Interviews

Neil Simon, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

Legend has it that on his deathbed the actor Edmund Gwenn answered director John Ford’s “What is dying like?” with a reflective, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

By any measure—quantity, quality, popular success, renown—Neil Simon is the preeminent purveyor of comedy in the last half of the twentieth century. Like the work of most writers of comedy, from Aristophanes to Woody Allen, Simon’s humor is written to be spoken. And heard. For Simon the art of humor is both communal (each member of the audience in league with all the other members of the audience) and collegial (playwright and performers in league with the audience—a relationship Simon will describe as a “shared secret”). Fielding, Twain, and Thurber can be savored in one’s lap, but verbal, visual humor, like misery, loves company. Simon is not only skillful at his craft but prolific as well. He is the author of more than twenty plays, including Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, the Brighton Beach trilogy, Prisoner of Second Avenue, Plaza Suite, and Lost in Yonkers.

These pages are the winnowing of sixteen hours of taped conversation in Simon’s office on the second floor of a Spanish colonial apartment building in the Beverly Hills flats—several miles, a thousand vertical feet, and a dozen social strata below the Bel Air hilltop home Simon shares with his wife Diane and their daughter Bryn.

The writer’s no-nonsense work space, impersonal in its laid-back Southern Californian setting, is conspicuously empty (no secretary, no phone calls, no distractions) but intensely personal in the memorabilia that have, as Simon explains, “sort of gravitated” there over the years.

Halfway through the tour of the apartment Simon stopped abruptly and remarked, in apparent surprise, on how many of the room’s furnishings date from the house on Manhattan’s East Sixty-second Street where he lived with his first wife Joan: chairs, tables, photographs, paintings—some painted by Joan—and a framed letter from her, written in cryptic, Joycean prose and signed, “Klarn.” The baseball paraphernalia on display reflects another side of Simon’s life. His substantial collection of antique caps and autographed balls, with a recent emphasis on Bobby Bonilla, would knock the kneesocks off the playwright’s baseball-mad alter ego, Eugene Jerome.

There are the usual theatrical souvenirs and a few unusual ones: a telegram from the president of Columbia University informing Simon of his Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, a Neil Simon Time magazine cover, a poster from the Moscow production of Biloxi Blues, signed by the cast, “Dear Neil Simon, We love you and your plays. We had worked on this performance with enjoy.”

“Doc” Simon, so called from his childhood habit of mimicking the family doctor, is tall and fit, despite the chronic back problems that have curtailed his tennis playing in recent years. We sat at a massive, polished tree-stump coffee table covered with the tools of his trade: pens neatly stacked (by the cleaning woman, he hastened to say), scripts—finished and unfinished—books, and the long pads on which he writes. We laughed frequently as we discussed his plays, opinions, and past. Even when the talk turned as serious as some of his recent scripts, the face that peered over the tree stump like a Bronx leprechaun bore two indelible Simon trademarks: the eyes of an insatiably curious and slightly guarded child, shielded by horn-rimmed glasses, and a faint, constant, enigmatic smile. Take a look at the accompanying photograph. What is this man smiling at? Perhaps the shared secret.

 

INTERVIEWER

Lillian Hellman once said she always began work on a play with something very small—a scene or even two vague lines of dialogue whose meaning was utterly unknown to her. What starts you, what makes you think there’s a play there?

NEIL SIMON

As many plays as I’ve written—twenty-seven, twenty-eight—I can’t recollect a moment when I’ve said, This would make a good play. I never sit down and write bits and pieces of dialogue. What I might do is make a few notes on who’s in the play, the characters I want, where it takes place, and the general idea of it. I don’t make any outlines at all. I just like to plunge in. I’ll start right from page one because I want to hear how the people speak. Are they interesting enough for me? Have I captured them? It goes piece by piece, brick by brick. I don’t know that I have a play until I’ve reached thirty, thirty-five pages.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever started thematically?

SIMON

I think about thematic plays but I don’t believe I write them. Nothing really takes shape until I become specific about the character and the dilemma he’s in. Dilemma is the key word. It is always a dilemma, not a situation. To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the theme of the play is until I’ve written it and the critics tell me.

INTERVIEWER

Every playwright, every director, every actor, speaks about conflict. We’re all supposed to be in the conflict business. When you speak of dilemma, are you talking about conflict?

SIMON

Yes. In Broadway Bound I wanted to show the anatomy of writing comedy—with the older brother teaching Eugene, which was the case with my brother Danny and me. Stan keeps asking Eugene for the essential ingredient in comedy and when Eugene can’t answer, Stan says, “Conflict!” When he asks for the other key ingredient, and Eugene can only come up with, “More conflict?” Stan says, “The key word is wants. In every comedy, even drama, somebody has to want something and want it bad. When somebody tries to stop him—that’s conflict.” By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind. All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself. You go by sequential activity. One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict. As Stan says, it’s got to be a very, very strong conflict, not one that allows the characters to say, Forget about this! I’m walking out. They’ve got to stay there and fight it out to the end.

INTERVIEWER

You said that it isn’t until you get to page thirty-five that you know whether or not you’ve got a play. Are there times when you get to page thirty-five and decide the conflict isn’t strong enough and the play disappears to languish forever in a drawer?

SIMON

I’ve got infinitely more plays in the drawer than have seen the lights of the stage. Most of them never come out of the drawer, but occasionally one will and it amazes me how long it has taken to germinate and blossom. The best example would be Brighton Beach Memoirs. I wrote the first thirty-five pages of the play and gave it to my children, Nancy and Ellen, and Marsha, my wife at the time. They read it and said, This is incredible. You’ve got to go on with it. I showed it to my producer, Manny Azenberg and to Gordon Davidson, and they said, This is going to be a great play. I knew the play was a turn in style for me, probing more deeply into myself, but maybe the pressure of the words great play scared me, so I put it away. Periodically, I would take it out and read it and I wouldn’t know how to do it. After nine years I took it out one day, read the thirty-five pages, picked up my pen and the pad I write on and finished the play in six weeks. I have the feeling that in the back of your mind there’s a little writer who writes while you’re doing other things, because I had no trouble at that point. Obviously, what had happened in the ensuing years in my life made clear to me what it should be about. Somewhere in the back of my head I grew up, I matured. I was ready to write that play. Sometimes it helps to have some encouragement. Once I was having dinner with Mike Nichols and he asked, What are you doing? I said, I’m working on a play about two ex-vaudevillians who haven’t worked together or seen each other in eleven years and they get together to do an Ed Sullivan Show. He said, That sounds wonderful. Go back and finish it. So I did. It was as though a critic had already seen the play and said, I love it. But there are many, many plays that get to a certain point and no further. For years I’ve been trying to write the play of what happened to me and the seven writers who wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But I’ve never got past page twenty-two because there are seven conflicts rather than one main conflict. I’ve been writing more subtext and more subplot lately—but in this situation everybody was funny. I didn’t have somebody to be serious, to anchor it. I always have to find the anchor. I have to find the Greek chorus in the play, the character who either literally talks to the audience or talks to the audience in a sense. For example, Oscar in The Odd Couple is the Greek chorus. He watches, he perceives how Felix behaves, and he comments on it. Felix then comments back on what Oscar is, but Oscar is the one who is telling us what the play is about. More recently, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, I’ve been literally talking to the audience, through the character of Eugene, because it is the only way I can express the writer’s viewpoint. The writer has inner thoughts and they are not always articulated on the stage—and I want the audience to be able to get inside his head. It’s what I did in Jake’s Women. In the first try out in San Diego the audience didn’t know enough about Jake because all he did was react to the women in his life, who were badgering him, trying to get him to open up. We didn’t know who Jake was. So I introduced the device of him talking to the audience. Then he became the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knew things I never thought I would reveal about Jake—and possibly about myself.

INTERVIEWER

Will you return to the Show of Shows play?

SIMON

I do very often think about doing it. What was unique about that experience was that almost every one of the writers has gone on to do really major things—Mel Brooks’s whole career . . . Larry Gelbart . . . Woody Allen . . . Joe Stein who wrote Fiddler on the Roof . . . Michael Stewart who wrote Hello, Dolly . . . it was a group of people only Sid Caesar knew how to put together. Maybe it was trial and error because the ones who didn’t work fell out, but once we worked together it was the most excruciatingly hilarious time in my life. It was also one of the most painful because you were fighting for recognition and there was no recognition. It was very difficult for me because I was quiet and shy, so I sat next to Carl Reiner and whispered my jokes to him. He was my spokesman, he’d jump up and say, He’s got it! He’s got it! Then Carl would say the line and I would hear it and I’d laugh because I thought it was funny. But when I watched the show on a Saturday night with my wife, Joan, she’d say, That was your line, wasn’t it? and I’d say, I don’t remember. What I do remember is the screaming and fighting—a cocktail party without the cocktails, everyone yelling lines in and out, people getting very angry at others who were slacking off. Mel Brooks was the main culprit. We all came in to work at ten o’clock in the morning, but he showed up at one o’clock. We’d say, That’s it. We’re sick and tired of this. Either Mel comes in at ten o’clock or we go to Sid and do something about it. At about ten to one, Mel would come in with a straw hat, fling it across the room, and say, Lindy made it!—and everyone would fall down hysterical. He didn’t need the eight hours we put in. He needed four hours. He is, maybe, the most uniquely funny man I’ve ever met. That inspired me. I wanted to be around those people. I’ve fooled around with this idea for a play. I even found a title for it, “Laughter on the Twenty-third Floor,” because I think the office was on the twenty-third floor. From that building we looked down on Bendel’s and Bergdorf Goodman and Fifth Avenue, watching all the pretty girls go by through binoculars. Sometimes we’d set fire to the desk with lighter fluid. We should have been arrested, all of us.

INTERVIEWER

If you ever get past page twenty-two, how would you deal with Mel and Woody and the others? Would they appear as themselves?

SIMON

No, no, no! They’d all be fictitious. It would be like the Brighton Beach trilogy, which is semiautobiographical.

INTERVIEWER

It feels totally autobiographical. I assumed it was.

SIMON

Everyone does. But I’ve told interviewers that if I meant it to be autobiographical I would have called the character Neil Simon. He’s not Neil. He’s Eugene Jerome. That gives you greater latitude for fiction. It’s like doing abstract painting. You see your own truth in it but the abstraction is the art.

INTERVIEWER

When did you realize there was a sequel to Brighton Beach Memoirs?

SIMON

It got a middling review from Frank Rich of The New York Times, but he said at the end of it, “One hopes that there is a chapter two to Brighton Beach.” I thought, he’s asking for a sequel to a play that he doesn’t seem to like!

INTERVIEWER

Are you saying Frank Rich persuaded you to write Biloxi Blues?

SIMON

No, but I listened to him saying, I’m interested enough to want to know more about this family. Then, Steven Spielberg, who had gone to see Brighton Beach, got word to me, suggesting the next play should be about my days in the army. I was already thinking about that and I started to write Biloxi Blues, which became a play about Eugene’s rites of passage. I discovered something very important in the writing of Biloxi Blues. Eugene, who keeps a diary, writes in it his belief that Epstein is homosexual. When the other boys in the barracks read the diary and assume it’s true, Eugene feels terrible guilt. He’s realized the responsibility of putting something down on paper, because people tend to believe everything they read.

INTERVIEWER

The Counterfeiters ends with the diary André Gide kept while he was writing the book. In it he says he knows he’s writing well when the dialectic of the scene takes over and the characters seize the scene from him and he’s become not a writer but a reader. Do you sometimes find that your characters have taken the play away from you and are off in their own direction?

SIMON

I’ve always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, This is what they say now. This is what they say next. Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn, I was told by fellow writers that you must outline your play, you must know where you’re going. I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play. In the writing of the play, I didn’t get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in, saying, Get back in there. This is where you belong. I’ve already diagrammed your life. They said, No, no, no. This is where I want to go. So, I started following them. In the second play, Barefoot in the Park, I outlined the first two acts. I said, I’ll leave the third act a free-for-all, so I can go where I want. I never got through that outline either. In The Odd Couple, I outlined the first act. After a while I got tired of doing even that. I said, I want to be as surprised as anyone else. I had also read a book on playwriting by John van Druten, in which he said, Don’t outline your play, because then the rest of it will just be work. It should be joy. You should be discovering things the way the audience discovers them. So, I stopped doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Gide writes about being surprised by the material coming up on the typewriter. He finds himself laughing, shocked, sometimes dismayed . . .

SIMON

Sometimes I start laughing—and I’ve had moments in this office when I’ve burst into tears. Not that I thought the audience might do that. The moment had triggered a memory or a feeling that was deeply hidden. That’s catharsis. It’s one of the main reasons I write the plays. It’s like analysis without going to the analyst. The play becomes your analysis. The writing of the play is the most enjoyable part of it. It’s also the most frightening part because you walk into a forest without a knife, without a compass. But if your instincts are good, if you have a sense of geography, you find that you’re clearing a path and getting to the right place. If the miracle happens, you come out at the very place you wanted to. But very often you have to go back to the beginning of the forest and start walking through it again, saying, I went that way. It was a dead end. You cross out, cross over. You meet new friends along the way, people you never thought you’d meet. It takes you into a world you hadn’t planned on going to when you started the play. The play may have started out to be a comedy, and suddenly you get into a place of such depth that it surprises you. As one critic aptly said, I wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs about the family I wished I’d had instead of the family I did have. It’s closer to Ah, Wilderness than my reality.

INTERVIEWER

When did you realize that Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues were part of a trilogy?

SIMON

I thought it seemed odd to leave the Eugene saga finished after two plays. Three is a trilogy—I don’t even know what two plays are called. So, I decided to write the third one, and the idea came immediately. It was back to the war theme again, only these were domestic wars. The boys were having guilts and doubts about leaving home for a career writing comedy. Against this played the war between the parents. I also brought in the character of the socialist grandfather who was constantly telling the boys, You can’t just write jokes and make people laugh. Against this came Blanche from the first play, Brighton Beach, trying to get the grandfather to move to Florida to take care of his aging, ill wife. To me, setting people in conflict with each other is like what those Chinese jugglers do, spinning one plate, then another, then another. I wanted to keep as many plates spinning as I could.

INTERVIEWER

What exactly do you mean when you call the Brighton Beach trilogy semiautobiographical?

SIMON

It means the play may be based on incidents that happened in my life—but they’re not written the way they happened. Broadway Bound comes closest to being really autobiographical. I didn’t pull any punches with that one. My mother and father were gone when I wrote it, so I did tell about the fights and what it was like for me as a kid hearing them. I didn’t realize until someone said after the first reading that the play was really a love letter to my mother! She suffered the most in all of it. She was the one that was left alone. Her waxing that table didn’t exist in life but it exists symbolically for me. It’s the abstraction I was talking about.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of abstraction, there’s something mystifying to audiences—and other writers—about what the great comedy writers do. From outside, it seems to be as different from what most writers are able to do as baseball is from ballet. I’m not going to ask anything quite as fatuous as “what is humor?” but I am asking—is it genetic, is it a mind-set, a quirk? And, most important, can it be learned—or, for that matter, taught?

