Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Don't forget Neil Simon

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...


Mary Stella said...

Ken, you mention which shows you can't imagine Neil Simon writing for, but which ones today do you think would suit (or be worthy) of his talent?

Jon J said...

When I think of Neil Simon my first thoughts are of Plaza Suite. Maybe that's just me.

DH said...

I hear (and agree) with what you say about Neil Simon. When it comes to not knowing names, I think this is pretty scary - there was one critic at the TCA Awards the other night who had never heard of M*A*S*H (recipient of the Heritage Award).

Richard J. Marcej said...

Today on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) they're showing the films of Walter Matthau. At 10:00 PM (EST) they're running "The Odd Couple" and right after, they're running "PLaza Suite".

Granted, these are films of Simon's plays but his dialogue is still there. (and there are some fine performances by Matthau, Lemon and Lee Grant).

Alyson said...

I have never laughed as hard and as long as I did when I first heard the cornflakes joke years ago. It still gets me.
(And for the record, I am 29 and know exactly who Neil Simon is.)

Mr. Hollywood said...

Speaking of his more serious work ... CHAPTER TWO. Superb piece of writing. A giant. A legend. For anyone who wants to write, READ his work ... over and over again!

benson said...

Reelz Channel just showed California Suite Monday night. Two of the couples plots were dumb, but the other two were brilliant, funny, thought provoking, realistic and still relatable today.

Gene Rayburn said...

He is now married to the great Bobby Van's widow, Elaine Joyce!

Terry said...

Hi Ken,
The Odd Couple is one of my all time favorites, and the Corn Flakes line you cited is probably my favorite line in the whole thing. Cracks me up every time, even just reading it.

Incidentally, I once saw a production of The Odd Couple with some old acquaintances of yours in the lead roles: William Christopher and Jamie Farr. They were perhaps a bit too old for the parts at the time (this was in the late 1990s), but their comic timing was excellent.

David said...

Mr. Simon was a guarantee that my money was well spent. Until I paid money for "The Slugger's Wife". That movie soured me on Neil Simon movies. When people ask me about the worst movie I've seen, that one is the first I mention.
Sorry, I didn't intend to rant.

Unknown said...

I think it is safe to say that without Neil Simon, television (especially television comedy) would look vastly different today.

He was, in my opinion, the foundation of TV comedy - writing for Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows) and Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko).

Neil Simon can arguably be the William Shakespeare of the modern era.

Marconi said...

I was thinking of one of my all time favorites the other day, "The Cheap Detective". Great cast and send-up/tribute to the old Bogie movies. I had totally forgotten that Neil Simon wrote it. Should have guessed.

Michael Hagerty said...

Neil's star will rise once more when Steve Carrell and Zach Galifianikis re-make The Odd Couple.

No, there's no deal. No one's even talking about it yet. But you just KNOW they will.

Gary said...

Wouldn't you love to see what Neil would do with Two & a-half Men? Loved BILOXI BLUES, I've seen it a dozen times. Of course, Christopher Walken is superb, but he's just simonizing Neil's lines. All of his are so good. FU.

Marconi said...

From the "Cheap Detective"...

Jasper Blubber: You drink, of course?
Lou Peckinpaugh: Why not?
Jasper Blubber: One gin sling!
Lou Peckinpaugh: I'd rather have a brandy.
Jasper Blubber: Won Jin Sling is the *waiter*. One brandy, Won Jin Sling.
Lou Peckinpaugh: This is a gin sling!
Jasper Blubber: It is? I was wrong - the waiter's name is Brandy.

Michael Hagerty said...

And as great as The Cheap Detective was...its predecessor, Murder By Death, was, in my book, even better.

"Cow on wall talk!"

Max Clarke said...

Goodbye Girl was a smart movie. My favorite Neil Simon movie.

It had rapid-fire exchanges between Richard Dreyfus and Marsha Mason, but without the fast edits and jump cuts of today's sitcoms. Just two people matching wits and then falling in love. The jokes advanced the story, too, showing us this Odd Couple who overcame their differences.

Marsha Mason: I thought you said you were decent.

Richard Dreyfus. I am decent. I also happen to be naked.

Thanks for the mention of The Cheap Detective, too. Very funny. With all the stars in it, such as Peter Falk, I forgot Neil wrote it.

Larry said...

You quote the cornflakes joke from The Odd Couple, but here are a few more from the same play, though it's hard to excerpt since one great line flows into another:

Oscar: I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. Well, what do you say?

Murray: What's the green?

