“I don’t know how I start a play.
I probably start it with the first sentence.
I know it’s not going to be there for very long, but I have to get — opening the door a little bit, sticking my head in, and seeing what’s in there.”
Neil Simon was one of the most popular, and perhaps the most prolific, playwright in the history of American theater. He redefined comedy, using humor not simply to entertain, but to tell soulful stories about the frictions of urban life and family intimacy.
“What are you doing?”
“You know the doctor said you’re not supposed to smoke cigars anymore.”
Am I smoking it?
Do you see smoke coming from the cigar?”
“But you got it in your mouth.”
I’ll do the show later.”
The New York Times sat down with Simon in 2008 to talk about his work and his life.
“I started actually in the Bronx. 1927, July 4, and always thought from then on that they were celebrating my birthday.”
Simon grew up in nearby Washington Heights, an enclave for working class Jews before the war. But his home life was terrible, with a father who was rarely around and a mother who struggled to make ends meet.
“Well, my father and mother broke up so often that after a while, it was no news to me. We would have to take in boarders to help feed us. They sat at the table. My mother made dinner for them. It was really tough for me, because I said, my father should be here. Not these men. They weren’t un-nice, but it was a very difficult thing to grow up with.” Simon’s way out was through his older brother Danny, a budding comedy writer who got him started on his future career.
Together, they landed a job writing gags for the 1950s television legend, comedian Sid Caesar.
“What is your name?”
“John Baxter, you’re fired!”
In Caesar’s famous writing room, the young Neil Simon found himself among a who’s who of the future of funny.
Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and a very young Woody Allen. For Simon, it was an inspiring but tough cast of characters.
“My problem was the shyness. I could think of the line, but I wasn’t going to say like Mel Brooks would, ‘I got it.
I got it.’ That’s what he would do. I would have to sit next to Carl Reiner and whisper it. And Carl would jump up and he says, ‘Neil has it. Neil has it.’
He says, ‘The man walks in and ba-dum bum bum.’ Whatever it was. And they liked it.”
“Get someone up here right away. Because I need them. That’s fine.
I know they are. You tell them. Who are you? What are — what are you talking about? Let me say what I — I told everybody that’s fine. Fine!
All right, talk to each other. That’s right!”
Like many in the writers room, Simon aspired to do more than write jokes, but he saw firsthand how even Caesar’s most-seasoned writers had a tough time breaking into theater. “Mel Tolkin, who was the head writer, said, ‘I got a play. I wrote it with Lucille Kallen’ — who was another writer on the show. It closed in one night. And so I say, why would I have the gall to write a play when these two really seasoned people can’t get it on?
So I said, I better write about what I know.” Writing what he knew would lead Simon to help invent a whole new genre: the comedy of urban neuroses. His big breakthrough play and screenplay was based on Simon’s life as a newlywed with his wife, Joan Baim.
“It was about getting married and living together for the first time without knowing how to do that. And what it’s like when your husband and wife have their first fight. And it’s trauma. It’s just trauma.”
“I am not hysterical!
I know exactly what I’m saying, Paul. It’s all over between us, and it’s never gonna be any good anymore.”
“And ‘Barefoot in the Park’ became an easy play for me to write, because it was a loving play. It was about me and Joan. She was beautiful. She was absolutely beautiful.”
Simon Says he met Joan at a softball game in the Poconos, and it was love at first pitch. “I’m batting, and there she is pitching at me. So I said, I really have to get a hold of one and show her.
So I swung — swung, swang, swing — at her, and hit the ball as hard as I could, which dribbled slowly to her. And she picked up the ball with a smile, and she just waited for me to get to first base. And I’m saying, ‘Throw it.
Throw it will you please?’
And she threw it, and she beat me out.”
We just got married.”
“We married after that first summer that we met.
All the things were real. There was a staircase that took you up to the top floor of the building, and where the man who spoke a foreign language lived. He was on the make for Joan, who had nothing to do with him.”
“Will you help me up, please?”
“Oh, with the greatest of physical pleasure.”
“And we were walking one night with our dog, Chips, in the park and it was a warm summer night. And she took off her shoes, and she was barefoot. And we were walking, and she said, ‘Why aren’t you taking off your shoes? Mine are?’ And I said, ‘I don’t feel like it.’
She said, ‘No, there’s something wrong with you.
You’re afraid to walk barefoot in the park.’”
“Paul, you’re crazy.“
“And then, bingo.
You know, play title.”
Inspiration for Simon’s next play also came from a source close to home:
his brother Danny, who’d recently divorced his wife and moved in with a friend named Roy Gerber to save money.
“Roy Gerber started having big fights with Danny, and I just kept watching it and watching it. I said, ‘You know, Danny there’s a play in this. And he said, ‘Where?
What’s the play?’ I said, ‘These two guys having more trouble with themselves than they would with their wives. Same problems.
I said, one of you is the wife, one of you is the husband.’” But nailing the script for “The Odd Couple” took a lot of trial and error, as Simon and director Mike Nichols discovered.
“There was a scene I wrote that in the rehearsal, they laughed so hard Mike said we’d never be able to put this on, because the audiences will die from laughter. So we got to that scene. There wasn’t a single laugh in it. And I said, ‘What happened. Mike?’
He said, ‘It’s funny, but they don’t like what’s happening. They like these people, and you’re making them go in a way that is not really good for them.’ So I changed that, and we got less laughs but more cheers for the play.
So I started to learn about it. That it’s not all about the laughter. It’s about the feelings that the audience gets. Do they like these people?
Do they don’t? Are they living their lives well, or are they not?”
“The Odd Couple” opened on Broadway in 1965 and became Simon’s most successful work.
The play spawned a movie starring Walter Matthau as the sportswriting slob Oscar Madison, and Jack Lemmon as neat-freak Felix Unger. “It’s all over, Felix.