SIMON

The answer is complex. First of all, there are various styles and attitudes towards comedy. When I worked on Your Show of Shows, Larry Gelbart was the wittiest, cleverest man I’d ever met, Mel Brooks the most outrageous. I never knew what I was. I still don’t know. Maybe I had the best sense of construction of the group. I only know some aspects of my humor, one of which involves being completely literal. To give you an example, in Lost in Yonkers, Uncle Louie is trying to explain the heartless grandmother to Arty. “When she was twelve years old, her old man takes her to a political rally in Berlin. A horse goes down and crushes Ma’s foot. Nobody ever fixed it. It hurts every day of her life, but I never once seen her take even an aspirin.” Later, Arty says to his older brother, “I’m afraid of her, Jay. A horse fell on her when she was a kid, and she hasn’t taken an aspirin yet.” It’s an almost exact repetition of what Louie told him and this time it gets a huge laugh. That mystifies me. In Prisoner of Second Avenue you knew there were terrible things tormenting Peter Falk. He sat down on a sofa that had stacks of pillows, like every sofa in the world, and he took one pillow after the other and started throwing them angrily saying, “You pay eight hundred for a sofa and you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back! There is no joke there. Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me—saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. People come up to you after the show and say, I’ve always thought that, but I never knew anyone else thought it. It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.

INTERVIEWER

 You’ve often said that you’ve never consciously written a joke in one of your plays.

SIMON

I try never to think of jokes as jokes. I confess that in the early days, when I came from television, plays like Come Blow Your Horn would have lines you could lift out that would be funny in themselves. That to me would be a “joke,” which I would try to remove. In The Odd Couple Oscar had a line about Felix, “He’s so panicky he wears his seatbelt at a drive-in movie.” That could be a Bob Hope joke. I left it in because I couldn’t find anything to replace it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever found that a producer, director, or actor objected to losing a huge laugh that you were determined to cut from the play?

SIMON

An actor, perhaps, yes. They’ll say, But that’s my big laugh. I say, But it hurts the scene. It’s very hard to convince them. Walter Matthau was after me constantly on The Odd Couple, complaining not about one of his lines, but one of Art Carney’s. He’d say, It’s not a good line. A few days later, I received a letter from a doctor in Wilmington. It said, Dear Mr. Simon, I loved your play but I find one line really objectionable. I wish you would take it out. So, I took the line out and said, Walter, I’ve complied with your wishes. I got a letter from a prominent doctor in Wilmington who didn’t like the line . . . He started to laugh and then I realized, You son of a bitch, you’re the doctor! And he was. Those quick lines, the one-liners attributed to me for so many years—I think they come purely out of character, rather than out of a joke. Walter Kerr once came to my aid by saying “to be or not to be” is a one-liner. If it’s a dramatic moment no one calls it a one-liner. If it gets a laugh, suddenly it’s a one-liner. I think one of the complaints of critics is that the people in my plays are funnier than they would be in life, but have you ever seen Medea? The characters are a lot more dramatic in that than they are in life.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also said that when you began writing for the theater you decided to try to write comedy the way dramatists write plays—writing from the characters out, internally, psychologically . . .

SIMON

Yes. What I try to do is make dialogue come purely out of character, so that one character could never say the lines that belong to another character. If it’s funny, it’s because I’m telling a story about characters in whom I may find a rich vein of humor. When I started writing plays I was warned by people like Lillian Hellman, “You do not mix comedy with drama.” But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play? The very first person I showed Come Blow Your Horn to was Herman Shumlin, the director of Hellman’s The Little Foxes. He said, I like the play, I like the people, but I don’t like the older brother. I said, What’s wrong with him? He said, Well, it’s a comedy. We have to like everybody. I said, In life do we have to like everybody? In the most painful scene in Lost in Yonkers, Bella, who is semiretarded, is trying to tell the family that the boy she wants to marry is also retarded. It’s a poignant situation and yet the information that slowly comes out—and the way the family is third-degreeing her—becomes hilarious because it’s mixed with someone else’s pain. I find that what is most poignant is often most funny.

INTERVIEWER

In the roll-call scene in Biloxi Blues you riff for several pages on one word, one syllable: Ho. It builds and builds in what I’ve heard you call a “run.”

SIMON

I learned from watching Chaplin films that what’s most funny isn’t a single moment of laughter but the moments that come on top of it and on top of those. I learned it from the Laurel and Hardy films too. One of the funniest things I ever saw Laurel and Hardy do was try to undress in the upper berth of a train—together. It took ten minutes, getting the arms in the wrong sleeves and their feet caught in the net, one terrible moment leading to another. I thought, there could be no greater satisfaction for me than to do that to an audience. Maybe Ho also came from sitting in the dark as a kid listening to Jack Benny’s running gags on the radio. In Barefoot in the Park, when the telephone man comes up five or six flights of stairs, he arrives completely out of breath. When Paul makes his entrance, he’s completely out of breath. When the mother makes her entrance, she’s completely out of breath. Some critics have written, You milk that out-of-breath joke too much. My answer is, You mean because it’s happened three times, when they come up the fourth time they shouldn’t be out of breath anymore? It’s not a joke, it’s the natural thing. Like Ho. Those boys are petrified on their first day in the army, confronted by this maniac sergeant.

INTERVIEWER

Do you pace the lines so the laughs don’t cover the dialogue or is that the director’s job? Do you try to set up a rhythm in the writing that will allow for the audience’s response?

SIMON

You don’t know where the laughs are until you get in front of an audience. Most of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had I never knew were big laughs. Mike Nichols used to say to me, Take out all the little laughs because they hurt the big ones. Sometimes the little laughs aren’t even meant to be laughs. I mean them to further the play, the plot, the character, the story. They’re written unwittingly . . . strange word to pick. I cut them and the laugh pops up somewhere else.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first realize you were funny?

SIMON

It started very early in my life—eight, nine, ten years old—being funny around the other kids. You single out one kid on your block or in the school who understands what you’re saying. He’s the only one who laughs. The other kids only laugh when someone tells them a joke—two guys got on a truck . . . I’ve never done that in my life. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t like to hear someone say to me, Tell him that funny thing you said the other day. It’s repeating it. I have no more joy in it. Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it. I’ve expelled whatever it is I needed to exorcise, whether it’s humorous or painful. Generally, painful. Maybe the humor is to cover the pain up or maybe it’s a way to share the experience with someone.

INTERVIEWER

Has psychoanalysis influenced your work?

SIMON

Yes. Generally I’ve gone into analysis when my life was in turmoil. But I found after a while I was going when it wasn’t in turmoil. I was going to get a college education in human behavior. I was talking not only about myself; I was trying to understand my wife, my brother, my children, my family, anybody—including the analyst. I can’t put everything in the plays down to pure chance. I want them to reveal what makes people tick. I tend to analyze almost everything. I don’t think it started because I went through analysis. I’m just naturally that curious. The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart; I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works. Behavior is absolutely the most interesting thing I can write about. You put that behavior in conflict and you’re in business.

INTERVIEWER

Would you describe your writing process? Since you don’t use an outline, do you ever know how a play will end?

SIMON

Sometimes I think I do—but it doesn’t mean that’s how the play will end. Very often you find that you’ve written past the end and you say, Wait a minute, it ended here. When I started to write Plaza Suite it was going to be a full three-act play. The first act was about a wife who rents the same suite she and her husband honeymooned in at the Plaza Hotel twenty-three years ago. In the course of the act the wife finds out that the husband is having an affair with his secretary and at the end of the act the husband walks out the door as champagne and hors d’oeuvres arrive. The waiter asks, Is he coming back? and the wife says, Funny you should ask that. I wrote that and said to myself, That’s the end of the play, I don’t want to know if he’s coming back. That’s what made me write three one-act plays for Plaza Suite. I don’t like to know where the play is going to end. I purposely won’t think of the ending because I’m afraid if I know, even subliminally, it’ll sneak into the script and the audience will know where the play is going. As a matter of fact, I never know where the play is going in the second act. When Broadway Bound was completed, I listened to the first reading and thought, There’s not a moment in this entire play where I see the mother happy. She’s a miserable woman. I want to know why she’s miserable. The answer was planted in the beginning of the play: the mother kept talking about how no one believed she once danced with George Raft. I thought, the boy should ask her to talk about George Raft and as she does, she’ll reveal everything in her past.