Oscar: It's either very new cheese or very old meat.

(After Felix admits he took a bottle of pills)

Murray: A whole bottle of pills! Call an ambulance!

Oscar: You don't even know what kind!

Murray: What's the difference! He took a whole bottle!

Oscar: Maybe they were vitamins. He could be the healthiest one in the room!

(At the poker game Felix won't put a glass of beer down for Murray)

Felix: Where's your coaster?

Murray: My what?

Frlix: Your coaster. The little round thing that goes under the glass?

Murray: I think I bet it.

(Felix and Oscar are angry at each other)

Oscar: Now get this spaghetti off my poker table.

Felix: Ha! Ha, ha!

Oscar: What the hell's so funny?

Felix: It's not spaghetti. It's linguini.

(Oscar picks up the plate and hurls it into the kitchen)

Oscar: Now it's garbage!

The Odd Couple is a great story with great characters that also manages to have continual laughs. On top of which, Neil Simon managed this feat with a whole bunch of plays, and screenplays. I don't know if there's ever been a comedy writer who can compare.

Nat G said...

Neil would do an interesting Modern Family. Different rhythms - Simon is best when he has his room - but he could work with those characters.

Yes, the original Goodbye Girl was great. The TV remake, however, was unnecessary at best.--

Phil Guest said...

Just seen Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl in a London revival of "The Prisoner Of Second Avenue".

Terrific writing by Simon and great performances from the leads. It's on until the end of September and well worth catching.

Mike said...

Neil Simon would be one of those names that you have to know if you want to date me. You don't have to like him, but you better be able to name a play.

I don't feel like I'm too picky, but I just realized that I do have a list like this in my head. Good thing I'm not single.

A. Buck Short said...

The irrepressible (and always hilarious?) Lee J. Cobb to his son Tony Bill in Come Blow Your Horn,: “This isn’t a refrigerator; it’s an aluminum mine.”

Is Sheldon Cooper Felix Ungar to the nth power? And by the nth power I don't mean 14 times exponentially, "n" being the 14th letter in the alphabet -- or should I say our alphabet -- there being innumerable alphabets, not including those that, like hieroglyphics, or those scratch marks by which the ancient Sumarians communicated aren't necessarily alphabets in the traditional sense. Instead I am of course speculating if Felix Ungar had gone back to shool and mastered...........Oh shut up Sheldon! It's not a perfect fit, but I'll take it. At least from an annoyance POV>

Michael said...

If I am correct, Neil Simon also wrote the book for "Sweet Charity," one of the great musicals. He could write anything.

Apropos of Elaine Joyce, one of my early crushes, I read that Simon's third wife required a pre-nup that he couldn't write any play or film about their marriage. Some of his best material has been personal.

gottacook said...

Unfortunately the public's perception of "the incomparable ODD COUPLE" (the original play) has been blurred by all of the following to different degrees:

The 1968 Lemmon-Matthau movie (scripted by Simon)
The 1970-75 Randall-Klugman TV series
The 1982 failed remake of the series with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson
Simon's 1985 female version of the play, with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno (and poker replaced by Trivial Pursuit)
The 1993 Randall-Klugman TV-movie sequel
The late-1990s Lemmon-Matthau movie sequel (scripted by Simon, who should have known better) as much of a gem as the play is, its impact has been diluted by all these opportunistic enterprises.*

Thankfully, there's a whole other set of Simon's work not mentioned by our host but brought up by some of the commenters: the original screenplays such as The Goodbye Girl, The Out-of-Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, et al. These of course have been remade as well, but the originals can still be watched and will hold up much longer.

*Although Simon himself was responsible for some of these latter-day efforts to squeeze the original concept for some more juice, I don't really blame him. Other great creative artists have done likewise, such as Maurice Ravel orchestrating nearly all his solo piano work, and that of others (notably Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), during creatively fallow periods.

Jen said...

I would also mention that "Rumors" is one of the funny farces I have ever read or seen.
Neil Simon did an episode of "Inside the Actors Studio" in the early 90s. He gives some great writing insights during the interview.

sally creeping down the alley said...

At the same time I wonder if anyone remembers Nichols and May (especially Elayne May).

Mike in SLO said...

My favorite Simon comedy is "The Sunshine Boys".

I love the "Words with a K are funny..." scene. And the scene where they keep moving the chairs around. Just a wonderful script...

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I am glad someone mentions The Sunshine Boys. Great play. The way he handles introduction is just wonderful (and a great advertisement for the things you can do on stage which you can't do on tv or in television anymore).

