Simon's Use of Humor in his Play

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Simon started his career writing comedies, first for radio shows, then for television shows, and ultimately for his plays. As David Richards notes in his review of Lost in Yonkers for the New York Times Magazine, during the 1980s, pain ‘‘slowly crept into the comic world of Neil Simon.’’ This is definitely the case with Lost in Yonkers, which takes its characters to painful emotional depths. In fact, as Richards notes, Simon was originally afraid that "audiences might not find it funny enough.'' However, as many critics note, Simon strikes an effective balance between tragedy and humor in Lost in Yonkers. Perhaps this is most apparent in the volatile dinner scene where Bella reveals her intentions to marry and start a business. In her entry on Simon for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Koprince notes, "This scene, which actually begins in a comedic manner, demonstrates Simon's ability to move his audience from laughter to tears—even within the space of a few minutes.'' Simon relies on humor not only to offset the play's tragic qualities but also to emphasize certain aspects about his characters.

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The humor in the play is transmitted mainly through dialogue. In many cases, this humorous dialogue is uttered by one character at the expense of another. This is most true in the case of Grandma Kurnitz, who becomes the butt of many jokes. Simon has a specific purpose in doing this. He is attempting to emphasize Grandma Kurnitz's toughness. Many of the jokes about her refer to her steel-like attitude and demeanor, which frightens Jay and Arty, in particular. These two boys, in an effort to deal with their nervousness about their grandma, crack jokes about her. When they first arrive at their grandma's apartment in the very beginning of the play, they are obviously not happy about being there. Jay says about their grandma, "When I was five, I drew a picture of her and called it 'Frankenstein's Grandma.'’’ This depiction of Grandma Kurnitz, drawn by Jay when he was a small child, and therefore very honest, is also an accurate depiction of what others think about Grandma Kurnitz in the play. In addition, even before meeting Grandma Kurnitz, the audience has a laugh at her expense and forms a picture of her as a monster. Jay and Arty make several other humorous comments about Grandma Kurnitz's toughness. For example, when they are trying to find ways to make money to help out their father, Arty says, "What if one night we cut off Grandma's braids and sold it to the army for barbed wire?''

This effect increases as others talk about Grandma Kurnitz's scariness. For example, when Bella talks about her mother's effect on one of Gert's old boyfriends, she is not intending to be funny, but it is comedic. Bella says, ‘‘My sister, Gert, was once engaged to a man. She brought him over to meet Grandma. The next day he moved to Boston.’’ Once again, comments like this reinforce the idea of Grandma Kurnitz as a horrible monster. Grandma Kurnitz's long sections of dialogue at the end of the first scene, where she refuses to let Jay and Arty stay with her—even though it could mean the death of Eddie—further underscores her negative qualities.

Simon uses humorous dialogue to emphasize the qualities of other characters as well. When the audience first meets Uncle Louie, he arrives on the scene unexpected. The boys, and the audience, are drawn into Louie's fast-talking, street-style dialogue, which often culminates in jokes. For example, when Jay and Arty are having a hard time concentrating on what Louie is saying because they are focusing on his holstered gun, he puts the gun in his waistband. Jay asks him if it is loaded, and Louie says, ‘‘Gee, I hope not. If it went off, I'd have to become a ballerina.’’ In another instance, Arty is surprised to find that Louie has slipped a five-dollar bill into...

(The entire section contains 13311 words.)

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Critical Overview