INTERVIEWER

The scene ends with the now-famous moment of the boy dancing with the mother the way Raft did—if he did.

SIMON

Yes. People have said, It’s so organic, you had to have known you were writing to that all the time. But I didn’t know it when I sat down to write the play. I had an interesting problem when I was writing Rumors. I started off with just a basic premise: I wanted to do an elegant farce. I wrote it right up to the last two pages of the play, the denouement in which everything has to be explained—and I didn’t know what it was! I said to myself, Today’s the day I have to write the explanation. All right, just think it out. I couldn’t think it out. So I said, Well then, go sentence by sentence. I couldn’t write it sentence by sentence. I said, Go word by word. The man sits down and tells the police the story. He starts off with, It was six o’clock. That much I could write. I kept going until everything made sense. That method takes either insanity or egocentricity—or a great deal of confidence. It’s like building a bridge over water without knowing if there’s land on the other side. But I do have confidence that when I get to the end of the play, I will have gotten so deeply into the characters and the situation I’ll find the resolution.

INTERVIEWER

So you never write backwards from a climactic event to the incidents and scenes at the beginning of the play that will take you to it?

SIMON

Never. The linkages are done by instinct. Sometimes I’ll write something and say, Right now this doesn’t mean very much but I have a hunch that later on in the play it will mean something. The thing I always do is play back on things I set up without any intention in the beginning. The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes. Whenever I get in trouble in the second act, I go back to the first act. The answers always lie there. One of the lines people have most often accused me of working backwards from is Felix Ungar’s note to Oscar in The Odd Couple. In the second act, Oscar has reeled off the laundry list of complaints he has about Felix, including “the little letters you leave me.” Now, when Felix is leaving one of those notes, telling Oscar they’re all out of cornflakes, I said to myself, How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar. So I signed it “Mr. Ungar.” Then I tried “Felix Ungar.” Then I tried “F.U.” and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room. When Oscar says, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar,” it always gets this huge laugh.

INTERVIEWER

Felix Unger also appears in Come Blow Your Horn. I wanted to ask why you used the name twice.

SIMON

This will give you an indication of how little I thought my career would amount to. I thought The Odd Couple would probably be the end of my career, so it wouldn’t make any difference that I had used Felix Ungar in Come Blow Your Horn. It was a name that seemed to denote the prissiness of Felix, the perfect contrast to the name of Oscar. Oscar may not sound like a strong name, but it did to me—maybe because of the k sound in it.

INTERVIEWER

So you subscribe to the k-theory expressed by the comedians in The Sunshine Boys—k is funny.

SIMON

Oh, I do. Not only that, k cuts through the theater. You say a k-word, and they can hear it.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about the mechanics of writing, starting with where you write.

SIMON

I have this office. There are four or five rooms in it and no one is here but me. No secretary, no one, and I’ve never once in the many years that I’ve come here ever felt lonely or even alone. I come in and the room is filled with—as corny as it might sound—these characters I’m writing, who are waiting each day for me to arrive and give them life. I’ve also written on airplanes, in dentist’s offices, on subways. I think it’s true for many writers. You blank out whatever is in front of your eyes. That’s why you see writers staring off into space. They’re not looking at “nothing,” they’re visualizing what they’re thinking. I never visualize what a play will look like on stage, I visualize what it looks like in life. I visualize being in that room where the mother is confronting the father.

INTERVIEWER

What tools do you use? Do you use a 1928 Underwood the way real writers are supposed to? Or a computer? You mentioned using a pad and pencil . . .

SIMON

I wrote my early plays at the typewriter because it was what writers looked like in His Girl Friday.

INTERVIEWER

Lots of crumpled pages being flung across the room?

SIMON

Yes. But my back started to get so bad from bending over a typewriter eight hours a day, five or six days a week that I couldn’t do it anymore, so I started to write in pads. Then a curious thing happened. I was in England and found that they have pads over there with longer pages and thinner spaces between the lines. I liked that because I could get much more on a single page. At a single glance I could see the rhythm of the speeches. If they’re on a smaller page with wide spaces you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. You have to keep turning. So, I write in these pads. Sometimes I write on both sides of the page, but I always leave myself lots of room to make notes and cross things out. I’ll write about three pages, then go to the typewriter and type that out. Then the next day I’ll read those three pages again and maybe not like them and go back to the notebook—write it out, make changes, and then retype it. The typing is boring for me, but I can’t use a word processor. It feels inhuman. It seems to me that every script comes out of a computer looking like it was written by the same person. My typewriter has its own characteristics, its own little foibles. Even there, I black out parts and write marginal notes. I’d like it to be neat, but I don’t like to send it to a professional typist because they invariably correct my purposely made grammatical errors. I try to write the way people speak, not the way people should speak.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re writing dialogue, do you write it silently or speak it aloud?

SIMON

I never thought I spoke the lines until my family told me I did. They said they could walk by and tell if it was going well or not by the rhythm of it. I guess I want to see if I’m repeating words and, because I write primarily for the stage, I want to make sure the words won’t be tripping badly over some tongues.

INTERVIEWER

Do you play the parts, I mean, really play them and get into them?

SIMON

Yes. When I wrote the Sergeant Bilko show my father asked me naively, Do you just write Sergeant Bilko’s lines or do you write the other lines too? When you write a play, maybe even a novel, you become everybody. It may seem like I only write the lines spoken by the character who is like Neil Simon, but in Lost in Yonkers I’m also the grandmother—and Bella. And to do that you have to become that person. That’s the adventure, the joy, the release that allows you to escape from your own boundaries. To be Grandma every other line for a couple of pages takes you into another being. It’s interesting how many people ask, Was this your grandmother? I say, No, I didn’t have a grandmother like that, and they say, Then how do you know her? I know what she sounds like. I know what she feels like. The boys describe it when they say, When you kiss her it’s like kissing a cold prune. I describe her in a stage direction as being a very tall, buxom woman. But she doesn’t necessarily have to be tall and buxom. She just has to appear that way to the boys. You can’t really use that as physical description, but it will convey something to the actress.

INTERVIEWER

And to the actors playing the two boys.

SIMON

Yes. Those directions are very important.

INTERVIEWER

Family seems to be more than a predilection or interest, it is a near obsession with you. Even if you’re writing about a couple, in comes an extended family of friends or the blood-related aunts, uncles, cousins, fathers, and mothers with which your plays abound. Is that because family has played such an important role, for good and ill, in your life?

SIMON

Well, for one thing, it’s a universal subject. For example, when Come Blow Your Horn was playing, the theater doorman, a black man in his sixties, was standing in the back of the theater, laughing his head off. I went over to him after the play and asked, Why were you laughing so much? He said, That’s my family up there. I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world. I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars. It’s also what I’m most comfortable with. I am a middle-class person, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. I try now and then to get away from the family play, but it amazes me that I’ve spent the last thirty-one years writing plays primarily about either my family or families very close to it. Maybe the answer is that at some point along the way you discover what it is you do best and writing about the family unit and its extensions is what I do best.

INTERVIEWER

Your introduction to the first published collection of your work is called “The Writer as Schizophrenic.” The word observer comes up repeatedly in your conversation, your interviews and especially in your plays. Have you always seen yourself as an outsider, an observer?