I had the honor of doing the Dutch translation, which had a very well recieved run here. Before that, I had indeed devoured all of Mr. Simon's plays. Recently, a third volume was added by the way. Smon's later plays are still good, but they are never as good as when you read them while you are still figuring out how to do it yourself.

Anonymous said...

At least you didn't say Neil Simon was getting your car.

Somersby said...

Your post on Neil Simon made me dust off a copy of The Sunshine Boys. One of my favorite scenes is when Willie is explaining to his nephew Ben how words with a "K" are funny. Chicken, pickle, cupcake are all funny by virtue of having a K. "Tomato is not funny, roast beef is not funny...but cookie is funny."

When Willie mentions he thinks Flip Wilson is funny, Ben points out that the name Flip Wilson doesn't have a K.

"But he's black, with a K. You see what I mean?"

It's a scene that in many ways shouldn't be funny -- but it breaks me up every time I read it. And the Flip Wilson topper demonstrates just how well Mr. Simon could construct a scene. Brilliant stuff.

Thanks, Ken, for reminding us about him.

Tom Quigley said...

Alyson said...

"I have never laughed as hard and as long as I did when I first heard the cornflakes joke years ago. It still gets me"...

I took a comedy writing course from Neil's older brother Danny when he was still alive, and he cited that specific joke (among others) as an example of how to write comedy that comes from the characters and the situation... Even Neil's big brother respected his genius...

D. McEwan said...

" Terry said...
I once saw a production of The Odd Couple with some old acquaintances of yours in the lead roles: William Christopher and Jamie Farr. They were perhaps a bit too old for the parts"

Maybe that was The Old Couple. (There's why I don't make the Neal Simon big bucks.)

David said...
Mr. Simon was a guarantee that my money was well spent. Until I paid money for 'The Slugger's Wife'. That movie soured me on Neil Simon movies. When people ask me about the worst movie I've seen, that one is the first I mention."

For me it was Simon's Seems Like Old Times with Chevy Chase. I remember walking out on that thinking, "Boy, he must have spent the better part of a weekend knocking that crap out."

In general, I'm not a fan of his later, more dramatic work. I recently saw a production of Jake's Women, and really didn't like it at all: naracissistic, boring, unoriginal, and so lifeless that by the middle of the first act the audience had stopped laughing at the jokes altogether, even though his undiminished abilty to write a perfect joke was certainly still in evidence. By act two, I think people in the audience were surprised to look at their programs and be reminded it was Neal Simon, because as far as they were concerned by then, it was a turgid drama, not a comedy.

But at his best, he is the best, and however it's been over "re-imagined", The Odd Couple remains a practically perfect in every way play.

chalmers said...

Whenever someone reminisces about great college times or their personal version of the good old days, I think about Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” coda. After complaining about basic training and his fellow troops for the entire play/movie, now he realizes that he loves the guys and the time they spent together. Why? “For the most selfish reason of all…because we were young.”

chalmers said...

Whenever someone reminisces about great college times or their personal version of the good old days, I think about Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” coda. After complaining about basic training and his fellow troops for the entire play/movie, now he realizes that he loves the guys and the time they spent together. Why? “For the most selfish reason of all…because we were young.”

thegoodbyecolleen said...

I'm a huge Neil Simon fan and The Sunshine Boys is one of my favourite films. Among the wonderful lines my favourite is (apologies for the paraphrasing)the part where Willy is talking to his nephew, saying what a horrible man Al was and the nephew asks, If he was so awful why did you work with him for 43 years? And Willy, having just bitched about him non-stop, says "Why? Because he was the best. No-one could tell a joke like he could tell a joke, no-one could time a line like he could time a line. As an actor no-one could touch him. As a human being no-one wanted to touch him". It gets me every time.

Mel said...

I have been incredibly blessed to appear in three Simon plays -- as Willie's nurse (on for all of four pages) in The Sunshine Boys, as Gertie in Lost in Yonkers, and as Norma in Plaza Suite (my dream role). His language is so much fun to say. He's a dream to act!!! (And if you can get through act III of Plaza Suite without breaking character, you know you've made it!)

I also teach Drama at the high school level and always include Simon when I get to "Modern Drama." More than anyone else, he made theatre accessible to modern audiences.

scottmc said...

I love Simon's work. In addition to the lines from 'The Odd Couple' ,'The Sunshine Boys', and 'The Goodbye Girl', I would add:

Biloxi Blues:
Eugene: "Boy it's hot. This is hot! I am really hot! Oh, God, is it hot!...It never got this hot in Brooklyn. This is like Africa-hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot."

