I’m tempted to think there is a metaphysical reason why Neil Simon died on my birthday (August 26). Coming a day after the death of John McCain (which, nine years ago, was the date of death of that “Lion of the Senate” and murderer, Ted Kennedy), little media space was afforded Simon, who was arguably the most prolific and “important” playwright in America for many years. I put the word “important” in quotation marks because a) I don’t really believe it and b) apparently a lot of people do.
For years, I recall Neil Simon as the playwright most people—even in drama departments—named as their favorite. I was an outlier on this one, choosing Lanford Wilson instead. My first drama teacher at Queens College (CUNY), the late Dr. Myron Matlaw, called Neil Simon “whipped cream,” meaning he (Simon) was wonderful for a quick thrill, but ultimately not very beneficial to one’s cultural health. I have to agree: Simon did not forward anything in the arts except bad playwriting. For this, I am eternally irritated by Neil Simon.
Simon was a most formulaic playwright: two mismatched people live or go together in one form or another and hilarity ensues. And everyone was witty! The main mismatched characters were witty, the telephone repairman was witty, the loose sisters upstairs were witty, etc. Even in his more “introspective” plays—that trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound—Simon was not very deep and rather cliched. But as I recall, everybody said, “Wow! Neil Simon’s got some depth to him! And everybody is still witty!” For me, his plays had all the depth of a tissue, and a used one at that because he was so repetitive and predictable.
From his years of working for Sid Caesar, Simon seemed to have mastered the 15-minute sketch, which has since been expanded to sitcom length and even one-act plays. And while he was supremely more talented than anyone who has ever written for Saturday Night Live, he nonetheless, in my opinion, paved the way for bad writers to expand bad premises and weak plots into longer bad plays. The thinking behind this is, “if I can be just really, really funny like Neil Simon, I’ll be able to pad the play and hide the fact that I have nothing to say.” What we see now are plays that are more like extended sketches because, hey, it worked for Neil Simon.
I don’t think Simon was alone in this regard. The excellent comedy sketches of the Sid Caesar era—courtesy of Simon’s contemporaries, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (both of whom I consider light years better and deeper than Neil Simon), and Carl Reiner-- seems to me to have gotten watered down by their extension into lengthier offerings. So, while we were once enriched by the obvious writing talent in television sketches, the groundwork was being laid for their weakening by stretching them into almost interminable plays. Experience any new plays being (sometimes inexplicably) produced. You will see one of two things: a dreary, somber, “pity me because I’m [FILL IN THE BLANK WITH OPPRESSION]” piece, or a comedy where crazy people say witty things. Neither, it seems to me, is good for the soul.
Neil Simon may indeed go down as one of our great comedy writers, but I wouldn’t rank him up there with Aristophanes, Oscar Wilde, or even Joseph Kesselring (you can look him up). Television sketches aside, I think his lack of depth in both character and situation contributed mightily to the superficiality of our age.