Some critics complain that Neil Simon’s plays rely too much on jokes which, to me, is like complaining that Shakespeare’s plays rely too much on iambic pentameter. And Neil Simon started out as a comedy writer, along with his brother Danny, working on, among other things, Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows in a writers’ room that also included Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and I can’t begin to imagine what that was like.
His plays are generally romantic comedies, built on a style that can be traced back to ancient Greece and fairy tales–he once said his own life was “kind of a Cinderella story”–but he went beyond the traditional happy ending. Neil Simon was always interested in what happened after happily ever after. Barefoot In The Park, his second play and first big hit, picks up where most romantic comedies end, and his next and probably most famous play, The Odd Couple, centers around two divorced men. The funny thing, though, is that Oscar and Felix enter into kind of a marriage—when Oscar asks Felix to move in with him he even asks, “What do you want, a ring?” And then they end up going their separate ways, although they’ll always have the weekly poker game. Even in his later plays Simon keeps returning to the themes of divorce and how families break up or stay together. In the semi-autobiographical Lost In Yonkers it’s mostly seen from children’s perspective, reflecting how, when he was young, Simon’s father deserted the family for long periods and his mother took in boarders to pay the bills while sometimes sending her sons to live with relatives. Simon said, “The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five.” Escaping into comedy, starting with the films of Charlie Chaplin, was how he survived.
Even though comedies traditionally end on a happy note many of his plays, his best plays, have open or ambiguous endings. While he always affirmed the human desire to survive he also reminded us that after every ever after there’s another story, another beginning. His characters and plays realistic–only once does a character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, in Jake’s Women–but he also wants them to find happiness and fulfillment, and they find it through laughter. He said, “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”
Here’s a better line, one that could be a philosophy for life: in Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a tribute to that old writers’ room, one of his characters says, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.”
Hail and farewell Neil Simon.