A natural gift for wit and humor and a decade’s experience writing television comedy in the 1950’s enabled Simon to create enormously amusing plays from the very beginning of his career. Even in Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park, Simon had mastered the one-liner, the clever and witty reply that catches an audience by surprise and compels it into explosive laughter.
Take, for example, Victor Velasco’s quip upon entering the nearly barren one-room apartment of Paul and Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. Their furniture has not yet arrived, but Corie announces that “we just moved in”; looking around the barren room, Velasco replies, “Really? What are you, a folksinger?” Initially, the audience is surprised by the apparent incongruity of the remark; then, within milliseconds, they realize that there is a certain aptness in the reply, given the circumstances. The laughter is boisterous because surprise triggers it, and then the laughter is sustained because aptness justifies it. Simon had polished this technique in his early writing for such television comedians as Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason. In the introduction to volume 2 of The Collected Plays of Neil Simon (1979), Simon recalls that writing humorous dialogue for his film The Goodbye Girl was much easier than trying to write “a funny lead-in to Jo Stafford’s next song” on the old Garry Moore Show.
Although his ability to create uproarious laughter endears Simon to the general populace, it has done little to impress many critics, who see comedy as a thought-provoking genre and who associate steady, boisterous laughter with mind-numbing television situation comedies. Simon himself has been sensitive to this critical disparagement of his work and has attempted throughout his career to make his comedies more “serious” without sacrificing the laughter that he loves to create and that his audiences pay to enjoy. As early as The Odd Couple, Simon was attempting to go beyond the gag-comedy, one-liner format of Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park. As reported in a 1979 Playboy interview, Simon’s original conception for his famous play about Oscar and Felix was to make it a black comedy.
Transcending his one-liner format and gaining more respect from the critics did not come easily. By 1979, Simon was secure in his commercial success, having turned out popular hits on Broadway and in Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet in the introduction to volume 2 of his Collected Plays, Simon admitted that he was still suffering from insecurity as a writer, and he openly confessed to neurosis, an ulcer, and envy over his good friend Woody Allen’s success with the motion picture Manhattan (1979), which had led reviewers to call Allen “the most mature comic mind in America.”
Simon acknowledged in that same introduction that people ranked his plays in terms of aesthetic extremes, judging them anywhere from “a delightful evening” to “worthy of Moliere.” Those who ranked his plays as “a delightful evening” were essentially admitting that the plays, although very amusing, could only be considered entertainment. Those who ranked his plays as “worthy of Moliere” were asserting that his comedy should be taken as seriously as the plays of such classic comic writers as Aristophanes, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.
Very few mature and responsible critics would go that far, and a much more fruitful comparison for Simon’s work is with that of playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who is often referred to as the “English Neil Simon.” Both are prolific, writing very amusing plays about conventional middle-class people. The chief value in the comparison is that Ayckbourn’s work has received a far more positive reception from the serious-minded critics, which may enable one to deduce what the critics find lacking in...
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- Critical Essays