Monday, July 03, 2017

Happy Birthday Neil Simon

Tomorrow is Neil Simon’s 90th birthday.

As you know, I’m a big fan. I even hosted the TCM month long salute to him, and his movies aren’t even his best work.

It’s been quite a few years now since his last play so he’s been out of the public eye. And I wonder how many young people even know who he is. When 23-year-old Dodger phenom Cody Bellinger didn’t know who Jerry Seinfeld was, you really have to assume a large portion of the youth population has no clue who Neil Simon is. If anything, he’s that guy who has a Broadway theater named after him that is currently showing CATS.
If Millennials don’t know, I can understand it (kind of, sort of). But if you’re a Millennial TV comedy writer and you get him confused with the dude who walked on the moon – shame on you.

There is much to be learned by studying Neil Simon.

His plays are all published; there are even a few collections. Read them. Yes, some are a little dated. Many were written fifty years ago. But the crafting of characters, the ease with which his jokes all move the story forward and all come out of attitude – that’s just brilliant writing in any era.

And despite the changes in society and sensibilities over the last half-century, many of his plays continue to work. His jokes still get huge laughs today. That’s an achievement.

I’m not saying Millennials should write in his style. You have your own voice and your own sensibilities. But the structure, the way the jokes are crafted, the flow of dialogue, the way the scenes are built to maximize the comic potential – these are all worth studying. And enjoying.  It's not like I'm asking you to read GRAPES OF WRATH.  

So Happy Birthday, Doc. May you enjoy your 90’s... and maybe put something better than CATS in your theater.

16 comments :

VincentS said...

Like all great writers he wrote well in every medium: Movies, TV, and stage. I can only imagine what kind of novels he would have written if he'd chosen to. Yes, most young people don't know who he is, which is a shame. He was the George S. Kaufman of the 70s.

VP81955 said...

Millenials who want to write for TV or film should know (and appreciate) Neil Simon's work, just as they should that of Ernst Lubitsch.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Wait, is this the guy who played Dr. Alan Grant in the 'Jurassic Park' movies?

Pat Reeder said...

I read his plays way back when I was in high school. Then recently, a friend who was a major actor/director in the Dallas theater scene, Rene Moreno, died. The theater community put on a big tribute/memorial to him, and out in the lobby, his huge personal library of theater books was placed on a table, for everyone who knew him to take whatever they wanted as a keepsake.

I took "The Plays of Neil Simon."

E. Yarber said...

Only a few days ago I watched the fourth season opener of Bilko, co-written by Simon. This was a particularly unusual episode because they were making a major change in the show by moving the camp from Kansas to California in the space of a half-hour.

Just pulling off the scam relocating the base required swift, clear plotting, but the motivations of every character involved had to make emotional sense, as in the scene where Bilko convinced Hall to volunteer his entire body of men to a place he'd never seen. As in any Bilko scheme, the execution was flawless but the result still came out wrong. In a nice last-minute twist, it's Doberman (who has barely figured in the story) who convinces the disappointed Sergeant that nothing could have worked out better.

The momentum of those 25 minutes was relentless. A few acts on Broadway must have seemed like a holiday by comparison.

Edward said...

I can't knock anyone for not knowing who some entertainer is, especially when they are 80 years old and their career is not performing in front of the screen or on stage.

With 400 scripted shows plus reality shows, sports, and the Internet, it's not like the old days when I grew up with 7 TV channels in the 1970's.

Andy Ihnatko said...

I saw CATS for the first time last year. All I knew of it was "Memory" and its reputation.

I don't want to say I was "surprised it was so entertaining" but yeah! I think its reputation is way out of whack. It doesn't hold together as a story, sure. I enjoyed it as a collection of individual star pieces for its half-dozen or so leads.

One of those leads is my friend Chris (which explains why I was suddenly interested in seeing CATS). I felt like a dope for having just trusted the common wisdom.

Bradley said...

Forgive me if I've missed it, but I'm curious if you've seen GLOW on Netflix. It's the first comedy I've binged in a long time because it's actually funny. Not ironic, not snide, not stupid. Just plain funny.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I am surprised that Simon might be unknown to younger individuals. I thought The Odd Couple would insure his place with succeeding generations. I was late in appreciating him. Growing up I wasn't a fan of the film version of The Odd Couple and a couple of the other film adaptations of his plays. It wasn't until I saw his work on stage-The Sunshine Boys especially- that his work came alive. I read the plays, I read his contribution to musicals like Sweet Charity. (I learned of his ability to rewrite during previews.) He deserves a place on the list of great 20th century playwrights, along with O'Neill, Miller, Williams,Albee and Wilson. Thanks again.

scottmc said...

Thank you for this. I am surprised that Simon might be unknown to younger individuals. I thought The Odd Couple would insure his place with succeeding generations. I was late in appreciating him. Growing up I wasn't a fan of the film version of The Odd Couple and a couple of the other film adaptations of his plays. It wasn't until I saw his work on stage-The Sunshine Boys especially- that his work came alive. I read the plays, I read his contribution to musicals like Sweet Charity. (I learned of his ability to rewrite during previews.) He deserves a place on the list of great 20th century playwrights, along with O'Neill, Miller, Williams,Albee and Wilson. Thanks again.

ELS said...

FANTASTIC FAKE FACT: Did you know that Neil Armstrong's middle name is actually Simon? So there you go!

Guffman said...

Ken, I was fortunate enough to attend the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kansas in 1997. Neil Simon was the honoree and it was a joy to spend the better part of a weekend with him. He talked of many things, but I particularly remember his discussion about writing dialogue. I'll have to paraphrase here: "Dialogue is not interchangeable. Every line must be specific to the character speaking." So many of today's television sitcoms violate Simon's "rule" almost entirely with jokes becoming more important than character. The M*A*S*H writers only rarely strayed from this principle. (I'm thinking BJ and Hawkeye, for example.) On the other hand, 'Big Bang Theory' lost me early because the nerd-speak humor seemed so randomly distributed. Is this something that bothers you as well - or am I just being too sensitive to what seems like an erosion of character-specific lines?

Liggie said...

Lost in Yonkers. A gem.

Breadbaker said...

During a time when I needed to listen to books on tape during long drives, one I listened to was audio adaptations of Simon plays, including the B trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, as well as Plaza Suite. I had never seen any of the plays. All of them worked extremely well as audio versions without stage directions or obviously actors' expressions. That says a lot about the quality of the dialogue and, as was pointed out, the way he wrote differently for each character so you could feel the different rhythms and cadences and syntaxes that they used.

Melissa Agar said...

LOVE Neil Simon. He was my first favorite playwright. I've had the good fortune of acting in several of his plays -- Lost in Yonkers, The Sunshine Boys, Plaza Suite, and Jake's Women -- and will be directing Rumors this fall. It is sad that he seems to have disappeared from the millenial radar. After a performance of Jake's Women, some fellow cast mates were talking to a friend who was raving about the play and "this guy Simon" and what a great writer he was, and they quickly realized the friend had NO IDEA who Simon was and thought he was some new playwright our company had discovered. Sigh!

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Melissa, you are directing Rumors?

Best Farce ever. Hysterical from first scene to last.
And we all know Ken thinks Farce is one of the hardest things to write and pull off.

Enjoy the production!

I wish they did Rumors as a movie or TV show.