Wednesday, September 05, 2018

the legacy of Neil Simon

Back from two weeks in Europe. During my trip I saw that Neil Simon had passed away but I was on the run and unable to really address it at the time. Now I’m home and now I have some thoughts.

First of all, it’s no secret that I was a huge admirer of Neil Simon. I wrote an appreciation of him several years ago for this blog. You can find it here. That led to TCM inviting me to host their Neil Simon Film Festival, which I take as a real honor.

I was struck last week by all the social media tributes by comedy writers. Like me, they all point to Neil Simon as their primary inspiration. Wait, let me amend that – all comedy writers of a certain age. I don’t know if many young comedy writers hold him in the same esteem. But they should.

Because no one wrote funnier dialogue, all in service of characters and attitudes, and all designed to move the story forward. So much of his stuff still holds up today because the themes are universal and the comedy comes out of reality.

As proof that the world considers comedy less valuable than drama, even Neil Simon never got the respect he deserved. Yes, he won Tonys, and Pulitzers, and scores of other awards, but even in a lot of tribute articles I read he’s lauded primarily for his plays being so “popular.” Yeah, Mozart’s compositions had a following.

It’s sad, but I bet Neil Simon will garner more respect that he’s dead.

Multi-camera comedies receive lots of criticism for being formulaic and “jokey.” And most of the criticism is valid. But done well multi-camera sitcoms are an art form. They’re one act plays, performed in front of an audience. And if “jokes” are constructed well, they can generate actual audible laughter. More than that, many can hold up – for fifty years or more. The absolute master of creating these kinds of jokes was Neil Simon.

When a beloved singer passes on, people rediscover their music in the days and weeks that follow. Been binging on Aretha lately? May I suggest for all writers, especially younger ones and aspiring ones, to read some of the plays of Neil Simon. Yes, there are dated references but Gershwin tunes have dated references too. Still the brilliance will shine through, I promise you.

Back in the ‘70s when THE ODD COUPLE TV series was popular, there was an LA production at the (now defunct) Shubert Theatre of the original play with the TV cast in the roles. So Tony Randall was Felix and Jack Klugman was Oscar, etc. It brought down the house. And as I was watching it I thought to myself, “Wow, this is the best episode of THE ODD COUPLE ever!”

Neil Simon will be greatly missed. May his work continue to serve as an inspiration to all comedy writers of every age.


VP81955 said...

Amen, Ken.

E. Yarber said...

Sitcom work was a valuable training ground for Simon, the careful story structure of his BILKO stint providing a transition from his sketch comedy for Caesar to the Broadway work to follow. He wrote nearly half of the final season, often fleshing out supporting characters who had been hitting the same notes for years. Not only did he manage the tricky season opener that relocated the characters to California, but he composed the final episode as well, capping the entire series with the meta-concept of Bilko winding up in jail for a presumably lengthy stretch while Colonel Hall gleefully watched Ernie's cell on television through a closed-circuit line.

It's also interesting to note that Simon achieved a high profile through his writing alone, while contemporaries like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Mike Nichols had to establish themselves as performers before really making their mark behind the scenes.

Xmastime said...

He was the best. My favorite was "The Star Spangled Girl", which I was lucky enough to stumble on as a kid :)

Michael Hagerty said...

Back in the late 70s, when Neil Simon was creating both hit Broadway plays and Hollywood movies, he did a Playboy interview. They told him that his career made him truly bi-coastal (a newish term at the time) and asked him what he saw as the biggest differences between New York and L.A.:

"When it's 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity in New York, it's 78 in L.A.

When it's 34 degrees and sleet in New York, it's 78 in L.A.

There are two million interesting people in New York.

78 in L.A."

Even as a native Angeleno, I can't help but love that.

Jeff Alexander said...

Very well written tribute to Neil Simon.
It's interesting that you bring up the Randall/Klugman performance of the Simon play because it reminds me of an interview Simon did in the early 1970s with TV Guide.
He was asked if he ever watched the "The Odd Couple" TV series and the surprising reply (at least to me) was that he did not.
The reason was, he said, that (and I'm not quoting here) it was like picking up your family photo album and seeing pictures in there of people you don't recognize or know.
He must have changed his tune, however, because he did do a cameo on one of the episodes.

Andrew said...