SIMON

Yes, that started very early, when my parents would take me to visit family. They’d offer me a cookie or a piece of fruit, but no one spoke to me, because they knew I had nothing to contribute. I wasn’t offended. I just thought it was the accepted norm. And that led me to believe that I was somehow invisible. On radio shows like The Shadow, there were invisible people. And movies were coming out—The Invisible Man, with Claude Rains. To me, invisible seemed the greatest thing you could be! If I could have one wish, it was to be invisible. First of all, you could go to any baseball game you wanted to. Free. You could go into any girl’s house and watch her get undressed! But it works another way too. It means there’s no responsibility. You don’t have to integrate, to contribute. This becomes a part of your personality.

INTERVIEWER

Does that detachment apply to your personal relationships as pervasively as to your work?

SIMON

I’m not quite sure who I am besides the writer. The writer is expressive, the other person can sit in a room and listen and not say anything. It’s very hard for me to get those two people together. In the middle of a conversation or a confrontation, I can suddenly step outside it. It’s like Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde without the necessity of taking the potion. It’s why the Eugene character speaks to the audience in the trilogy—because in a sense he is invisible. The other characters in the play don’t see him talking to the audience. They go right about their business. As I wrote it, I thought, I’m now living my perfect dream—to be invisible.

INTERVIEWER

In Barefoot in the Park, Corie says, “Do you know what you are? You’re a watcher. There are watchers in the world and there are doers, and the watchers sit around watching the doers do.”

SIMON

In all three of my marriages I’ve been accused of this separation: You’re not listening to me. You’re not looking at me. When you asked about where I write I said anywhere. I just stare into space. That’s happened when I was talking to my wife. I could be looking at her and not thinking about what she’s saying. It’s rude. It’s selfish, I guess. But it’s what happens; some other thought has taken its place. One of the worst and most frightening examples of that was the first time I was ever on television. I went on the Johnny Carson show. I was standing behind that curtain, hearing them give my credits. Then they said, And here he is, the prolific playwright Neil Simon. I walked out and froze. I thought, My God, I’m out here, I’ve got to deliver something, I’ve got to be humorous, that’s what they expect of me. I sat down opposite Johnny Carson and he asked his first question, which was fairly lengthy. After the first two words I heard nothing. I only saw his lips moving. I said to myself, I’ve got all this time not to do anything. In other words, while his lips are moving I’m all right. So, my mind just wandered. I was looking around, saying, Well, forty million people are watching me, I wonder if my brother’s going to watch this, what’s he going to think of it? When Johnny’s lips stopped, I was on. But I had no answer because I’d never heard the question. So, I said something like, That reminds me of something, Johnny, and went into something completely irrelevant that fortunately was funny and we just seemed to move on with the conversation. It happens while I’m speaking to students at a college or university. I’ll be talking. I’ll look over the room and see one face not interested, and I’m gone, I’m lost. I wish I were out there, sitting among the invisible, but I’m up there having to deliver. The demands of coming up with something every minute are very difficult. In a sense, being in this office, I am invisible because I can stop. When I’m writing, there’s no pressure to come up with the next line. I always need that escape hatch, that place to go that’s within myself. I’ve tried coming to terms with it. I feel, as long as it doesn’t bother someone else, I’m happy with it. When it does bother someone else, then I’m in trouble.

INTERVIEWER

And your characters share this watcher/doer problem?

SIMON

Felix in The Odd Couple isn’t a watcher—or a doer. He’s stuck. He’s reached a certain point in his life and developed no further. Most of my characters are people who are stuck and can’t move. The grandmother in Lost in Yonkers has been stuck for the last seventy years. The mother in Broadway Bound—she’s really stuck.

INTERVIEWER

I remember George in Chapter Two saying, I’m stuck, Jennie . . . I’m just stuck some place in my mind and it’s driving me crazy. Going back to Barefoot in the Park, Corie’s pretty hard on your surrogate Neil when she tells him he’s not a doer. But, come to think of it, what could be more venturesome and brave—or foolhardy—than the real Neil opening a play on Broadway and exposing it to the critics and the audience?

SIMON

It is the most frightening thing in the world—and it was almost a matter of life and death for Joan and me with Come Blow Your Horn. If it had failed I would have been forced to move to California and become a comedy writer in television. But I don’t worry about it anymore and I think not being fearful of what’s going to happen has allowed me to write so much. If I do worry, I say I won’t do the play, because that means I don’t think it’s that good.

INTERVIEWER

Is the opposite true? Can you anticipate a hit?

SIMON

I never think of the plays as being hits when I write them. Well, I thought Rumors, of all plays, would be a really good commercial comedy if I wrote it well. I thought The Odd Couple was a black comedy. I never thought it was going to be popular, ever.

INTERVIEWER

It’s your most popular play, isn’t it? All over the world.

SIMON

Yes. And I thought it was a grim, dark play about two lonely men. I thought The Sunshine Boys wouldn’t be a popular play, but it was very well received. Chapter Two was another one I doubted, because when you touch on a character’s guilt, you touch on the audience’s guilt, and that makes them uncomfortable. Yet the play turned out to be very successful because it was a universal theme. Lost in Yonkers is an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays. What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian—two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.

INTERVIEWER

You heard “Pulitzer Prize.” There are several plays that don’t seem to fit in your canon. In plays like The Good Doctor, Rumors, Fools, and God’s Favorite you seem to have a different agenda, there’s a different relationship between you and the play than the one you’ve described. Could that explain their lack of critical and popular success?

SIMON

I wrote The Good Doctor soon after I learned my wife had a year and a half to live. She didn’t know that. On the advice of the doctors, I’d elected not to tell her and I wanted to keep on working, so it would seem to her that everything was normal. I was reading Chekhov’s short stories and decided, just for practice, to translate one of them into my own language, my own humor. I knew it was a diversion. After a performance, a woman grabbed me in the foyer and said, This is not Neil Simon! Fools was an experiment that didn’t work. God’s Favorite is an absurdist black comedy about Job that was written as an outcry of anger against Joan’s death. My belief in God had vanished when this beautiful young girl was dying. I wasn’t Archibald MacLeish. I thought it would be pretentious for me to try to write something like a dramatic JB. So, I wrote it as a black comedy and it did help me get through that period. Sometimes you write a play just for the sake of working at it. It’s my craft. I’m allowed to go in any direction I want. I hate being pushed into certain places. Walter Kerr once wrote that he thought I was successful because I didn’t listen to what was in fashion in the theater and went my own way at my peril, and that sometimes I suffered for it and at other times I broke through. With Lost in Yonkers I suddenly heard from critics who said, This is a new voice for Neil Simon. We want you to go deeper and deeper into this area. At the same time other critics complained, I don’t like this as much. It’s not as funny as the old plays. They wanted Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. I could have spent my whole life writing the Barefoot in the Parks and Odd Couples, which I certainly don’t denigrate, because I love them—but where would I have gone with my life? I would have been standing still, grinding out the same story time after time after time. What I’ve done, I think, is take the best of me and the best of my observations and try to deepen them to reform them and reflesh them. At some point along the way you discover what it is you do best. Recently I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett’s biography. When he was about forty-four years old, he said he wanted to write monologue. It was his way of expressing himself to the world. He was shy too. In a sense, I think many of my plays are dramatized monologues. It’s like sitting around the fire and telling you the story of my life and my father and my mother and my cousins and my aunts. In Lost in Yonkers I know I’m one of those two boys, probably the younger one. Who that grandmother is, who Aunt Bella is, with her adolescent mind, I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to be saying that Lost in Yonkers is even less autobiographical than the Brighton Beach trilogy.

SIMON

I’d say Lost in Yonkers isn’t autobiographical at all. You asked me earlier whether I write thematic plays. I don’t, but I have a feeling that in Lost in Yonkers there was a theme within me that was crying to get out, a common denominator that got to everybody. In the last fifteen, twenty years, a phrase has come into prominence that didn’t exist in my childhood: “dysfunctional family.” My mother’s and father’s constant breakups seemed to show little concern for my brother and me. It was like coming from five broken families. That pain lingers. Writing plays is a way of working out your life. That’s why I can never conceive of stopping, because I would stop the investigation of who I am and what I am.

