Neil Simon Drew Big Laughs, Then Came a Cultural Shift

In my highschool’s manufacturing of “The Odd Couple,” I performed Roy, one in every of slobby Oscar Madison’s poker buddies.

For the costume, my mom let me decide from amongst my father’s second-best fits and barely frayed gown shirts, which labored for the character (I grandly believed) as a result of Roy was an accountant and my father was a banker. No matter that I needed to hitch the trousers with a belt and suspenders to make them keep up; I nonetheless acquired my laughs.

“His refrigerator’s been broken for two weeks,” ran one in every of my traces. “I saw milk standing in there that wasn’t even in the bottle.” Pow! The play was surefire.

That was in 1975; it had not taken lengthy for “The Odd Couple” to percolate by the soil of American tradition — from its 1965 premiere, to the 1968 film adaptation, to the 1970 ABC sitcom and, in a last burst of glory, to Harriton High. By then its creator, Neil Simon, was surefire too: In 1966 he had 4 hit reveals on Broadway directly.

His domination of the sector would proceed for one more 25 years, by “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991, making him essentially the most profitable American comedian playwright ever and, for lack of a lot competitors, most likely the best.

But Mr. Simon, who died Sunday at 91, didn’t know he was standing immediately over a fault in American tradition, one which at the same time as he hit his stride began gapping and would finally pull him down.

Until then, he reliably offered the pleasure of exaggerated self-recognition, reflecting life however with palpable construction and higher punch traces.

In the theater, the shared assumptions between the playwright and his very homogeneous late-century viewers — largely white and concrete, typically Jewish or no less than Jewish-adjacent — had the redoubling impact essential to raucous comedy. With skilled actors (and his performs attracted the perfect: Maureen Stapleton, Walter Matthau, Nathan Lane, George C. Scott, Linda Lavin, Irene Worth and Mercedes Ruehl) these shared assumptions got here to look like frequent floor.

Only it wasn’t actually frequent floor. The preliminary bloom of Mr. Simon’s success quickly soured, no less than for critics. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as unbiased movies had been diversifying their outlook and shaking off the formulation of Hollywood storytelling, Broadway boulevard comedies like “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “California Suite” — tales of the befuddled nouveau riche in a new world — started to look mass-produced and middlebrow.

Mr. Simon had a seismograph’s sensitivity to criticism, however didn’t appear to know the change within the surroundings. He thought that the diminishing status of his performs was a response to their continued industrial success. He tried to adapt to the brand new expectations, aiming intellectual however lacking massive with clunkers based mostly on Chekhov (“The Good Doctor”) and the Book of Job (“God’s Favorite”).

It was autobiography — and the darkening of his palette — that renewed him. The 1980s trilogy of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” had been industrial and significant successes; “Lost in Yonkers” received the Pulitzer Prize.

The strengths of these performs are plain, but to me they appear like transitional works that by no means transitioned wherever. They come off as Depression dramas to which somebody has added an intermittent and implausible giggle observe.

I desire the early performs. That’s partially as a result of they actually don’t write them like that anymore. The rising premium critics have placed on seriousness — in addition to the fractionalization of the viewers into clans with little in frequent — have virtually worn out the shape; the final profitable Simonesque comedy on Broadway was Larry David’s “Fish in the Dark,” a one-off.

But I like these early works — “The Odd Couple” and in addition “Plaza Suite” and “The Sunshine Boys,” amongst others — as a result of though they’re comedies, they’re coherent as drama. The trick was construction: Mr. Simon’s sense of the conditions he devised was so clear he may write boffo gags that didn’t appear to return from him, however somewhat from the character and battle.

Sometimes, in the way in which that may occur when writers momentarily seize the tail of the zeitgeist, the laughs had been even prescient. This was very true in performs that addressed, inadvertently or not, the shifting gender roles and politics of the Ms. Generation of feminists, as skilled by slobs who didn’t know what hit them. When Roy complains about Oscar Madison’s fridge he’s speaking about greater than cleanliness. He is speaking concerning the inadequacy of males.

Remember that “The Odd Couple” considerations two divorcés — Oscar, a sportswriter, and a spectacularly fussy newsman, Felix Ungar — who wind up sharing an house miserably. It’s a play concerning the confusion and anger of males who can’t reside with ladies or, apparently, with out them. They don’t have any approach to see themselves for what they’re — dinosaurs — and neither does the play, whose solely ladies characters are a pair of twittery English sisters whom Oscar and Felix try to double date.

Yet in all its unreconstructed old-school masculinity, “The Odd Couple” has integrity (making its laughs really feel pure) and pathos (making its laughs really feel significant). Same with Mr. Simon’s different comedies of the interval. They could also be unjust to the harridans, simps and playthings he shares them with however they inform a actual story of male collapse that was related to the tradition on the time they had been first produced, and may nonetheless maintain up higher than the later, extra “serious” works.

I feel I understood that again in highschool when, placing on my father’s garments, I noticed how poorly they match. These sorts of males had been already below siege, as everybody in “The Odd Couple” sensed with out saying so.

Which someway made the laughs even greater.

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