I've always loved Murder by Death, but I had forgotten that the screenplay was by Simon. I'm not sure why the movie doesn't get more love and respect. Of course, like some of Mel Brooks's films, I'm not sure it could be made today. Too many people would be pseudo-offended.

I love that Alec Guinness defended his decision to appear in the movie (which was considered a step down for him) by saying, "The script made me laugh." Can't get higher praise than that.

Tudor Queen said...

I was a huge Neil Simon fan - still am, the work is still here to admire and enjoy - and was lucky enough to see a number of his plays onstage, as well as his films.

My mother - notoriously fussy about theater - roared with laughter when I took her to see "Prisoner of Second Avenue".

I have a not-so-secret weakness for "The Cheap Detective".

What it comes down to is that funny is funny and in a comedy, you should be funny.

He was and remains very funny.

Joe said...

Jeff Alexander,

I also heard that part of the reason why Neil Simon at first resented the TV version of the Odd Couple is that his agent made a very bad deal, and Neil's cut wasn't nearly what it should have been.

Once he gave it a shot, he saw it was good, and agreed to do the cameo with Randall and Klugman.

Joe said...

Jeff Alexander,

I also heard one of the reasons Neil Simon resented the TV version of The Odd Couple is that his agent cut a bad deal, leaving Neil's cut of the pie much too small. Once he finally watched the show, he liked it and agreed to the cameo with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Covarr said...

Not too long ago, I complained in your comments section about BAREFOOT IN THE PARK having too many stage directions and generally wasting page space on trivial things like sitting down, putting away coats, and other stuff that isn't really plot- or joke-pertinent and could just as well have been the director's domain.

I stand by those complaints.

Despite that, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK is probably my favorite show I've been in (or at least tied with OUR TOWN). The jokes, the timing, and the characters are all so well written. Any actor would be lucky to have the opportunity to work with lines like this. While a certain lack of discipline in some aspects of this show makes it apparent that it was one of his earliest works, the fact that such an early and undisciplined show could still be so good where it really counts is a testament to just how brilliant the man was. A lesser writer would scare producers, directors, and actors away with these things, but Simon was good enough at dialogue and story to get away with it until he learned better.

tavm said...

After Mr. Simon died, I watched online both the films Come Blow Your Horn-which is one of the few Simon plays adapted on screen by someone else, in this case Norman Lear, and The Odd Couple again of which I once again enjoyed Felix's encounter with The Pigeon Sisters. Speaking of whom, a week after Neil's passing, one of them-Carole Shelly who was Gwendolyn-also passed on. Monica Evans, the other one who was Cecily, is still alive at this point...

Glenn said...

I saw Randall and Klugman in the Odd Couple when it came to Boston. They were amazing.

As for Simon, a master at his craft. In fact, he practically *re-invented* the craft.

slgc said...

They're Playing Our Song isn't one of the first things that people associate with Neil Simon, largely because the music by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager and the acting by Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz garnered so much attention. But Mr. Simon's script brought everything together beautifully - it remains one of my all-time favorite Broadway musicals.

benson said...


I'm glad you mentioned Carole Shelley. Not only was she wonderful in all the incarnations of The Odd Couple, she was also in one of my favorite Frasier episodes, "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz". What a wonderful actress.

VP81955 said...

The producers sought Myrna Loy to send up her Nora Charles character in "Murder By Death," but she declined.

scottmc said...

The New York Times posted a video interview with Neil Simon after he died. The interview was done about ten years ago. In it he talks about a scene in The Odd Couple that everyone involved thought was the funniest thing ever. Of course, the audience hated it. Simon said that it was director Mike Nichols who figured out why they didn't respond. That little piece alone is like a Master Class in comedy writing. I don't recall when I became a fan of his. When I was young I considered his plays more of my parent's generation. But slowly I became a fan. I think the movies The Goodbye Girl and Murder by Death led me back to his plays. The speech that ends with ' took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Unger' might be the best ever. I met him once at a book signing at Barnes and Noble. It was for the second volume of his memoir. It actually surprised me how small the crowd was.

VincentS said...

Fine tribute, Ken. Thanks.

David Russell said...

I was incredibly fortunate as a (then) young actor to be cast in two different productions of Barefoot in the Park as Paul Bratter. Clearly I'm no Redford but the strength of Simon's writing helped me to get good reviews in the role.

That Guy said...

