Confessions of a TV Addict #10: Neil Simons’ Greatest Hit THE ODD COUPLE Will Endure


When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .

The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working on a semi-autobiographical play that became COME BLOW YOUR HORN. First produced in 1961, the play was a Broadway smash, and Simon was soon The Great White Way’s most celebrated playwright. He won his first Tony Award in 1965 for THE ODD COUPLE, and it’s this work that’s become his most enduring, with numerous adaptations in all media, including television, where we’ll focus.

The original stage production starred Art Carney as fussy Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison, who reprised the role in the 1968 film version opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. But when Paramount introduced their sitcom adaptation in 1970, they struck comedy gold by casting Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Randall was well-known for his comic chops, but Klugman was a revelation. Mostly known for his dramatic roles in film (12 ANGRY MEN) and television (including four episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Klugman had taken over the part of Oscar on Broadway and made it his own. The chemistry between Randall and Klugman was comedic dynamite, and the two actors began a lifelong friendship.

There were some minor changes made (for instance, Felix is now a photographer), but the basic premise remains. Neat freak Felix is thrown out by his wife Gloria and moves in with his messy, recently divorced pal Oscar. The pair constantly drive each other nuts with their opposite personalities. Felix is a bundle of neurosis, a confirmed hypochondriac (Randall’s “honking” allergy fits are classic!), and pines to return to Gloria. Oscar fancies himself a ‘ladies’ man’ despite his slovenly appearance, loves his poker games (which Felix always manages to foul up), and has a love/hate relationship with ex-wife Blanche (who’s portrayed by Klugman’s real-life spouse Bret Somers). Felix is the yin to Oscar’s yang, which sets the stage for hilarity during the show’s five-year, 114 episode run.

The series really hit its stride in Season 3 with some truly classic episodes. “Big Mouth” pits sportswriter Oscar against MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL anchor (and notorious curmudgeon) Howard Cosell, “Password” features Felix and Oscar on the TV game show hosted by Allan Ludden (with Ludden’s wife Betty White on the opposing team), “I Gotta Be Me” finds the mismatched roommates entering group therapy. My favorite is “My Strife in Court”, with the duo mistakenly arrested for ticket scalping, and this classic bit played to perfection by Randall:

THE ODD COUPLE has gone through many permutations over the years: a Saturday morning cartoon, a short-lived African-American version starring Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) as Felix and Demond Wilson (SANFORD & SON) as Oscar, a Simon-written female take on the characters, and the recent CBS series that was half good (Thomas Lennon’s Felix) and half not-so-much (Matthew Perry’s Oscar). Many cite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the film version as the ultimate Felix and Oscar, but far as I’m concerned nobody played the characters better than Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in one of the funniest sitcoms television has ever produced.

RIP Neil Simon (1927-2018)

Gettin’ a Woody: EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (United Artists 1972)

*(but were afraid to ask)

Say what you will about Woody Allen (and I’m sure some of you will), but from 1969 to 1977 he wrote, directed, and starred in some of the laugh-out-loud funniest movies ever made (after that, things got a bit pretentious, and his output has been hit-or-miss far as I’m concerned). Allen’s inventive mind took Dr. David Reuben’s best-selling sex manual EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (*but were afraid to ask) and turned it into a hilarious anthology that skewers not only societal mores and morals, but every segment parodies a different film genre.

Some are better than others, but each has something funny to offer. The first, “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?”, finds Woody as a medieval court jester whose lousy Bob Hope one-liners bomb with the King (Anthony Quayle). The randy jester is dying to enter the Queen’s (Lynn Redgrave) “royal chambers”, but gets nowhere until a sorcerer (Geoffrey Holder ) gives him a powerful aphrodisiac. The potion works, making Her Highness super-horny, but there’s a snag… the King has locked her in a chastity belt! Much as they try, they can’t get the belt unlocked, and then the King walks in… and once again, Woody loses his head over a woman!

Next up is “What is Sodomy?”, and if this segment doesn’t have you rolling on the floor laughing, you need a funny bone replacement! Gene Wilder stars as a married medical doctor who falls in love a patient named Daisy. Trouble is, Daisy is a sheep! No, not a brain-dead political follower, a real, wooly, baa baa sheep! From Armenia, no less. Wilder’s deadpan performance is an outrageous riot, and that final shot of him after he’s lost everything, including Daisy, sitting slumped on skid row drinking a bottle of Woolite, is guaranteed to leave you itching in hysterics.

“Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching Orgasm?” is done entirely in Italian, spoofing the films of Fellini and Antonioni. Woody’s frigid wife (Louise Lasser ) just can’t enjoy sex, no matter what he tries to turn her on… until they do it in public. Out in the open, she can’t get enough! While the style of this is pitch perfect, it’s one of the weaker segments, as is the next, “Are Transvestites Homosexuals?”, with Lou Jacobi as a middle class, middle-aged Jew who likes to dress in women’s clothing, and gets busted when he meets his daughter’s fiancé’s parents, unable to resist trying on his future mother-in-laws clothes. The portly, mustachioed Jacobi in drag is a sight to behold, though!

