Remembering the Legendary Playwright Neil Simon

August 27, 2018

Legendary comedic playwright Neil Simon died at 91 on Sunday due to complications with pneumonia according to his publicist, Bill Evans. After a six-decade-long career, he passed at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and will go down in history as one of the most successful comedic writers in American history–and some even calling him “The Patron Saint of Laughter.”

Simon’s childhood was rough due to his parents’ “tempestuous” marriage, and his dad was often out of the picture. Simon remembered how, at the age of seven, he needed to adjust to the family tension, saying, “I’d better start taking care of myself somehow … [The instability at home] made me strong as an independent person.” Seeking refuge in movie theaters, young Simon would marvel at Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films where he recalled repeatedly being “dragged out … for laughing too loud.”

Consequently, one of his early career goals was to “make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out.” But class clown, he was not; in fact, Simon was described as extremely shy in his high school yearbook. Instead, he was a bookworm visiting the library three times a week to study humorists like Mark Twain and Oscar-winning screenwriter S.J. Perelman. Graduating from high school early, it wasn’t long before he was employed on two popular TV comedy series; on Your Show of Shows, he was teamed up with other comedic writers including Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and he wrote scripts for The Phil Silvers Show during the late 1950s.

Determined to write for the theater, Simon took three years to complete his first play Come Blow Your Horn. He doubted both himself and his talents, so rewrote it at least twenty times from beginning to end. “It was the equivalent of three years of college,” he reflected. The play ran for 678 performances on Broadway, and Simon followed it up with a steady stream of hit plays including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity,  Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His plays starred the fine talents of Walter Matthau, Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Jason Alexander, Woody Harrelson, Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Matthew Broderick, and Maureen Stapleton. All in all, Simon wrote over 30 plays, was nominated for 17 Tonys and won three.

Additionally, Simon wrote over 20 screenplays including The Out of Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, The Goodbye Girl, and Seems Like Old Times, earning four Oscar nominations. Altogether, Simon received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. And he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer in 1991 for his play Lost in Yonkers.

“The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart and see how it works,” Simon once told The Paris Review. “I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works.”

Rather than writing jokes and punchlines, the prolific writer’s style was to weave comedy into the everyday life of common folks. “That is what is funny to me: saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody … It’s a shared secret between you and the audience,” Simon said. His trick was to get people to care for his characters, and once they did, small moments could have the biggest impact.

When it comes to writing character-driven comedies Simon revealed, “It is always a dilemma, not a situation.” One of his trademarks was to introduce minor irritations to his characters, and over time, as those annoyances increase in frequency and severity, the characters erupt.

“My view is, ‘how sad and funny life is.’ I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain. I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?’” he shared.

The renowned playwright is survived by his wife Elaine Joyce; his three daughters, Ellen, Nancy, and Bryn; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.