Side note for Covarr's complaints about too many stage directions in "Barefoot in the Park" - a lot of editions of plays tend to be taken not from what the writer delivered on the first day of rehearsals but from the stage manager's copy, and it's not unusual, especially with plays from the 50s/60s, for them to include every note that the stage manager made about where actors, furniture and props are moving. That's a publisher thing, not a writer thing.

IN shows that had extensive rewrites on the out of town performances (which Simon's often did), the stage manager's copy was often the only copy of the script that accurately presented in its entirety the dialogue that was actually part of the show when it opened on Broadway - actors would only amend the pages where they had lines, and by the time it's running out of town, the director and author are no longer looking at a printed script but looking at what plays on stage to get that to work.

Where plays are popular enough to get big print runs outside just the theatres that want to do them, writers would often tidy up for publication (Arthur Miller, for instance, edited the top of "Death of a Salesman" to describe poetically the setting that Joseph Mielziner had made for his show - he originally hadn't described a set at all). But it seems this is one that Neil Simon didn't edit (or possibly you had a Samuel French edition, that tend to be specific about how the original production can be reproduced).

K said...

Just as it took Conrad and Hammett to move spy/ mysteries and Clarke and Verne for Sci Fi from pulp to art so one hopes, that Niel Simon will be looked back upon as an individual whose brilliance and humanity claimed the rightful place among the pantheon of greats for his comedy.
No longer can talent be dismissed with a "its only comedy".

( Story of man who played Santa Claus in original Miracle of 54th(?) street. On his deathbed a friend came by to sympathize and commented on how hard it must be to die. Upon which the dying man opened his eyes and uttered words to the effect "comedy is hard this is easier")

Being funny ain't easy.

Johnny Walker said...

Two weeks in Europe?! Were you here the same time as Dan O'Shannon? What a weird coincidence!

Alfred Day said...

Don't know if you've seen this Ken, but the folks on Reddit have created a Frasier Card Game. I'm not much of a game player, but the rules made me laugh out loud.

Jahn Ghalt said...

“Wow, this is the best episode of THE ODD COUPLE ever!”

I'll guess that you hadn't seen the film version as yet. In the same way, although my sis and I wore out the "Red" and "Blue" Beatles compilations, and although the Blue had Lucy in thd Sky with Diamonds, we didn't have a copy of Sgt. Pepper to wear out.

So I'm a little embarrassed to admit that the Elton John cover, in all its theatricality, and heavy rotation on Top 40 radio, was the first version to get my attention. Interesting to see that he got away with a six-minute version.

Now, of course, for every hundred playings of Sgt. Pepper (who listens only to the singles?) I play Elton John's cover once - and it sounds kind of funny in its over-the-top treatment.

Hard to imagine, but I clearly remember thinking the Pepper version was "strange" that first few times I played that at nineteen-ish.

Xmastime said...

Followup to comment earlier - when I say I love "The Star Spangled" girl I mean the script, which I wore out as a kid. It was only a few years ago I go the movie, which is pretty terrible.

Janet Ybarra said...

No one mentioned THE GOODBYE GIRL... my favorite Neil Simon, even more than THE ODD COUPLE.

But Ken, you are absolutely right, young comedy writers ought to study him. If they did, the quality of sitcoms would increase dramatically.

Mark said...

My favorite Simon work may be the scripts he did in his salad days for Bilko.




Buttermilk Sky said...

Lovely tribute and Friday question.

In the ODD COUPLE series, though not in the play or movie, Felix is a huge opera fan -- as was Tony Randall in real life. It seems clear that the star's personality shaped the character. As a writer, are you happy to blend fiction with reality this way, or would you either refuse or reluctantly agree just to keep the peace?

Kaleberg said...

I'll never forget his wonderful response to Mary Henderson's piece complaining about the overuse of tables in the theater. She was particularly offended by the table in Simon's Broadway Bound. His reply was hilarious, as one might expect.

"At this point, both the director and producer fought for pure commercialism. 'People who eat dinner eat at a table,' they protested vehemently. 'We don't do shows for apes. We do shows for people with furniture,' they screamed, as I heard the jingle of coins bouncing in their pockets from money made from hordes of pedestrian theatergoers, sitting comfortably in their middle-class seats, oohing and ahhing every time they recognized things like curtains or windows or doors. God, how I hate audiences like that. Mindless dolts who settle for clarity."