“What Are Sex Perverts?” is done as an old black and white kinescope of a game show called “What’s My Perversion?”. This send-up of “What’s My Line?” has emcee Jack Barry and a panel of celebrities (Pamela Mason, Regis Philbin, Robert Q. Lewis, Toni Holt) trying to guess the peculiar kink of the guest (who likes to expose himself on subways!), followed by a contestant who gets to live out his fetish on live TV – a Rabbi that likes to be tied up and spanked by a buxom shiksa (“You’ve been a naughty Rabbi!”) while his wife eats pork at his feet! Offensive, yes… but damn funny!

“Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research Accurate?” is without a doubt my favorite in the film, a low-budget sci-fi/horror lampoon with Woody as an intern and Heather MacRae a reporter who encounter the fiendish Dr. Bernardo, who has created that most terrifying of creatures, The Giant Boob!! Bernardo is played by that maddest doctor of them all, the great John Carradine at his hammy best. The massive, mutated mammary wreaks havoc and lactates its victims to death across the countryside, and if you love those old 1950’s giant monster movies as much as I do, you’re gonna love this!

Last but not least, “What Happens During Ejaculation?” stays in sci-fi territory as a FANTASTIC VOYAGE-style adventure inside a man’s body as he’s about to have sex with a woman (Groucho’s paramour Erin Fleming). Tony Randall , Burt Reynolds , and Oscar Beregi run the brain, Woody is a cowardly sperm afraid to take the leap, and Jay Robinson steals it as a priest who almost spoils the fun (“Blasphemy!!”).

Only the warped mind of Woody Allen could conceive of a film like this, and I don’t really know if it could be made in today’s “everybody’s offended”  climate. But here it is, and the movie genre parodies are spot-on. I love this film, and would highly recommend it to anyone with a sense of humor, but if you’re one of those easily offended people… well, I feel bad for ya!

 

Let’s Talk About Sex: BOYS’ NIGHT OUT (MGM 1962)


“Sex farces” were extremely popular during the late 50’s/early 60’s. They were filled with martinis, smarmy innuendoes, and smutty jokes, though no sex ever really happens. The comedies of director Frank Tashlin and the Doris Day/Rock Hudson teamings helped popularize this rom-com subgenre. A good example is BOYS’ NIGHT OUT, a humorous take on suburban mores starring James Garner and Kim Novak.

The premise is pretty simple: four friends commute every day from suburban Connecticut to New York City. They are divorced Garner and his married buddies Howard Duff , Howard Morris , and the ubiquitous Tony Randall, who made a career appearing in these type of films. When the “boys” catch Garner’s boss out with his mistress, they start to daydream what it would be like to get their own love shack going, away from their wives and equipped with a beautiful blonde to do their bidding. Garner balks, but soon the boys talk him into finding an apartment in the city. He does, and wouldn’t you know it, a blonde enters the picture. She’s Kim Novak, but what the boys don’t know is she’s actually a sociology grad student doing a thesis on “The Adolescent Fantasies of the Adult Suburban Male”.

This sets the stage for hilarity, as the boys each pick a night to spend in the city with the beautiful Novak. No sex occurs, as Randall just wants to talk (he’s constantly interrupted at home by wife Janet Blair), Duff is content to fix things around the pad (spouse Anne Jeffreys won’t allow it, the neighbors will think they’re not affluent enough), and Morris, whose wife Patti Page is permanently dieting, just wants to eat! Of course, none of them will admit it to the others, instead grinning and making sly remarks. That leaves Garner, who tries to save Novak from her fate as a courtesan. The wives get suspicious and hire private detective Fred Clark to investigate, leading to more hilarious complications and a knockabout ending that finds Garner and Novak together at last.

BOYS’ NIGHT OUT is loaded with Familiar Faces, like William Bendix as a wise bartender, Jessie Royce Landis as Garner’s mother, Oscar Homolka as Novak’s sociology professor, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as Garner’s boss’s (Larry Keating) mistress. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays an elevator operator, Ruth McDevitt a nosy neighbor, and Jim Backus the guy who rents out the apartment. Its director was Michael Gordon, who also did PILLOW TALK and MOVE OVER, DARLING (as well as the Oscar-winning CYRANO DE BERGERAC). Kim Novak herself produced the film for her Kimco Productions, her first and last in that capacity. BOYS’ NIGHT OUT boosted James Garner’s feature film stock, and he was on his way to movie stardom. Films like BOYS’ NIGHT OUT and others of the genre seem pretty tame compared to contemporary farces, but there’s still a charm about them, of a more innocent time when just talking about sex onscreen was as titillating as graphic scenes of flesh on flesh.