Neil Simon: Gag Writer or Artist?

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1687

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Neil Simon has been so successful financially and has become so popular with audiences that there is only one ambition left for him—to be taken seriously as an "artist." The reluctance of critics to give him this respect continues to goad Simon and The Odd Couple is a worthy ground for examining this issue because it is his most famous play and still quite typical of his best work.

In the long history of English and American cultures there has always been a dichotomy between entertainment and art, but this cultural division and conflict has been intensified in America in the twentieth century as popular media have become more powerful and pervasive in American life. The radio, movies, television, cable television, and the wide availability of video recordings have made popular entertainment and popular culture an increasingly powerful force as we approach the beginning of a new century. Alongside or even against this rising tide of popular culture and entertainment stands a declining interest in books, in reading, and in classic literature. In some circles this situation is taken very seriously, as in the well-known book by social critic Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman claims that the public's demand for entertainment has trivialized and even in some cases destroyed the culture's capacities for rational discourse and careful analytical judgment. He compares the situation in twentieth-century America to the one in Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel, Brave New World, where "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

Putting such diatribes aside, it is still clear that in the comedies of Neil Simon in general and in The Odd Couple in particular there is much to enjoy and admire. Initially, there is Simon's verbal wit and his capacity for creating raucous laughter: The Odd Couple might be Simon's most perfectly funny play. Those who study laughter analytically tell us that laughter usually comes from surprise—from our perception of incongruity, our delight in superiority, and our relief when forbidden subjects are brought out into the open so we can experience a release of psychic tension. In The Odd Couple our laughter comes predominantly from the surprise and perception of incongruity that occurs when we encounter Simon's famous "one-liners."

For example, in the play's initial poker scene Murray chides Oscar for not paying his alimony, asking Oscar if it doesn't bother him that his kids might not have enough to eat, and Oscar retorts: "Murray, Poland could live for a year on what my kids leave over from lunch!" This exaggeration takes us by surprise on many levels and can cause wild laughter in a typical audience. Psychologically, we probably are also laughing because we recognize that alongside the surprising incongruity there is a certain truth to Oscar's remark—that Oscar's wife still has plenty of money and that American children are very frequently spoiled. This is one way the comic one-liner can be described—sharp surprise from perceiving wild incongruity followed by a cognitive recognition that there is a paradoxical truth in the incongruity. The surprise catches our attention and the recognition gives us the pleasure of understanding. However, with Simon the weak link in the equation is usually with the recognition element. His one-liners are often fairly shallow on the cognitive side.

Compare, for example, a "one-liner" from Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio has been fatally stabbed by Tybalt and Romeo says, "Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much" and Mercutio replies, "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man." This will be funny even in the context of Mercutio's death because the incongruities are so striking, but the difference is that the "recognition" part of the one-liner is so much more important than the surprising incongruity. Mercutio's quip is a sad reminder of our own mortality, a recognition that even a vital (though perhaps rash) human being like Mercutio can get caught very easily by mortal circumstances. Death will finally make the merry Mercutio "grave." As Mercutio pays a price for his exaggerated vitality, perhaps too great a price to our way of thinking, Shakespeare insists that even in our laughter we must consider life in all its complexity. Even when he is being very funny, Shakespeare is more interested in the cognitive side of humor than he is in the belly laughs.

But Simon can also be appreciated for his exquisite theatrical craftsmanship; he is very adept at creating the effects he wants to achieve. The opening poker scene in The Odd Couple is a perfect example. Simon knew that if he established Oscar and Felix's poker-playing buddies as an interesting and varied group before he introduced Oscar and Felix themselves he would be able to prepare his audience much more effectively for the entrance of his main characters. And with characteristic theatrical skill Simon does this from the first moment of the play. The play opens with the striking visual impression of Oscar's messy and smoke-filled apartment and of Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie sitting around the poker table with two chairs empty. Vinnie has the largest stack of poker chips and one of the early jokes will be Speed's impatience at Vinnie's desire to leave early with his winnings. Vinnie is nervously tapping his foot and checking his watch but Speed is even more impatient, an emotion that will be highlighted throughout the play by Oscar's eventual reaction to living with Felix. Roy is watching Speed and Speed is glaring "with incredulity and utter fascination" at Murray, who is shuffling the cards with aggravating slowness. Thus, Simon creates tremendous theatrical interest and laughter even before anyone has spoken a word. With this tableaux established so exquisitely, Speed's line, which opens the play, creates a laugh that few comic playwrights can so easily create: Speed "cups his chin in his hand," "looks at Murray," and says, "Tell me, Mr. Maverick, is this your first time on the riverboat?" Already the audience is hooked. They want to know about these men and how they relate to one another. They wonder who will fill the two vacant chairs. And when Oscar finally arrives on stage, it has been clearly established that one of the missing chairs belongs to an eccentrically fussy person named Felix and that the messy condition of this apartment is a result of the carefree attitude of the host. Even Simon's critics usually agree that in terms of play construction and theatre craft, Neil Simon takes a back seat to very few comic dramatists.

