Born in the Bronx, New York, on July 4, 1927, Marvin Neil Simon was the second of two sons in a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Irving, was a garment salesman who abandoned the family several times before the Simons’ marriage ended in divorce. Because of his parents’ domestic difficulties, Simon’s childhood was not particularly happy, but he nevertheless developed his affinity for comedy at an early age. As a schoolboy, he earned his nickname “Doc” for his ability to imitate the family doctor, and he reported in a Life magazine interview:
When I was a kid, I climbed up on a stone ledge to watch an outdoor movie of Charlie Chaplin. I laughed so hard I fell off, cut my head open and was taken to the doctor, bleeding and laughing. I was constantly being dragged out of movies for laughing too loud. Now my idea of the ultimate achievement in a comedy is to make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out.
Simon’s plays are often quite nearly that amusing, but his gift for provoking riotous laughter has ultimately been a burden, because it has prevented most critics from taking him seriously as a comic dramatist.
Simon demonstrated his ability to make people laugh even as a teenager, when he teamed with his older brother Danny to write material for stand-up comics and radio shows. After briefly attending New York University (he never graduated from college) and serving in the Army at the end of World War II, Neil teamed with Danny again as they began, in 1946, to create material for one of the radio era’s most successful comedy writers, Goodman Ace.
The Simon brothers prospered as radio comedy writers but shifted in the early 1950’s to television as the new medium developed. Writing for such television notables as Phil Silvers and Tallulah Bankhead, they were each earning huge weekly salaries of sixteen hundred dollars by the mid-1950’s. During his television writing in the 1950’s, Simon worked alongside many young writers who would later make successful careers of their own, most notably Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Danny left the writing team in 1956 to pursue a career as a television director, but Neil continued writing for such stars as Sid Caesar, Garry Moore, Jackie Gleason, and Red Buttons, earning two Emmy Awards (in 1957 and 1959) for his comedy writing.
Simon believed that writing for television did not allow him enough independence, so while writing for...
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Simon has always been able to make audiences laugh, although it has been debated whether he is more than a gag writer, a creator of situation comedies for the stage. Chapter Two, the three plays of his Brighton Beach trilogy, and Lost in Yonkers have wrested additional respect from most, though not all, critics. Audiences, on the other hand, have been markedly less critical, usually flocking to Simon plays regardless of the level of seriousness he achieves. While it is not yet appropriate to place Simon in the company of Shakespeare, Moliere, or Shaw, his is no small achievement: to have become the most commercially successful playwright in the history of theater.
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