Uneasy lay the crown on the king of comedy. As his career flourished and his theater and film successes multiplied, Neil Simon was known to express ambivalence about his renown as, at one time, the funniest script writer alive.
“I don’t try to write comedies anymore, I write plays,” Simon once said to me, not long after he had won his Pulitzer Prize, in 1991, for “Lost in Yonkers,” the drama of a troubled family presided over by a domineering matriarch. This megasuccessful playwright — a genius of the riposte who could be taciturn in interviews — had grown a bit weary by then of the pigeonhole the world wanted him to fill. He was eternally expected to be a marksman whose holsters were loaded with laugh lines.
Comedy often seems to be forced into a back seat when the critics and scholars weigh it against the efficacy of more “serious” forms of theater and film, and Simon felt at times in his career the condescension of those who put his craftsmanship — and extraordinary output — in a lesser category. During that same 1992 Newsday interview in his Park Avenue apartment, Simon recounted for me a chance encounter he had with the esteemed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael while hailing a taxi on a Manhattan street.
“I’ve given you a lot of bad reviews,” he recalled Kael remarking, about the string of movies Simon wrote, a lot of them hits, chiefly from the 1960s into the ’80s.
“Yes, you have,” Simon confirmed, to which Kael stingingly replied, “Well, you come to bat so often.”
And indeed, Simon spent enough time in the batter’s box — or at his writing desk — to be considered the Cal Ripken Jr. of Hollywood and the Great White Way. More than 30 original plays and musicals bore his byline in Broadway playbills over his four decades of uncanny productivity. Four Tony awards ended up on his shelves, along with that Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The output extended to off-Broadway, television and film, with his 1977 romantic comedy, “The Goodbye Girl,” earning an Oscar for its leading man, Richard Dreyfuss.
On the occasion of his death, at 91, the entertainment world pauses to mourn a variety of literary maestro we no longer see much of anymore. For though he did branch out, in memory plays such as “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues,” Simon’s truest gift was as virtuoso of the well-made situation comedy. He was a playwright and screenwriter whose characters did not so much skirmish as chafe. He was a scrivener of the irritating tics in relationships that blossom into epic annoyances. You know the term shpilkes, a Yiddish word meaning nervous energy? Well, his characters had enough shpilkes to light the Bronx. And Staten Island, too.
Think of the two men who will undoubtedly go down as his most priceless creations, classically mismatched Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison of “The Odd Couple,” first played on Broadway by Art Carney and Walter Matthau, then in the movie by Jack Lemmon and Matthau, and later in the long-running TV series by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Or of Willie Clark and Al Lewis, the cantankerous ex-comedian partners of “The Sunshine Boys” (originally played by Jack Albertson and Sam Levene, then in the film by Matthau and George Burns). Their intolerant tolerance of each other, manifested in the affectionate way that love-hate relationships tickle bystanders to no end, was a Simon hallmark.
So was a particularly urbane impatience with minor inconvenience, filtered through a Jewish sense of life’s endless headaches. A repeated joke in one of his early comedies, “Barefoot in the Park,” always had me almost inexplicably in stitches. The play’s young couple, Paul and Corie Bratter — based in part on his own first marriage — move into their first New York apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up. The sight gag is, simply, the beleaguered sight of each character after making the schlep up the stairs. Somehow, it got funnier every time an actor entered. (Mike Nichols, another comedy savant, directed the original Broadway production, as he did several other Simon plays, with Elizabeth Ashley as Corie and Robert Redford as Paul.)
His understanding of what struck people as funny made him a figure of worship in the house of my youth. One of the happiest memories of my New Jersey childhood is recalling my parents returning from seeing Simon’s “Plaza Suite” — three one-acts that take place in the storied Plaza Hotel — and watching my mother lapse into hysterics as she tried to recount for us the plot of the third playlet, in which a bride, overcome with shpilkes, locks herself in the suite’s bathroom. I can mark other crucial events of my early life via Simon plays: On the night before I went off to my freshman year of college, for instance, we celebrated by going to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”
I recall trying to convey to Simon some of the gratitude I felt for those memories, but of course, he’d heard it all many times before. The purpose of our conversation was the new play he was opening at the time on Broadway, “Jake’s Women,” a comedy-drama starring Alan Alda, about the women in Simon’s life, that included a specially poignant scene. It’s a conjuring of an imagined encounter between his first wife — whose death from cancer at 38 shattered the dramatist — and a daughter she never saw grow up. (Simon leaves behind three daughters.)
“Jake’s Women” was not one of Simon’s Broadway triumphs; it closed after seven months. And its disappointing results, in the end, marked a turning point for Simon on Broadway. He wrote a few more comedies and comedy-dramas, and others of his plays and musicals were revived, but his heyday was receding. People like my mother were waiting for the old Neil Simon to come back, but to younger playgoers, his one-liners no longer sounded as fresh. As recently as 2009, a revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” closed on Broadway after only a month.
Still, I’m taken back now to the glimpses of the Simon I experienced that day, of a man digging for the deeper connections he was still striving to make through his pad and his pen. He confided to me that that scene from “Jake’s Women” affected him every time he saw it, and it sounded as if he’d written it as much for himself as for the people who admired his work. It was an act of imagination, he said, that allowed him to “do the impossible.”