However, the critics have also been quick to point out that craftsmanship is only part of dramatic artistry. The most important aspect of art is what the writer has to say about human experience. The critics often refer to Simon as a mere "gag-man," and if laughter were the deciding factor in evaluating comedy, Simon's quality would be much easier to discern. Someone could simply use a machine to measure the audience's laughter, and the longest and loudest guffaws might easily declare Simon the greatest of comic writers. But more academic critics have implied that volume and duration of laughter are not sufficient and perhaps not even necessary conditions for great comedy. In fact, many great comic moments provoke smiles rather than laughter and sometimes comedy even evokes pathos. What is essential to a great comedy appears to be not laughter but a provocative comic vision.

What is a "comic vision"? It is an approach to comedy that includes not only laughter but also a thoughtful, even philosophical way of looking at the human experience. The eighteenth-century English politician and man of letters Horace Walpole once said that "this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." The tragic vision has been defined in many ways but perhaps tragedy shows us that our defeats can be partial victorie. The comic vision, on the other hand, might show us that our victories always imply partial defeat, if for no other reason than that we can never completely extinguish our follies or life's hardship and pain. In the most powerful comedies, the happy ending always has an alloy of harsh reality, as in the ending of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, for example, where many lovers are paired up and happy but the noble Don Pedro is left conspicuously alone.

Some of Simon's comedies have flirted with darker materials, plays like The Gingerbread Lady (1970), God's Favorite (1974), and Lost in Yonkers (1991), but they have been unconvincing for audiences and critics alike. Simon seems to lack the intellectual and emotional depth to tread in such waters, and The Odd Couple is yet another example. Johnson reports that Simon "originally envisioned The Odd Couple as 'a black comedy,'" but there is nothing left of that original conception. Oscar and Felix are lovable eccentrics and their conflict has no convincingly serious or thought-provoking elements. This is perhaps clearest at the end when Oscar talks on the phone with his wife. Here Oscar becomes a merely sentimental hero as he turns over a new leaf and reveals that underneath he was always a better person than he appeared to be. Felix, on the other hand, departs shrouded in a little more mystery, but Simon does not exploit the thematic possibilities in this mystery and simply terminates the conflict between Oscar and Felix with an echo of the joke that closed Act I. Oscar and Felix address one another by their wives' names, saying, "So long, Frances. So long, Blanche." The audience will laugh once more at this verbal surprise because yet another incongruity has struck them. However, after the laughter passes there is no significant recognition phase where the incongruity reveals something thought-provoking and profound about Oscar, Felix, or human life in general.

Source: Terry Nienhuis, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Nienhuis is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University.

Review of The Odd Couple's Broadway Debut

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

The opening scene in The Odd Couple, of the boys in their regular Friday night poker game, is one of the funniest card sessions ever held on a stage.

If you are worried that there is nothing Neil Simon the author, or Mike Nichols, his director, can think of to top that scene, relax. The main business of the new comedy, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre, has scarcely begun, and Mr. Simon, Mr. Nichols and their excellent cast, headed by Art Carney and Walter Matthau, have scores of unexpected ways prepared to keep you smiling, chuckling and guffawing.

Mr. Simon has hit upon an idea that could occur to any playwright. His odd couple are two men, one divorced and living in dejected and disheveled splendor in an eight-room apartment and the other to be divorced and taken in as a roommate.

One could predict the course of this odd union from its formation in misery and compassion through its disagreements to its ultimate rupture. Mr. Simon's way of writing comedy is not to reach for gimmicks of plot; he probably doesn't mind your knowing the bare outline of his idea. His skill—and it is not only great but constantly growing—lies in his gift for the deliciously surprising line and attitude. His instinct for incongruity is faultless. It nearly always operates on a basis of character.

