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.