Neil Simon and the death of comedy

Sunday, August 26th, Neil Simon, popularly known as America’s playwright, died of pneumonia in New York city. He was 91.

For decades Simon dominated the Broadway stages with his comedies and the book, or dialogue, of musical productions.  From 1965 to 1980 his plays and musicals racked up more than 9,000 performances, a record untouchable by any other playwright of the era.  In one year alone, he had four Broadway plays running at the same time.

He burst onto the Broadway scene in 1963 with the hit comedy “Barefoot in the Park”, followed by the work he is most noted for, “The Odd Couple” (1965).

Before breaking into Broadway Simon had served as a comedy writer for early television comics Phil Silver and Sid Caesar.  He was noted for his snappy punch lines and insightful understanding of the joys and struggles of family life.

This is how his humor worked. Against the back drop of the ideal of the family, he explored its angst and expressed it with humor. In “The Odd Couple,” this all-male relationship of a slob and a neat-freak tickled the funny bone of Americans for decades, first as a long-running Broadway play, second as a hit movie, and finally as a most-loved television sitcom.  Men and women saw themselves in Felix and Oscar. “Barefoot in the Park” showed the ebb and flow of newly-wed love and bickering in a small urban apartment. This play also moved from the playhouse to the big screen with great success, making Robert Redford a star along the way.

This is the thing to note about Simon’s comedy – it was always set against the backdrop of the ideal family unit of the Judaic/Christian heritage, an ideal missing in his painful childhood. He did not attack the ideal; he juxta positioned life over against that ideal and allowed us to see the irony in our lives, our failings, and the humor that was there.

Simon wrote in a memoir, “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled. It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, and was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us. The laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.”

The ability to laugh at ourselves as seen in art or imitation is a needed healing balm to the pain of life.  Charles Isherwood, writing in Simon’s obituary for the New York Times, captured this when he observed that “agony is the root of comedy.”  A skilled comic can help turn our pain into laughter, which can bring healing powers. From Simon’s own familial agony came a flood of comedy that helped all of us deal with the realities of life.

But something fundamental has changed in comedy in today’s culture. Since the Judaic/Christian ideal of family life is no longer acceptable, what then serves as the backdrop of comedy? All that is left is religion, sex, and politics. These, however, are not held in any sort of ideal construct, but with cynicism.  Thus, with the exception of a few comics like Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Seinfeld, comedy has turned dark, raunchy, erotic, even pornographic. What a generation ago we turned away from because it was too dirty we now stream into our homes via Netfix. Most comics today feel they must embrace raunchy comedy to be found acceptable. And in the current political environment, it has become increasingly personal and divisive. I used to enjoy the edginess of late night comics, but not anymore. It’s just not funny.

Neal Simon died Sunday in a New York hospital at age 91.  I fear comedy died with him.

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