After a hiatus caused by Mrs. T’s illness, I resume my Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column today with a tribute to Neil Simon. Here’s an excerpt.
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All comedy dates, and every pure comedian sooner or later becomes passé—even one as beloved as Neil Simon, who died on Sunday at the age of 91. Not only did Mr. Simon have a quarter-century run as America’s most popular playwright, but “Lost in Yonkers,” his 20th and best play, won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. The Pulitzer jurors described it as “a mature work by an enduring (and often undervalued) American playwright,” and pretty much everybody agreed by then that he had evolved into something other than a joke merchant. But Mr. Simon would never again write a full-fledged box-office smash, and none of his plays has since been successfully revived on Broadway save as a star vehicle….
Nonetheless, it’s just as noteworthy that Mr. Simon suited the tastes of American audiences so well for such an extraordinarily long time. His one-two-here-comes-the-punchline style of comedy, which took shape in the Fifties during his tenure as a writer of sketches for “Your Show of Shows,” Sid Caesar’s classic TV series, continued to come across with freshness and immediacy throughout the Sixties and Seventies, even as the culture around him was changing in ways that were radical in every sense of the word. And as Mr. Simon grew older, he chafed at its limitations and started turning out stage comedies like “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971) and screenplays like “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) that were tougher than their predecessors….
Alas, Mr. Simon was unable to build on the artistic success of “Lost in Yonkers.” This stands to reason: Playwriting tends to be a young man’s game, and his creative flame had dimmed after three decades of exhaustingly hard use. Perhaps he had by then simply said what he had to say. In any case, American comedy in the Nineties was giving way to newer, less specifically joke-based approaches, and what had once seemed fresh and immediate increasingly sounded old-fashioned. Whatever the reason, Mr. Simon would never again ring the gong of unequivocal box-office success on Broadway….
All this notwithstanding, I’ve come to feel in recent years that Mr. Simon’s best plays are worthy of revival—if they’re directed in a way that brings out their seriousness instead of going for too-easy laughs….
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Read the whole thing here.
Johnny Carson interviews Neil Simon on The Tonight Show. This episode was originally telecast by NBC on June 26, 1980: