Monday, April 27, 2015

NEIL SIMON: VOICE OF THE URBAN UNDERDOG

As with most everything, comedy has a shelf life. At least certain kinds of comedy, it seems. Example: for reasons unknown to me (and a great many comedy writers, I imagine), a TV show as old as I Love Lucy has this timeless something about it that can make me laugh as heartily today as I did as a child. Meanwhile, the humor I once found in a more contemporary comedy like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, feels remote at best.

Such is the case with Neil Simon. A writer whose work I absolutely adored when I was young, but has a tendency not to play so well for me today. (Oddly enough, at age ten, there were only three non-performer show-biz names I knew: Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, and Neil Simon…and Simon didn’t have a weekly TV show),

When I was growing up, I remember having this strong perception of comedy as this nebulous entertainment entity divided into distinct and separate camps. There was the schticky, vaudeville-style comedy of Bob Hope and Milton Berle which was favored by my parents; the youthful “with it” comedy of The Smothers Brothers and Rowan & Martin; the female perspective comedy of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers; and the sketch-based, relationship-comedy of duos like Stiller & Meara and Clair & McMahon.
Wedged somewhere in between was what I’d call the 1960s equivalent of today’s calculatedly schlubby Comedy Club standups: the buttoned-down, put-upon, everyman.
And whether it was the observational, college-dweeb vibe of a Woody Allen or the beleaguered middle-class carping of a Bob Newhart or George Gobel - the look was strictly urban/suburban and the comedy rooted in giving voice to the frustrations of the average Joe as he  struggled to keep in step with the too-fast changes of contemporary society. From this latter camp, the comedy voice of Neil Simon emerged.
 

At a time when television was a haven for prizefights, variety shows, and Playhouse 90 dramas; lightweight, “pleasing the tired businessman” Broadway comedies were the sophisticated sitcoms of the day. Neil Simon’s TV-trained, joke-a-minute, gag-driven writing style was tailor-made for this environment, making his transition from Your Show of Shows comedy writer to playwright a seamless one.

Indeed, Neil Simon’s particular brand of working-class farce was so well-suited to the timbre of the times that it’s something of a miracle his work was able to distinguish itself amidst the roster of interchangeable, look-alike, sound-alike Broadway shows of the era: Any Wednesday, Boeing Boeing, Goodbye Charlie, Mary Mary, Come Blow Your Horn, Sunday in New York, Enter Laughing, The Fun Couple, The Owl & the Pussycat, Critics Choice, and Luv.

Both a popular and prolific Tony Award-winning playwright who at one time boasted four shows running concurrently on Broadway (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, The Star Spangled Girl), Simon had, by the end of the 60s, established himself as the preeminent voice of contemporary comedy. His proficiency as a gun-for-hire for flagging Broadway shows earning him the nickname, “Doc” Simon.
When Hollywood inevitably came calling, Simon opted out of adapting Come Blow Your Horn, his debut effort, to the big screen. However, his dissatisfaction with how that film turned out led to his thereafter writing the screenplays for virtually every film adapted from his rapidly-growing resume of Broadway successes. He obviously had the right idea, for the boxoffice success of the movie versions of Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) made him a nationwide household name. (Interestingly, both sitcomy-films were turned into actual TV programs in 1970, the same year The-Out-of-Towners opened in theaters.) 
 

Looking back at my own introduction to the man, I have to say Mr. Simon and I got off to a pretty rocky start. The very first Neil Simon movie I ever saw was a Late Show TV broadcast of 1963’s Come Blow Your Horn. To say I loathed it would be a gross understatement. Embodying pretty much everything I’ve come to hate about smirky 60s sex comedies (bubble-haired bimbos a vaselined playboys all looking as if they reeked of alcohol and cigarettes), it’s a film - in spite of efforts made over the years - I’ve yet to make it all the way through.

Happily, in 1967 the more accessible (not to mention infinitely funnier) Barefoot in the Park was released, and The Odd Couple the following year. What with sitting through both films several times over their respective summers, and reading published copies of Simon’s plays at the local library; by the time The-Out-of-Towners was released, I was a well-versed Neil Simon fan at the ripe old age of twelve.  
 

I’ve often wondered why, at an age when most kids are drawn to anarchic comedies which flout authority and poke fun at convention, I was so attracted to the middle-class/middle-brow humor of Neil Simon. There’s no denying I was drawn to Simon’s gag-driven style ‒ more jokey than witty ‒ which was within my grasp and never pitched over my adolescent head. Or maybe because in school I was one of those rule-following goody-two-shoes who bristled when the bad behavior of classmates was rewarded with teacher attention, I identified with Simon’s put-upon heroes. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, a 12-year-old can bristle. Very well, thank you.)
Certainly growing up in a household with parents who regularly communicated through high-decibel yelling matches lent Simon’s domestic trademark quarrel-comedy (rooted in tradition old as The Bickersons) an air of familiarity. However, what I think most sold me on Neil Simon’s movies at a young age was that they served as the perfect transitional comedies for tweens at that awkward stage: too old for The Three Stooges but too young for All About Eve. His movies were like a comedy suspension bridge between silly and sophisticated.
   
I remained a staunch Neil Simon fan throughout the 70s. A loyalty that grew increasingly difficult to sustain come the 80s and Simon’s newfound “serious phase.” While many are of the opinion that Simon produced some of his best works during this period, the last of his films I actually enjoyed was Only When I Laugh (1981), and that was largely for the performances of Joan Hackett and James Coco. My long and happy association with Neil Simon came to a permanent end with the nearly-unwatchable Max Dugan Returns (1983). I haven’t seen a Neil Simon film since.

In subsequent years, revisits to fondly remembered Simon films have been a mixed bag. While some movies still manage to amuse, too much of the comedy feels sluggish and schticky (you half expect to hear rim shots on the soundtrack after every one-liner). And bits that once made me laugh aloud now just leave me scratching my head. The Goodbye Girl is just strident; Seems Like Old Times can actually induce physical pain; you can practically see the cobwebs hanging off the dialog in The Odd Couple: and Barefoot in the Park, outside of the luminous presence of Jane Fonda, is like an episode of Love, American Style that keeps going on thirty minutes after it ends. (Fittingly, the pilot for the Barefoot in the Park TV series aired on Love, American Style as “Love and the Good Deal.”)
 

But if the exception proves the rule, a cataloging of Neil Simon movies that haven’t aged particularly well for me would be one-sided if it didn’t mention the one film of his that actually gets funnier with each passing year: 1970’s The-Out-of-Towners.
The usual Simon tropes of bickering couples and New York commentary are in attendance; but as one of his few works written expressly for the screen, it lacks the stagy, claustrophobic air of so many of his films. It's blissfully free of pretension and its only ambition is to make you laugh. And in that, The-Out-of-Towners succeeds admirably.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

7 comments:

  1. Hi Ken--glad you're back. You'd been incommunicado so long, I was starting to worry. The thing about Neil Simon (as with, to my mind, Woody Allen) is that he is so permanently fixed to a particular time and place (New York from the mid-sixties to early-eighties), he doesn't translate so well into different times and places. When we were all expected to feel for the white guy who couldn't get his hotel reservation right or found his sublet apartment already occupied, the humor made sense. But when we reached a cultural point where those "problems" seemed more like an outraged sense of entitlement, the humor seemed to drain away. However, I can still watch THE GOODBYE GIRL because Richard Dreyfus. Be still my seventies fan girl heart!

    Btw, my favorite Neil Simon line is from (I think) BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS: "You know what my mom's idea of spaghetti sauce is? Ketchup!" I always laugh at that because that was my mom's spaghetti sauce too!

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    1. Hi Deb
      Very busy of late, and actually watching a few "new" movies for a change (making me long for the 70s).
      Anyhow, I think what you say is true with some artists and why they can be problematic if they are prolific. Comparing Neil Simon to Woody Allen is very apt. I always thought of Allen's perspective as being "hipper" and more youthful in contrast to Simon's middle age perspective, but they both covered similar ground and are mired in the era in which they flourished.
      Your perspective on what makes their work less timely is very much in line with how I feel about them.
      Also, it is nice to hear from a Richard Dreyfus fan! Not because I like him (I'm the polar opposite) but chiefly because he was SO popular when I was growing up and I just could never see why (save perhaps, for a pact with the devil), it's good to be reminded that he set a few hearts aflutter in his time.
      Love the Neil Simon line...puts me to mind of trying to think what my favorite Neil Simon line is.

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  2. Hi Ken,

    I don't have the Simon fatigue you do but I certainly have run across the disappointing revisit of things you loved at one time which now have you asking WHY did I like this? Some Simon works are included in that, it can be terribly dispiriting.

    That said Simon's work has always been variable for me, sometimes within a film. For instance I love the first and third acts of Plaza Suite but detest the middle section despite the presence of Barbara Harris. Some of his work stays fresh for me, Barefoot in the Park charms me everytime, though a great deal of that is as you said Jane Fonda and Mildred Natwick as well.

    That's another piece of the appeal of his work for me, who is performing it. You mentioned that Seems Like Old Times can cause you pain but aside from that awful ending I find Goldie Hawn endlessly charming in it. But then I tried to revisit The Odd Couple which I thought I loved but made it in about a half an hour and turned it off, which is odd since I can still watch reruns of the Tony Randall/Jack Klugman series and enjoy it. But then I always thought Randall and Klugman were better suited to those particular roles than Lemmon and Matthau.