Begin with that poker game. Mr. Matthau, the slovenly host, is off stage in the kitchen fixing a snack while Nathaniel Frey, John Fiedler, Sidney Armus and Paul Dooley are sitting around the table on a hot summer night, sweating and grousing at the luck of the cards. The burly Mr. Frey is shuffling awkwardly, "for accuracy, not speed," and the querulous Mr. Fiedler, the big winner, talks of quitting early.

The cards are dealt. Mr. Matthau walks in with a tray of beer and white and brown sandwiches. They're brown in his scheme of housekeeping because they're either new cheese or very old meat. As he opens the beer cans, sending sprays of lager over his guests (surely a Nichols touch), the dealer inquires whether he intends to look at his cards. "What for," Mr. Matthau, the big loser, grumbles, "I'm gonna bluff anyhow."

The sixth member of the Friday night regulars, Mr. Carney, is missing. Evidently he has been away from his known haunts for 24 hours, and a phone call from his wife informs his friends that she hopes he never turns up. Since they know that he is a man who takes such blows seriously, they fear that he will do something violent to himself.

With Mr. Carney's arrival as Felix, the discarded husband, the principal action begins. Mr. Carney is truly bereaved, a man of sorrows. His eyes are stricken, his lips quiver, his shoulders sag. Even poker gives way before his desolation. The players are too concerned about possible moves by Felix toward self-destruction. When at last they go home, they depart softly and gravely like chaps leaving a sick room.

Mr. Matthau as Oscar, the host, consoles Felix, massaging away the spasms m his neck and enduring the moose calls with which the unfortunate fellow clears ears beset by allergies. Nothing much happens during the rest of the act except that these two inevitably blunder into a domestic alliance, but there is scarcely a moment that is not hilarious.

The unflagging comedy in the remainder of the play depends on the fundamental switch—of the odd couple. Felix is a compulsive house keeper, bent on cleaning, purifying the air and cooking. When the gang assembles for its poker game, Felix has special treats ready for snacks.

Mr. Carney handles the housewifely duties with a nice, delicate, yet manly verve. But he is strict. When he serves a drink to Mr. Frey, he wants to know where the coaster is. The answer—and this is Mr. Simon, the marks-man at firing droll lines—is, "I think I bet it."

Mr. Matthau for his part is wonderfully comic as a man who finds his companion's fussy habits increasingly irksome. He walks about with a bearish crouch that grows more belligerent as his domestic situation becomes both familiar and oppressive. There is a marvelous scene in which he and Mr. Carney circle each other in mutual distaste—Mr. Matthau looking like an aroused animal about to spring and Mr. Carney resembling a paper tiger suddenly turned neurotic and dangerous.

To vary the humors of the domestic differences, Mr. Simon brings on two English sisters named Pigeon—yes Pigeon, Gwendolyn and Cecily—for a date with Oscar and Felix. The girls induce more laughter than their names promise. Carole Shelley and Monica Evans are a delight as the veddy British and dumb Pigeons.

Mr. Nichols's comic invention, like Mr. Simon's, shines through this production and the comfortable Riverside Drive apartment invoked by Oliver Smith's set. Just a sample: Mr. Carney left alone with the Pigeons is as nervous as a lad on his first date. When one of the girls takes out a cigarette, he hastens to her with his lighter and comes away with the cigarette clamped in its mechanism.

The Odd Couple has it made. Women are bound to adore the sight of a man carrying on like a little homemaker. Men are sure to snicker at a male in domestic bondage to a man. Kids will love it because it's funny.

Source: Howard Taubman, review of The Odd Couple, in the New York Times, March 11, 1965.

Review of The Odd Couple's Original Broadway Run

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

I'm sorry the Moscow Art players have returned to Russia. I'd like them to have seen the first-act poker game in The Odd Couple.

I don't necessarily say they'd have learned anything from it. I just feel pretty sure they'd have liked it. It has so much interior truth. Director Mike Nichols has staged an absolute summer festival of warm beer, sprayed toward the ceiling like those terraced fountains municipal designers are so fond of, and I suppose we can credit author Neil Simon with providing the sandwiches. The sandwiches have been made of whatever was left over in host Walter Matthau's long-defrosted refrigerator ("It's either very new cheese or very old meat," Mr. Matthau volunteers as he offers his cronies a choice between brown sandwiches and green), and the members of the party are happy enough to munch them as they gripe, growl, snarl, and roar over their hands, their wives, their lives, and the high cost of losing.