From Broadway Bound:
(Eugene and his brother discuss what makes a good comedy sketch.)
Stan: The ingedient in every good comedy sketch we've ever seen-is conflict!...Remember? Remember the night we talked about conflict?
Eugene: Yes.
Stan: You do remember?
Eugene: Tuesday, September seventh, eight thirty-five P.M.
Stan: All right. Now what's the other ingredient in every good comedy sketch we've ever seen?
Eugene: More conflict!
Stan: Come on. You know it...Think about it...Do you know it?
Eugene: Yes. It's when one brother wants to kill the other brother.
Stan: YES!!
Eugene: Yes? That's it?
Stan: It's close. You said it in that sentence. Do you remember what you said in that sentence?
Eugene: No. It was too long ago.
Stan: One brother wants to kill the other brother. The key word is wants! In every comedy, even drama, somebody has to want something and want it bad. He wants money, he wants a girl, he wants to get to Philadelphia. When somebody tries to stop him from getting money or a girl or getting to Philadelphia,that's conflict. Wanting plus conflict equals what?
Eugene: Oh please,God. Don't let me get it wrong. a job at CBS.
Stan: Right.

I also love 'Rewrites', volume 1 of Simon's autobiography. Just the details behind bringing 'The Odd Couple' to the stage make the book worthwhile.He writes of how critics can help. (One in Boston was invaluable in helping 'The Odd Couple.) There was a time in the 1960's when he was very prolific and in a review of the latest play a critic wrote: 'Neil Simon didn't have a good idea for a play this year but he wrote it anyway'. Simon took that to heart and cut back.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

If I recall, Neil Simon was married to Marsha Mason when they did "The Goodbye Girl". Am I correct?

Kirk said...

What I like about his writing style is he makes it SEEM credible that his characters, whom often aren't writers, can come up with such one-liners at the top of their heads during heated exchanges.

Kim said...

I can only speak for my children (ages 27 and 16) who are well aware of Neil Simon! My son has acted in two of his best -- Biloxi Blues and Rumors. DD uses Neil Simon for many of scene studies in class.

rob! said...

Murder by Death, one of the funniest movies ever made.

"I'm not a Frenchie, I'm a Belgie!"

Paul Duca said...

A. Buch....Simon didn't do the screenplay for COME BLOW YOUR HORN, and that line isn't from the original play. Credit Norman Lear, believe it or not.

normadesmond said...

i scared the shit out of him in NYC. as he passed me on the street, i screamed HI! no kidding, he probably went home and took a bath to relax.

BruceB said...

I love "Laughter on the 23rd Floor", Simon's memories of the writer's room on "Caesar's Hour". There was an HBO film version, but it was a complete rewrite, totally different from the play. The play is amazing, putting the audience right there in the room with great comic minds. Carl Reiner's Dick Van Dyke show came close, since it covered some of the same ground by someone who was also there, but "23rd" really captures the feeling of that writers room, more specifically. It's wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I'm with rob! on the MURDER BY DEATH wagon. Strangely enough, it has been my experience that people who like CLUE hate MBD.

te said...

What are the odds the F.U. joke came first; Simon then having to name (or rename)the character,

I'd like a whole column about shows where the titles come first; then the characters: Will & Grace, Grace Under Fire, Saving Grace...and a whole bunch of shows without characters named "Grace."

andrew said...

hi im andrew, a scriptwriter from singapore. I have both collections of neil's plays, plus his autobiography and im hoping he completes it. And Neil Simon was who I studied when i was starting out as a comedy writer. I read his odd couple back to back just to absorb rhythm. And his biloxi blues was awesome. My favorite is his trilogy broadway bound and lost in yonkers.

thank you, simon, for your words. You may not know it, but your humor and wisdom was part of my growing up.

thomas tucker said...

Unless I missed it at some point, how about a post sometime on the incomarable Bob and Ray?

Greg said...

My favorite part of "The Cheap Detective" was when the wonderful Eileen Brennan "lala-ed" the song "La vi en Rose."

Remember when Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger were a Hollywood couple? During the nightmarish filming of Simon's screenplay for "The Marrying Man," Ms. B reportedly snapped something to the effect of, "Whoever wrote this doesn't know anything about comedy."

Jay H. said...

Speaking of Neil...I just saw "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" at our local theatre ( if I may plug them), and loved it. Does anyone know of or can recommend a good book about the "Show of Shows" era? Not simply Sid Caesar himself, but the whole era of that show?

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