Before becoming a playwright, Neil Simon was a very successful television writer. Even wrote on prestige shows like SGT. BILKO and CAESAR’S HOUR (starring Sid Caesar and featuring a writing staff that also included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen).
But back then the real prestige was in “theateah.”
It was also easier to get a new play on Broadway (it didn’t have to star Oscar nominees) and you could make a decent living as a playwright.
Writing plays also meant Simon could remain in New York. The television industry in the late ‘50s was fleeing to Hollywood as if there were Cossacks in Manhattan.
I have no desire to move to New York. It’s great fun for a week or two but then there’s always a blizzard or a hurricane. And unless you have Stephen Sondheim money you now have to live in Tenafly, New Jersey.
And as far as prestige goes, MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER is hardly slumming it.
So why did I become a playwright?
Because I love to write smart, witty, grown-up characters and hear an audience laughing. And there is no outlet in television that does that anymore. MOM does (at times) but that show is room written. At best, I’d be lobbing in jokes. Not the same thing.
When my TV writing partner, David Isaacs and I were on the floor during the filming of our last FRASIER I said to him, “This may be the last time anyone lets us do this.” Unfortunately, so far I’m right.
Writing sophisticated sitcoms was the best of both worlds. Every week we had a live audience and I got to hear raucous laughter. To a comedy writer – or at least, me – that’s crack. And as a bonus, another 20,000,000 people got to see and enjoy the show. More people watched one new airing of CHEERS than all the stage productions of THE ODD COUPLE put together. And the pay was good.
But these days, I’d gladly trade the audience size for the freedom to write about situations and characters that are meaningful to me. I don’t have to create a show that would be a good companion piece for 2 BROKE GIRLS or would star some brat who can’t act but does have a YouTube following. I can explore issues, I can plumb for emotional truths, and I can still make people laugh (even though I’m over thirty).
I write plays for the satisfaction and sheer love of writing.
Getting to Broadway would be nice but it’s not the end game. Working with lovely people, turning out work I’m proud of, and hearing good actors bring my words to life resulting in laughter is reward enough.
After all, I get to go to Philadelphia.
Ironically, Neil Simon now lives in Southern California.
A OR B? graphics compliments of Jess Lewis.