INTERVIEWER

You have the reputation of being a tireless, even an eager, rewriter. How much of the rewriting is done during the first drafts of the play and how much do you rewrite after the play has gone into rehearsal?

SIMON

I would say that I do no fewer than three to four major rewrites on a play before we go into rehearsal. I write the play, put it aside, take it out six months later, read it. By then I’ve forgotten everything about the play. It’s as though someone had sent it to me in the mail and I’m reading it for the first time. I can tell right away what I don’t and do like. That becomes a very easy rewrite—you just get rid of the stuff you don’t like. Then we start auditions for actors, so I keep hearing the words every day. After a while I can’t stand some of them and I start to rewrite, so in later auditions the actors get a better script to read. I finally say it’s the last draft before we go into rehearsal and we have a reading of the play in a room with just the producer, director and a few of the other people who will work on the play, one month before rehearsal. At that reading we have the entire cast, so now I know what it’s going to sound like. Based on that reading, I’ll do another major rewrite. It’s rare that I would ever do what they do in musicals: “Why don’t we switch scene four and scene two?” I write in a linear way, so that everything falls apart if you take anything out. Sometimes if even a few sentences come out of the play something suffers for it later on. Once the play opens out of town, the most important rewriting begins, based on not only the audience’s and the out-of-town critics’ reactions, but the reactions of ourselves, the actors, and some people we’ve invited to see the play and comment. I also listen—if I can, to the audience’s comments on the way out of the theater. That becomes harder now that I’ve lost my invisibility.

INTERVIEWER

How do you remain objective with all those voices in your ear?

SIMON

Mostly it’s my own intuition. I bring in rewrites no one has asked for. I’ll suddenly come in with five pages and the director and the actors will say, You didn’t like the other stuff? I’ll say, I think this is better. If you bring in seven pages, maybe three will work. That’s a big percentage. You’re way ahead of the game. An analogy for it would be if you were in college and took a test and your grade came back. You got a sixty-three on the test and they say, Come back tomorrow. You’ll be given exactly the same test. There’ll be no new questions. Well, you’re going to get an eighty-four on the second test. You’ll have had chances to fix it. That’s what happens to a play. Day by day, it gets better and better. In the case of Jake’s Women, in the first production a couple of years ago, there were a lot of things wrong. It was miscast, I had a director I was unfamiliar with who didn’t really understand my process. We opened with a play that was about a sixty-two on a possible grade of a hundred. I brought the play up to about a seventy-eight. As we got toward the end of the run, just prior to going to New York, I thought, you can’t get by in New York with a seventy-eight. You need at least a ninety-six or ninety-seven. So, I said to everyone, Let’s just pull it. And we did. I thought it was dead forever, because I’d put so much into it and wasn’t able to save it. Two years later I took another crack at it and did a major rewrite in which, as I’ve told you, I had Jake speak to the audience. The play took a whole new turn. I thought it was finally up in the ninety-percent bracket.

INTERVIEWER

If a play is truly flawed, how much can you do to improve it?

SIMON

Well, in the case of something like The Gingerbread Lady, which was a flawed play, the producer was going to put up a closing notice in Boston. Maureen Stapleton, who was starring in the play, came to me and said, If you close this play I’ll never speak to you again. She said, This is a potentially wonderful play. It needs work but don’t walk away from it! I thought, What a reasonable thing to say, because all it amounted to was more of my time. The producer said he wanted to close, to save me “from the slings and arrows of the critics in New York.” I said, I can take the slings and arrows. I’ve had enough success up to now. I’ll learn from this one. What finally made up my mind after reading three terrible reviews in Boston was that while waiting at the airport for my plane, I picked up The Christian Science Monitor and the review was a letter addressed to me. It said, Dear Neil Simon, I know you’re probably going to want to close this play, but I beg of you, don’t do it. This is potentially the best play you have written. You’re going into a whole new genre, a whole new mode of writing. Don’t abandon it. So, I called the producer and said, Please don’t close the play. Let’s run in Boston and see what happens. Then I didn’t want to get on a plane and arrive in New York an hour later; I wanted a four-hour trip on a train so I could start the rewrite. By the time I got to New York I had rewritten fifteen pages of the play. I stayed in New York for a week and came back with about thirty-five new pages. And we went to work. The play was never a major success, but we did have a year’s run and sold it to the movies. Maureen Stapleton won the Tony Award, and Marsha Mason, who played the lead in the film version, got an Oscar nomination. So, something good came out of persevering.

INTERVIEWER

Your plays have become darker in the last several years. Is this a sign of maturity or a wish to be taken seriously, since comedy generally isn’t as highly regarded as so-called “serious plays”?

SIMON

Maybe the plays matured because I matured. I do want to be taken more seriously, yet I want to hear the laughter in the theater. The laughs are very often the same gratification to the audience as letting themselves cry. They’re interchangeable emotions.

INTERVIEWER

Most of the darker plays take place in your childhood. Does that mean that your childhood was dark or that your view of your childhood and perhaps of the world has darkened as you’ve matured?

SIMON

My view of my childhood was always dark, but my view of the world has darkened considerably. The darkness in my plays reflects the way the world is now. The darkness in the plays, strangely enough, seems more beautiful to me. I think anything that is truthful has beauty in it. Life without the dark times is unrealistic. I don’t want to write unrealistically anymore.

INTERVIEWER

What do you consider your strongest suit as a writer? And what in your view is your weakest suit?

SIMON

I think my blue suit is my weakest.

INTERVIEWER

I knew it would come to this.

SIMON

I think my greatest weakness is that I can’t write outside of my own experience. I’m not like Paddy Chayefsky who could go off and do six months of research and then write something extremely believable. I’d like to write about Michelangelo, but I don’t know Michelangelo. I don’t know what his life was like. I wish I could extend myself, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I might play around with it from time to time. Those are the ones that wind up in the drawer.

INTERVIEWER

If you ever have a fire sale of the contents of that drawer, call me. What would you say is your particular strength?

SIMON

I think it’s construction. Maybe what I write is outmoded today, the “well-made play”—a play that tells you what the problem is, then shows you how it affects everybody, then resolves it. Resolution doesn’t mean a happy ending—which I’ve been accused of. I don’t think I write happy endings. Sometimes I have hopeful endings, sometimes optimistic ones. I try never to end the play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical. When I was writing three-act plays, a producer told me the curtain should always come down on the beginning of the fourth act. A play should never really come to an end. The audience should leave saying, What’s going to happen to them now? As the plays progressed, some people wanted darker endings. Some critics even said the ending of Lost in Yonkers wasn’t dark enough. But I can’t write a play as dark and bleak and wonderful as A Streetcar Named Desire. I fall in some gray area. There is so much comedy within the dramas or so much drama within the comedies.

INTERVIEWER

In her interview for The Paris Review, Dorothy Parker said she got her character names from the telephone book and obituary columns. Do you have a system for naming your characters?

SIMON

There was a time I used to take baseball players’ names. The famous ones were too obvious, so you had to take names like Crespi. There was a guy named Creepy Crespi who played for the St. Louis Cardinals. Crespi would be a good name, although I’ve never used it.

INTERVIEWER

It’s got a nice k sound in it. 

