Putting all the crassness of the weekend aside, I prefer to honor the memory of Neil Simon who passed away on Sunday at the age of 91. While I understand the wall-to-wall news coverage of John McCain, I find it unfortunate that when I saw Simon's death brought up on MSNBC, they gave it about 45 seconds. I'm absolutely fine with great attention being given to John McCain, and much of his work was far more substantive than a playwright's. But I might suggest that the joy and laughter and thoughtfulness that Neil Simon brought to the American culture over 50 years -- and which will continue for generations -- was no small matter.
I never met him, but I was lucky enough to be in the audience when the Writers Guild of America presented an evening of "Caesar's Writers" -- a panel discussion of the legendary writers on the TV series, Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hours -- and Neil Simon was among them, along with his brother Danny, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkien (head writer for All in the Family), Aaron Ruben (who created Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.), Gary Belkin (longtime writer on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), Sheldon Keller (who co-wrote, Movie, Movie with Larry Gelbart), and Sid Caesar. (Woody Allen was also one of the writers, but he didn't participate in the even in Los Angeles, but was at a similar one held in New York. It was one of the funniest evenings I've had in the theater, in large part because they were all not only trying to live up to one another, but the audience of their fellow-writers in the audience. An edited-down version of the evening is available on DVD here and highly recommended.
I also saw Neil Simon speak when I was UCLA grad school, and they gave him some award -- as if he needed another one, given that he has four Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center Honor, four Writers Guild Awards -- along with the WGA Laurel Award for screenwriting -- and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. And a Broadway theater is named for him. But he was gracious enough to come to UCLA for the award. One thing I recall him saying was how relentlessly he rewrote, and that whenever he saw a production of The Odd Couple, he'd see things that he could fix.
(Side note: The Odd Couple was inspired by the living condition of Simon's brother Danny who moved in with a divorced male friend.)
Simon wrote two autobiographies. The first, Rewrites, goes into his early life growing up, his starting out in TV comedy with his brother Danny, and his earliest and many of his biggest successes on Broadway, up through the death of his first and adored wife, Joan. The book is insightful, funny, open and rich. If you're interested in such things, you can get it here. The sequel, The Play Goes On, picks up with his subsequent plays, his Hollywood years, back to New York and numerous other marriages. It's not that it's bitter -- it's not -- but there's a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction that overwhelm the many positive areas of his life. It's admirably open and thoughtful, but I kept the first book for my shelves, and gave the second away.
Rather than recap his career, this article in the Washington Post does a solid job of it, along with expressing what was substantive and meaningful about it.
And here are 45 seconds when Neil Simon appeared on the TV series of The Odd Couple.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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