the part). Even in his first play, the lines have such exquisite pacing that it made it so easy on us to get the laughs.

I always loved this bit, where Dad finds out that his son wants to be a writer instead of going into the wax fruit business:

FATHER: A writer? What kind of writer? Letters? Letters, you write beautiful. I don't know who's gonna buy them but they're terrific.

BUDDY: But supposing I'm good? Supposing I could write plays -- for television or the theater?

FATHER: Plays can close. Television you turn off. Wax fruit lays in the bowl till you're a hundred.

McAlvie said...

The Sunshine Boys is still an all time family favorite. Ken, youngsters may not know the name, but his work will live on forever. Because he did write very character driven material, time and setting are almost irrelevant. His stuff is so good, that just listening to The Odd Couple as an audio production had me laughing out loud.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Murray: "Did you know that Felix was locked in the john overnight? He wrote out his entire will on a half a roll of toilet paper."

"The Cheap Detective" was no great shakes, but I did love Eileen Brennan's chanteuse performance of "La Vie En Rose" with "la-la's" instead of lyrics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3R-D45baMcU