SIMON

Yes. I try to name the character the way the character looks to me. I spend more time on the titles of plays than on the names of the characters. What I’ve tried to do over the years is take an expression from life that has a double entendre in it, for example, the musical Promises, Promises, so that every time people speak the words it sounds like they’re talking about your play. Or The Odd Couple—people sometimes say “they’re sort of an odd couple.” If you mention an odd couple now, you think of the play. I’ve seen the words maybe a thousand times in newspapers since, and it seems as if I originated the term, which, of course, I didn’t. Come Blow Your Horn comes from the nursery rhyme. Barefoot in the Park came from what the play was about. There’s a line in the play that comes from my life, when Joan used to say to me, Stop being a fuddy-duddy. Let’s go to Washington Square Park and walk barefoot in the grass. Chapter Two was, literally, the second chapter of my life, after my wife Joan died and I married Marsha. Prisoner of Second Avenue was a good title for a play about a man who loses his job and is left to live in that little apartment on Second Avenue while his wife goes to work. He has nothing to do but walk around the room ’til he knows exactly how many feet each side is—so he’s literally a prisoner. The Gingerbread Lady is a bad title. I liked the title and then had to make up a phrase about the gingerbread lady to make it fit. The film title was better: Only When I Laugh. The Star-Spangled Girl was a better title than a play. I liked Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It seemed familiar. It comes from Sophie Tucker’s slogan: last of the red hot mamas. Lost in Yonkers—I love the word Yonkers and I wanted to put the play in a specific place. I said to myself, What in Yonkers? These boys are lost, Bella is lost, this family is all lost . . . in Yonkers. Jake’s Women is literally about a man named Jake and three women. Again, there’s the k sound in Jake.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about stage directors. How much can a director help a play? Or, conversely, hurt it?

SIMON

Well, in the early days, I worked principally with Mike Nichols. He was after me day and night: This scene isn’t good enough. Work on this. Fix this. He’d call me at two or three in the morning, to the point where I’d say, Mike, give me a chance, leave me alone. You’re on my back all the time. But, I always knew he was right. I wasn’t that experienced a playwright. The way I work now—with Gene Saks—the conversation is generally short. He might say to me, There’s something wrong with this scene. I’ll say, I know what you mean. Let me go home and work on it. I’m much less influenced by the director now than I was before. I depend on the director in terms of interpretation of the play. With the Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkers, I watched with clenched fists and teeth as Gene was directing, thinking, That’s wrong, it’s all wrong what he’s doing. Then, suddenly, I saw what he was doing and said, Oh God! He has to go step by step to get to this place, trying all his things, the way I would try them at the writer’s table.

INTERVIEWER

How much do actors influence you? Is it ever the case that the personality of an actor influences you to remold the character to the actor, playing into what you now perceive to be the actor’s strength?

SIMON

I might do that. But what I try to do in terms of rewriting is always to benefit the character, not the actor. There’s something an actor sometimes says that drives me crazy: I would never do that. I say you’re not doing this, the character is. The one thing I almost always look for is the best actor not the funniest actor. I rarely, rarely cast a comedian in a play. The best comedian I ever had in a play was George C. Scott. He was funnier than anybody in the third act of Plaza Suite because he was playing King Lear. He knew the essence of comedy is not to play “funny.” I remember, at the first reading of Barefoot in the Park, the whole cast was laughing at every line in the play. When we finished the reading, Mike Nichols said, Now forget it’s a comedy. From here on we’re playing Hamlet.

INTERVIEWER

I notice in the printed plays that you use ellipses, italics, and all caps. I assume the ellipses are meant to tell the actors when you want them to pause, the italics are meant to give emphasis, and that all caps ask for added emphasis, even volume.

SIMON

Yes. They are a first indication to the actor and the director. Some of those emphases change enormously in the rehearsal period, but I also have to worry about what’s going to be done in stock and amateur and European productions, so I hope it’s a guide to what I meant. The Prisoner of Second Avenue opens in the dark. All we see is a cigarette as Mel Edison comes in. The part was played by Peter Falk. He sat down on the sofa, took a puff of the cigarette, and in the dark we heard aaaahhhhhhh. I don’t know how you’re going to be able to spell that, but it’s got a lot of hs in it—a lot of them. It got a huge laugh because the audience heard two thousand years of suffering in that aaaahhhhhhh. When Peter left and other actors played the part, they would go ahh. There weren’t enough hs and the line wasn’t funny. People tell me that when they study my work in acting class, the teachers have to give them the sounds, the nuances, the way the lines are said. I guess Shakespeare can be said a thousand different ways, but in certain kinds of lines—for example, that run on Ho in Biloxi Blues—everything depends on the timing of it. I’ve always considered all of this a form of music. I wish I could write tempo directions, like allegro and adagio. That’s why I put dots between words or underline certain words, to try to convey the sense of music, dynamics, and rhythm.

INTERVIEWER

Do the critics ever help you, shedding light on your work, regardless of whether they’re praising or damning it?

SIMON

Walter Kerr gave me one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever had. In the first line of his review of The Star-Spangled Girl, he said, “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway.” That was exactly what had happened. Elliot Norton was very helpful to me in Boston with The Odd Couple. His title of the opening night review was, “Oh, for a Third Act.” He wasn’t going to waste his time telling everyone how good the first two acts were. His job, he felt, was to make me make the third act better. And his suggestion to me was to bring back the Pigeon sisters. I said, Good idea, brought back the Pigeon sisters, and the play worked. More important than the reviews, it’s the audience that tells you whether or not you’ve succeeded. A week prior to the opening of the play you know if it’s going to work or not. If ninety percent of the critics say it doesn’t work, well, you already knew that without having to read the reviews. On the other hand, the opening night of Little Me, Bob Fosse and I were standing in the back of the theater. The producers had allowed a black-tie audience to come from a dinner to the theater. They’d eaten, they’d had drinks, they all knew each other—that’s the worst audience you can get. About three-quarters of the way through the first act, a man got up, so drunk he could hardly walk, and staggered up the aisle looking for the men’s room. As he passed Bob and me he said, This is the worst piece of crap I’ve seen since My Fair Lady! Go figure out what that means.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe the reason comedies like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys are sometimes underrated is quite simply that the audience is laughing at them—rather than worrying, weeping, learning—or doing any of the other virtuous things an audience is reputed to be doing at a drama. However, I think most writers would agree that it is relatively easy to make people cry and very, very hard to make them laugh.

SIMON

Billy Wilder, whom I respect enormously, once confided in me that drama’s a lot easier than comedy. He found some of the brilliant dramas he wrote, like Sunset Boulevard, much easier to write than the comedies. Comedies are relentless, especially a farce like Some Like It Hot. Rumors was the most difficult play I ever wrote because not only did every moment of that play have to further the story, complicate it and keep the characters in motion—literal motion, swinging in and out of doors— but the audience had to laugh at every attempt at humor. You don’t have five minutes where two people can sit on a sofa and just say, What am I doing with my life, Jack? Am I crazy? Why don’t I get out of this? You can do that in a drama. You can’t do it in a farce.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make it a point to see the plays of other playwrights? 

SIMON

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went to the theater a lot. There was always a Tennessee Williams play to see or a great English play. It was such an education. I learned more from bad plays than from good ones. Good plays are a mystery. You don’t know what it is that the playwright did right. More often than not you see where a work fails. One of the things I found interesting was that a lot of comedy came from drunks on the stage. If a character was drunk he was funny. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to write characters that are as funny as drunks but are not drunk. In other words, bring out the outrageousness of them and the only way you can do that is to put them in such a tight corner that they have to say what’s really on their minds. That’s where the humor comes from.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a good audience for other people’s work? Do you laugh in the theater? I know some writers who are just not good audiences. Would you call yourself a good audience?

SIMON

I’d call myself a great audience. I’m appreciative of good work, no matter what its form—comedy, drama, musical. I saw Amadeus four times. A Streetcar Named Desire I could see over and over. When I’m in England I go to some of the most esoteric English plays, plays that never even come over here, and I’m just amazed at them. I’ve recently caught up with the works of Joe Orton. I love Tom Stoppard’s plays Jumpers and Travesties, and I admire the work of Peter Schaffer. If it’s good theater, yes, I’m the best audience. I’m out there screaming.

