In his essay, “Portrait of the Writer as a Schizophrenic,” which kicked off the first volume of his collected plays, Neil Simon described the irritating intellectual division most writers face as both “human beings” whom he admitted were rather dull and “observers” who reap the benefits of everyone’s quirks for literary fodder all the while hoping not to get caught in the act of artistic identity theft.
In relating a horrific argument he’d had with his wife wherein suddenly after a slew of insults, she hurled a frozen veal chop at his eye, Simon notes that suddenly he found himself going into writer mode and mentally tucking away the incident “for future use.” “A strange phenomenon,” Simon reasoned, “this two-headed monster who finds himself totally involved in situations, and then suddenly without warning steps back to watch the proceedings.” Confessing that it’s predominant in writers and especially those who work in the realm of comedy writing, Simon finally surmised, “Like the werewolf, that half-man, half-beast, I have had to come to grips with the frightening but indispensable truth: I am a creature controlled by some cruel fate that had twisted and warped my personality so that at the first sign of personal involvement, I became transformed from human being into the most feared and dangerous beast on earth, the observer-writer,” (p. 4).
Yet, it’s perhaps because of this comical ability to observe and digest the most absurd events around him that have made the work of Neil Simon still some of the most accessible and popular contemporary works of the last five decades. Whether it’s a madness, a gentle schizophrenia that can drive those around him batty, or his innate ability to look past the mundane to dig out the funny, one can seldom flip on a television, go to the theatre, or take part in any aspect of pop culture without seeing some reference to his work, whether it’s an homage to Barefoot in the Park on Gossip Girl or various interpretations of his plays, yet the one that seems to resonate the most is at its most basic, Simon’s simplest—The Odd Couple.
The basis for all of comedy—put two characters in a room where one wants one thing and the other does not and you have a show and it’s this constant tug-of-war (not unlike the one endured by writers) that makes for something compelling, authentic, and endlessly entertaining. From Joey and Chandler on Friends to the quartet on Seinfeld, the amoral, misanthropic bar gang on the hilarious It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the characters on Two and a Half Men, Michael’s relationship with any of the Bluth family on Arrested Development, or any number of series—the fingerprints of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison as well as their creator, Mr. Neil Simon are everywhere.
Originally written as a play before it became a successful film starring America’s favorite Grumpy Old Men, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, later Simon’s Odd Couple would go on to evolve into a female stage version, an African-American version on television, yet none would become more popular than the original television series which ran for five years on ABC. Although it suffered from low ratings and constant schedule shuffling during its inclusion in the primetime schedule from 1970 to ’75 and the first season filled with loathsome canned laughter and a cinematic one-camera production style hampered it creatively, when it hit it stride, it felt as fresh and entertaining as a night watching Simon’s play from the front row of any of a dozen theatres in America where no doubt it’s playing tonight.
Once the show developed into a three-camera style televised stage play filmed in front of a live-studio audience, helping recreate the theatrical effect in a way that made the actors freer and more irresistible in this case as opposed to the risk of going too broad, The Odd Couple became an excellent comedy training ground. With a strong behind-the-scenes group in executive producer Garry Marshall, his sister Penny Marshall turning in a supporting role as Oscar’s secretary, and excellent writers who would go on to create further comedy gold including Jerry Belson, Jerry Paris, Harvey Miller, Bob Brunner, Mark Rothman, and Lowell Ganz, The Odd Couple seemed to be at the peak of its powers in its fifth and final season, releasing this week from CBS DVD and Paramount Home Entertainment.
With the unforgettable Emmy award-winning actors Jack Klugman as the persistently grumpy Oscar (in the Matthau part) and the irreplaceable Tony Randall filling Lemmon’s shoes as Felix Unger—always the scene stealer and center of the show—the twenty-two episode fifth season arrives on three digitally remastered discs. With an amusingly retro cameo by Rob Reiner (Penny Marshall’s then-husband) as her boyfriend in the first episode, the series gets off to a funny if slightly insider-like slow start as Felix and Oscar take it upon themselves to remake the frumpy Myrna (Marshall) into marriage material but it grows stronger with the next four successive episodes.
When Oscar’s bullying and pressure on talented bowler Felix results in his wish to withdraw from their team the Bon Vivantes, the two feud into predictable silence (a regular gag in the series) but later team up to try and replace a missing frog belonging to Felix’s son in one of those up-all-night comical misadventure episodes, until Felix’s tendency towards obsession alienates everyone in Tinsletown in a fun episode called “The Hollywood Story.”
Alternating from pratfalls to highbrow comedy as the two reason they should patch things up since our country talked to China and Russia or in exaggerating Oscar’s temper, Felix lies that, “the man slapped Fellini,” The Odd Couple also made great usage of its supporting players. And while numerous stars came and went, there was no greater cast-mate for perpetual go-to laughs than Al Molinaro’s Murray the Cop, their none-too-bright man in blue, poker buddy who finally gets to save the day in the hysterical “Two Men on a Hoarse,” which find both halves of The Odd Couple unable to speak.
While Klugman never truly got the opportunity to showcase his range in the series as Oscar is pretty one-dimensional, the lifeblood of the series seemed to be in his pitch-perfect chemistry with Randall who truly seemed willing to break his legs for a laugh as he delivered monologues about trivial cleaning ingredients, tripped over objects, sang, danced, wore some of the most ghastly and campy attire on record, yet managed to be the heart and soul of the series in his genuinely loving and supportive relationship with his best friend.
Additionally, it appears to be the type of series that must have been as enjoyable to make as it is to watch as the men find themselves in the most ridiculous situations from Felix kidnapping a dog, to having to lead a square dance or help stage a rent strike and Oscar making so many jokes about New York that the two set out to try and prove the rudeness stereotype wrong (in another one of the show’s endless bets by gambling addicted Oscar).
And while the last episode seems a bit slapped together as Felix finally gets the happy reunion with his ex-wife, I’d defy anyone to watch without getting a bit misty as the two men say their final goodbyes. And although we can always keep it going in its increasingly popular syndication as well as through Paramount’s beautifully packaged and high quality DVD set (nicely as compact as a single DVD), despite zero extras, it’s great fun for aspiring comedy writers to view again and again critically in order to fully appreciate the incredibly witty dialogue as well as the nuanced portrayals by our leads.
Multi-layered and far hipper than one would assume—while for most shows, going “stagey” would be the kiss of death (save for Cheers which seemed to always exist at that same primary location), it works infinitely well for The Odd Couple in taking the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of Simon’s witty play and bringing them to life both conversationally and physically in the writing and performance. Thus in the end, it makes us feel as schizophrenic as Simon himself as we’re half-human and half-observers, falling in and out of hysterics and stepping back to dissect just what it is that makes it so damn funny.
Although, it’d be easy too make dismissive assumptions and say it was precisely this or precisely that, one shouldn’t because in the phrase that was first uttered by Randall’s Felix, “don’t assume, because when you assume, you make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” Plus, it’s much too fun to become the observer-writer, storing up inspiration for future use and when Marshall, Randall, and Klugman were involved, you know you’ll have enough good stuff to keep you laughing for a long, long while.