This is where the art comes in. Instead of isolating each one of Mr. Simon's dozens of laugh-lines and milking it for all it's worth, director Nichols flings all the gags into the pot together, letting them clink and spin like so many chips, until everything overlaps and you can't tell life from lunacy. Nat Frey shuffles the pack as though he were crushing glass in his strong bare hands, John Fielder sings his piping little song about having to leave by twelve until it takes on the piercing sound of counterpoint from another planet, Sidney Armus and Paul Dooley fling their arms up and their cards down like men freshly accused of treason, and Mr. Matthau grunts and bellows in his homespun way to put a moose-like bass under the whole hot summer-night orchestration. The interplay is true, blue, and beautiful.

After the poker game comes the play, which is jim-dandy, ginger-peachy, and good. Mr. Matthau is a divorced man, which is why he is able to have all his friends in on Friday nights and also why the eight-room apartment looks like one of those village bazaars at which underprivileged citizens can exchange their old refuse. (Oliver Smith has caught in his setting just the right muddy and mottled note for ramshackle bachelor quarters, with the trousers back from the cleaners hanging where they ought to be, from the bookshelves, and with a nice fat hole burned in the what used to be the best lampshade.)

Into the dissolute comfort and the brawling bliss of Mr. Matthau's menage comes a thin note of warning. One friend, who turns out shortly to be Art Carney, hasn't shown up. News is received that he, too, has left his wife. Furthermore, he is threatening suicide, sort of. Now it is time for Mike Nichols to set his mother-hen actors pacing, pacing, pacing the floor, as they brood and cluck and worry inordinately about their deeply disturbed buddy. When Mr. Carney does finally appear, the rush to save him from himself—all windows are locked tightly against jumping, and he is scarcely allowed to go to the bathroom alone—is sympathetic, solicitous, and rough as a maddened hockey game. We may not have had as funny a first act since "The Acharnians."

Naturally, Mr. Matthau and Mr. Carney now settle down as roommates, making as nice a couple as you'd care to meet if they could only get along. Mr. Carney is death on dust and a fast man with an Aerosol bomb (one reason his wife threw him out is that he always insisted on recooking the dinner) and he drives Mr. Matthau stark, staring mad. In short, both of them might just as well have wives, and that constitutes the meat, the moral, and the malicious merriment of this brief encounter.

The contest thins out a bit, I am honor bound to say, during the second act, while Mr. Carney worries desperately over his London broil and reduces a couple of visiting pigeons (they're girls, they're sisters, and their name is Pigeon) to tears. But the repeated joke is at least a good joke, the Pigeon sisters ultimately prove to be funny and useful, Mr. Simon's comic invention keeps re-igniting, and the poker players are coming back, so I wouldn't even notice if I were you.

Now a word about Mr. Matthau, and I do hope the Moscow Art is listening. Mr. Matthau could play all of the parts in "Dead Souls" with one hand tied to one foot and without changing makeup. He is a gamut-runner, from grim to game to simple hysteria, and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous-breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western sea, he is magnificent. Of course, he is good, too, impersonating an orangutan as he leaps furniture in his wild desire to make certain alterations in Mr. Carney's throat, and again when he shows his old pal the door (only to be haunted by the memory of that despairing face and by a parting remark that he comes to think of as The Curse of the Cat People). But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher's mitt.

We mustn't overlook Mr. Carney, who is immensely funny quivering his lip like an agitated duck, clearing his ears by emitting foghorn hoots, and clawing his hands through what is left of his hair to indicate pride, despair and all of the other seven deadly virtues. His problem is tension ("It's tension. I get it from tension. I must be tense," he says), and ours is to keep from laughing through the next good line.

It's a good problem to have, and I urge you to drop in on The Odd Couple any night at all, Fridays included.

Source: Walter Kerr, in a review of The Odd Couple in the New York Herald Tribune, March 11, 1965. Kerr was a longtime reviewer for the New York Time, as well as the author of several book-length studies of modern drama. He was one of the most influential figures in the American theater.

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