INTERVIEWER

Comedy has changed in a very noticeable way in the last thirty years. Subjects and language that were taboo are now almost obligatory. Do you think that indicates progress?

SIMON

I like the fact that one can touch on subjects one wouldn’t have dealt with in years gone by. The things that Lenny Bruce got arrested for you can find on any cable station today. Television situation comedy doesn’t seem as funny to me as what Chaplin and Buster Keaton did without words. There are a few good comedians, but by and large I don’t think comedy is a lot better today.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to exercise a certain constraint over the language of your plays. Even Biloxi Blues doesn’t use the kind of profanity and obscenity I remember from my days at that same airfield.

SIMON

I think to say fuck once in an entire play is much more shocking than to say it sixty times. Four of the last five plays I’ve written took place in the thirties and forties, when profanity wasn’t used on stage—or in the home. The fifth play, Rumors, is contemporary and it’s filled with profanity. But I don’t need profanity. I love language and I’d rather find more interesting ways to use it than take the easy way out.

INTERVIEWER

Every playwright has fingerprints. You’ve mentioned thinking of your plays in musical terms and one fingerprint of yours seems to be the “aria.” At a certain point in almost every one of your plays a character in extremis launches into an extended list of all the catastrophes that are happening to him. In Come Blow Your Horn, Alan says, “You’re using my barber, my restaurants, my ticket broker, my apartment, and my socks. How’s it going, kid? Am I having fun?” In Plaza Suite the father explodes, “You can take all the Eislers, all the hors d’oeuvres, and go to Central Park and have an eight thousand dollar picnic! I’m going down to the Oak Room with my broken arm, with my drenched, rented, ripped suit and I’m going to get blind!” Are you aware of doing that?

SIMON

Yes, it’s a fingerprint. You’ll notice that those arias always come near the end of the play. The character has reached the point where he can’t contain himself anymore and everything comes spurting out, like a waterfall, a cascade of irritations. Just mentioning one of them wouldn’t be funny, but to mention all the irritations wraps up a man’s life in one paragraph.

INTERVIEWER

The words you use to describe your comedy are words that are generally associated not with comedy at all, but with tragedy. You’ve talked about catharsis and your characters exploding when they can’t bear the pain anymore.

SIMON

Yes. That’s why I don’t find television comedy very funny—because it’s hardly ever about anything important. I think the weightier comedy is, the funnier it is. To me, Chaplin’s films are masterpieces. Remember him running after a truck with the red warning flag that has fallen off it?

INTERVIEWER

And he doesn’t see hundreds of rioting radicals falling enthusiastically in behind him . . .

SIMON

So he gets busted and goes to jail as their leader.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe when the record is written a hundred years from now it will turn out that all our comedy writers, from Chaplin and Keaton to you and Woody Allen, were writing tragedies. What’s the cliché? Comedy is tragedy plus time. How fine is the line between tragedy and comedy?

SIMON

It’s almost invisible. I think Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people in the world, but when he makes a picture like Spaceballs, he’s telling us, This is foolishness. No one is in danger, so the audience knows it’s too inconsequential to laugh at. But when he does a picture like High Anxiety or Young Frankenstein there’s something at stake. He’s taken a frightening idea and twisted it, so we’re able to laugh at it. 

INTERVIEWER

Here comes a difficult question ...

SIMON

As long as it doesn’t have to do with math.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know a writer who wouldn’t say that—or a musician who isn’t good at math. Because music is mathematical, I guess.

SIMON

But so are plays. As surely as two plus two is four, the things you write in the play must add up to some kind of logical figure. In Broadway Bound, when Stan is teaching Eugene the craft of comedy, Eugene says, “It’s just a comedy sketch. Does it have to be so logical? We’re not drawing the plans for the Suez Canal,” and Stan says, “Yes we are. It’s not funny if it’s not believable.”

INTERVIEWER

Well, now that we’ve covered math and logic, here’s the difficult question. You write repeatedly about an uptight man and a liberating woman; is that because it’s a reflection of your relationship with the women in your life—or because you feel it’s a common and important theme?

SIMON

The answer is quite simple. It’s because I’m an uptight man who’s been married to three liberated women. Joan was the first liberated woman I ever met and the most unconventional. She introduced me to more ways of looking at life than I’d ever dreamed of. She was more adventuresome than I’d ever been. She would jump from a plane in a parachute, and I’m the uptight man who would say, You’re crazy. Marsha was the same way. She was a feminist and had me marching in parades with a flag, yelling for women’s rights. It’s not that I didn’t believe in women’s rights, but I’m not an activist. Diane is an environmentalist, an ecologist, and also a fighter for the rights of women. Go over all the plays. With the exception of The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, you’ll find that the women are not only stronger but more interesting characters than the men. Again, the men are usually the Greek chorus. That’s me sitting there, little Neil, born Marvin, observing the world—verbally, from a very safe place, which is what the man does in Barefoot in the Park, which is what he does in Chapter Two, in almost every play.

INTERVIEWER

In the theater, in films, rugged men usually liberate unfulfilled women. From what you say, your plays reverse that convention.

SIMON

Yes. I never feel threatened by women. I have enormous respect for them. I would also usually rather be with them than with men. I’m not much of a male bonder. I have male friends, obviously. I belong to tennis clubs. But in a social situation, I’d generally rather talk to a woman because it’s like a play—you’re getting the opposite point of view. You talk to a man, you’re getting your own point of view. It becomes redundant. But when you’re with a woman, that’s when the sparks fly, that’s when it’s most interesting.

INTERVIEWER

Plays these days are usually in two acts rather than three and you are using more and shorter scenes. Is that the result of changes in stage technology? Are you being influenced by film?

SIMON

I think I’ve been influenced by films, which have been influenced by television and commercials. Today you can see a one-minute commercial with about forty setups in it. There’s a need to pace things differently because the audience’s attention span has grown shorter. Biloxi Blues was the first major example of that because I had fourteen set changes. What also helped speed things along was that I started writing plays with larger casts, so there were many more entrances and exits. Also, having a narrator makes big time-leaps possible. I am influenced by new technologies and techniques, but that doesn’t mean I’m following the fashions. It just means that I’m moving to another phase in my career—I’m becoming less literal and more abstract.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned finding your characters waiting for you every time you walk into your office. Dickens complained that he hated to end his books because he didn’t want to say good-bye to the characters he’d been living with.

SIMON

That’s why I don’t go back to see my plays again, because they belong to someone else—to the actors and the audience. That process happens in a series of events. First, you finish writing the play and everyone reads it. Then you go into rehearsal. Day by day, it slowly becomes the director’s and the actors’. They’re still asking me questions. I’m still participating. I’m still the father of these children. They get onstage and soon the play is finished. They no longer need me! I feel locked out, I’m not part of them. After the play opens, I’m almost embarrassed to go backstage, because it’s the place that belongs to the director and the actors. I’m just the man who introduced the characters to them. It’s a very, very sad feeling for me. What happens eventually—it may sound cold—is that I disown them. I have no interest in seeing the plays again. In fact, it’s painful, especially when a play has run for a long time and new actors have come in to replace the original cast. When I walk into that theater, it’s as if I were picking up my family album and turning the pages to see my mother and father and aunt and cousins and I say, This isn’t my family! So, you give it up and go on to the next play.

INTERVIEWER

And the next. And the next.

SIMON

Every time I write a play it’s the beginning of a new life for me. Today as I listen to you read excerpts from these plays and talk about them, it makes me feel nostalgic about how wonderful those days were—but I’m enjoying these days of writing, even though I see that the sun is setting.