Neil Simon: Gag Writer or Artist?

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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 3654 words.)

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