    I will agree that some of his stuff is just agony, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Goodbye Girl, The Heartbreak Kid, but I never had any affection for them to begin with and I haven't seen anything that he's written in the last twenty years that I thought was any good.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Today my partner and I were discussing that weird phenomena of encountering a past favorite that leaves you at a loss to know what you ever saw in it in the first place. It's like being disconnected from some part of yourself.
      I think many of my Neil Simon experiences coincide with what you say about them being variable. In Plaza Suite, I can only stomach the Maureen Stapleton sequence. the Barbara Harris and Lee Grant ones give me hives.
      And I have a similar reaction as yours to The Odd Couple although I could never abide the TV show. Simon is so bewildering to me today because I was absolutely crazy about his stuff when I was young. Now it seems I only like the ones everybody hates (I am mad about Last of the Red Hot Lovers).
      When any of his plays are revived here in LA, only the blue haired/balding crowd attends and you can see them relish the tried and true and familiar. (Simon's like like AARP's answer to Adam Sandler). I wonder if there are any young fans of Neil Simon around?

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  3. Hi Ken - you ask a great question...though Simon was the most successful and celebrated American playwright of the mid-to-late 20th century, will his works stand the test of time? I think, perhaps yes, because his characters react with uncomfortableness to a changing world, and with wry and ironic humor.

    A lot of his work I DON'T like - Prisoner of Second Avenue, Chapter Two, Max Dugan - even 2/3 of Plaza Suite annoy me with their over-talkiness and neuroses...BUT

    I LOVE Out of Towners, Barefoot in the Park, Goodbye Girl and Murder By Death...

    I smiled when you wrote how annoyed and "over" Marsha Mason you became, as she was so ubiquitous and her persona a total Simon creation...agreed, but I think of Marsha Mason as a forgotten star...she was glorious as The Goodbye Girl, and recently enjoyed her immensely in Only When I Laugh. I think that the Simon-Mason partnership was as key to his continued success as it was to hers...

    Time will tell about whether his works will hold up through the years, but as a child of the 70s, Neil Simon's worldview and humor are indelibly etched on my psyche...that is my idea of a great talent.
    -Chris

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  4. Another great post! First, the best piece of dialogue SImon wrote (in my opinion) is Oscar Madison's statement in THE ODD COUPLE: "You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you 168 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow! 'We are all out of Corn Flakes. --F.U.' It took me three hours to figure out that 'F.U.' was Felix Unger!"

    Recently I watched COME BLOW YOUR HORN and couldn't believe how terrible it was (although he didn't write the screenplay--Norman Lear did). And when I finally watched ONLY WHEN I LAUGH on TCM, i thought it was pretty maudlin and hokey and that it was a miracle that Joan Hackett and James Coco got nominated for Oscars for such nothing roles. (And i LOVE Hackett and Coco!). And recently, I couldn't get past the first 30 minutes of SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES. But I absolutely love BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (second best SImon line ever is Mildred Natwick's "I feel like we've died and gone to heaven-- only we had to climb up."), MURDER BY DEATH, PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, THE OUT OF TOWNERS, THE SUNSHINE BOYS and LOST IN YONKERS. I enjoy THE ODD COUPLE for Walter Matthau but Jack Lemmon's performance is one of his few that is more annoying than funny. (I AM a huge fan of Jack Krugman and Tony Randall's five seasons on TV.)

    Speaking of THE ODD COUPLE... can anyone explain to me the logic behind Paramount re-releasing THE ODD COUPLE as a double feature with...ROSEMARY'S BABY with the poster tagline of "The greatest double feature of all time!" I find the idea of that double feature hilarious!--Kevin

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    1. Thanks, Kevin
      I'm glad that you were able to extract so many of your favorite Simon lines of dialog. The one from "The Odd Couple" is exactly the kind of thing that made me laugh so much when I was young.
      Even the films I'm not so crazy about have at least one howler of one-liner or comeback.

      This is one of the reasons I tend to find his movies so much a mixed bag now...you can't dismiss them completely (except Come Blow Your Horn), but as they veer from comedy to drama to sentimentality, it can be painful.
      I agree with your thoughts on "Only When I Laugh" and of course "Seems Like Old Times" which is torture for me. The Paula Prentiss and Sally Kellerman sequences of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" still make me laugh aloud, and I have a soft spot for "Murder by Death."
      I never saw "Lost in Yonkers" and suspect I never will, I've gone off latter-Simon so thoroughly.
      Wonderful though that you have seen so many of his films and have such clarity about what works for you and what doesn't. Especially being such a Jack Lemmon fan!

      And as for that VERY odd double-feature you mention. I wholly concur! I know it was Paramount's way of wringing the most revenue out of their two biggest hits, but those filmed paired up seems wrong, wrong wrong!
      I don't know how old you are, but I grew up at a time when double features were common, and the then-logic was to offer an evening of variety, so often a very dark and somber film would be incongruously paired with a silly comedy. Why this tonal shift didn't cause emotional whiplash in viewers, I'll never know.

      Several of the times I saw "Rosemary's Baby" as a 10-year-old (and precisely why I was able to get into the theater) was that it was paired with "The Odd Couple." This "opposites" booking never bothered me when i was growing up, but when revival theaters began cropping up and started the trend of booking like-themed films, that "Greatest Double Feature of All Time" seemed positively ludicrous!
      Again, a terrific, entertaining comment full of wonderful points to talk and think about. Thanks, Kevin!

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