Wednesday, 29 August 2018


I went on BBC Radio 4 Front Row last night, forming part of an odd couple with Samira Ahmed to discuss Neil Simon. I am sure Samira saw me as Oscar, as played by Walter Matthau, but there are worse thing. Apparently on Today the previous morning, my old friend John Lahr had pointed out Simon was not a major playwright, in the sense of Arthur Miller, say, and there was some consternation that this issue needed to be dealt with. But overall, the brief segment was intended to pay tribute to very good comedy writer. As you can hear if you click here to find the episode on IPlayer, I compared Simon to Alan Ayckbourn; not only a very funny playwright, but one whose humor is often built on the reactions of staid, secure people to the changing mores around them.

Hence my mention of Prisoner Of 2nd Avenue, which given that it deals with recession, unemployment, crime and malfunctioning government in New York City, might be considered the socially darkest of his plays, though he tris very hard indeed to keep that darkness under control with recognisable husband/wife Jewish humour. It starred Peter Falk, one of the actors who did very well by Simon, and vice versa, but the film, which was directed by Mike Nichols (who could spot the darkness) starred Jack Lemmon (and Anne Bancroft, whose husband Mel Brooks also wrote for Caesar) in a role you might see as a pair with Save The Tiger. Though I always thought it should be shown in a double-feature with Death Wish.

I won't summarize the rest of my talk, have a listen. But I will mention a few things I didn't get in. One is how Simon will be remembered: if Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street isn't a lasting legacy I don't know what is. Had we gone deeper into the relevance stakes I might have noted Larry Gelbart, another alumnus of Sid Caesar's show, got points for MASH, though its social comment was much stronger in Robert Altman's film.I didn't mention Simon's Laughter On The 23rd Floor, which came after he'd won the Pulitzer for Lost In Yonkers and is maybe his last major work. It's his reminiscence of those days writing as part of a team; it exists as a TV movie, though if you're really interested in that era the movie My Favorite Year is more entertaining.

I might have made a comparison of The Odd Couple to Hemingway's Men Without Women - it's certainly about the difficulty of male life in a world of changed mores about divorce. I wished I had seen the original Broadway production of Barefoot In The Park, with Elizabeth Ashley opposite Robert Redford. She would have provided some necessary spark that Jane Fonda, who got the film role because her name wasn't Jane Smith, didn't.  I mentioned his funny Agatha Christie parody, Murder By Death, but loved Peter Falk as The Cheap Detective. Colombo anyone? I wonder if a discussion of Simon the screenwriter as maybe being superior to Simon the playwright might be in order. Take The Goodbye Girl, which he wrote for his then-wife Marsha Mason, and re-wrote when Robert DeNiro and Nichols left, replaced by Richard Dreyfuss and Herbert Ross.

Yes much of his work is slight, some of it repetitive, lot of it centered on the inevitable struggles of Jewish New York life, especially in the wider scene, such as the Eighties trilogy, of which Biloxi Blues may be the most interesting, if somewhat cliched entry. But he could write funny, and that is not to be frowned upon. Writing funny for an entire play, or movie, as opposed to a comic sketch, is a rare talent, and Simon had it.

What was especially frustrated was to be sitting in the studio during the discussion of 'the muse' and inspiration. I was bursting because I wanted to interject--at one point Louisa Buck was talking about our image of the muse and I wanted to ask her, is there any middle ground for women between muse and femme fatale, something she said after the show she was trying to get to. Similarly, as Matt Thorne made trenchant points about the changing nature of muses in modern society, it occured to me that it was an equivalent of the death of God: our muse is now more within ourselves rather than an inspiration granted by a figure beyond us. In that area between inspiration and obsession, but perhaps no longer a muse. Or in Neil Simon's case, amuse.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

The image of Samira Ahmed seeing not you but Walter Matthau is priceless. It's funny because it's true!
I'd take issue with the social comment being stronger in Altman/Lardner's MASH than Gelbart/Reynolds's M*A*S*H. True, the movie does pierce to the heart ra-ra U.S.A.! U.S.A.! nonsense but it does have a cryptoconservative bent, note how Houlihan is hated and humiliated for being uptight before becoming one of the boys at the end. Thereby earning approval. No one could deny that Frank Burns is a dangerously incompetent hypocritical prig and prick but the picture also, implicitly, pushes and promotes a way of being that could itself be a prison. While I might react the way Hawk and Duke do to Frank's praying, they mark him out as a nudnik before the movie confirms that he IS a creep and putz. That said, Duke's muted racism does, at least, allow that the guys in the Swamp have their own jerkiness (that said, Duke's racism only crops up once and he does land the "reformed" Hot Lips. For all that, it is still a pretty great movie.
The Gelbart-era doesn't stint on social comment, Seasons 2 and 3 are the high watermarks of the "wild" comedy years but they also make their points much more cogently and effectively than the increasingly leaden post Gelbart years, for the most part. The Incubator (with a nicely slimy turn from Anne Ramsey's husband, Logan, both of whom turn up in Every Which Way But Loose with Eastwood, the late Sondra Locke, and Co., I seem to recall) skewers the warped priorities that often plague the United States; Hawkeye and Trapper have to go to absurd lengths to get a badly-needed incubator including disrupting a typical bullshit military press conference. In the end its down to Radar's wheeler-dealing that they finally end up with one. Season 2 offers up the clumsy but well-meaning George, in which the guys from the Swamp have to prevent Frank from ruining a gay soldier's life as is Mr U.S.A.'s wont. There are plenty of other examples but the best is probably the character of Colonel Sam Flagg, played by Ed Winter. Appearing first in prototype form in Deal Me Out (under the name Hollister), Flagg is from his real debut in A Smattering of Intelligence a personification/parody of the hysterical red-baiting ultraright "Real American" Looney Toon. He is a broad creation at times but that, weirdly, makes him all the more frighteningly convincing, particularly in our present. By the pivotal fourth season, Gelbart's last and the template for the progressively lesser ones to come (except the sixth is superior to the fifth in terms of its highs), Flagg is at his worst, such an awful logic- and empathy-rejecting loathsome nutcase that Allen Arbus's saintly psychiatrist Major Friedman calls him, euphemistically, a walking sack of shit; a creature so demented that he strives to have a pilot suffering a mental breakdown and believing himself to be Jesus Christ and as-such no longer capable of harming his children condemned as a Communist sympathizer and shot. One can quibble about subtlety but sometimes it won't do the job. M*A*S*H was, at its best, in the Gelbart years as much about the fractured psyche of Seventies America and the lunacy of those who see themselves - usually white and male but not always, it goes without saying - as the only "real" Americans as it was about war and compassion (and hijinks!). In truth, the clumsier increasingly earnest post-Gelbart years manage more than a few episodes that touch on this (arguably even the wilderness years of seasons 9 and 10, though they are often almost painful to watch. Believe me, Mr Mike!); season 8's Yessir, That's Our Baby being about the fate of the product of Korean/American unions, for instance. Ah, well,apologies for bugging you with my blather. Oh and your observations on Neil Simon were smart, too!