Neil Simon: The Human Being Behind the Laugh Machine

TELEVISION: PREVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AMERICAN MASTERS PBS, 9-10:30 p.m. `Neil Simon: Not Just for Laughs.' Profile of the playwright. Produced by WNET/New York and Amrak Nowak Associates. `I'VE always felt that whatever success I've had, they were always going to say, `Oh, good writer, very funny, really interesting, but certainly not Arthur Miller,''' notes Neil Simon at the opening of this 90-minute television portrait of the playwright and screenwriter.

The label that Simon has long had - ``funny but not profound'' - is challenged by this essentially sympathetic collection of interviews with Simon's friends and associates. By adding footage of the playwright walking through his boyhood Brooklyn neighborhood, playing pool in his BelAir, Calif., estate, and fielding questions in various writing seminars and interviews, ``Neil Simon: Not Just for Laughs'' raises the curtain on the personal side of the most prolific major playwright in America. The writer who emerges is a far more sober, reflective, and absorbed artist than caustic critics and Simon's own yuk-a-minute comedies might lead one to believe.

``...If it's only about money, if it's all so `unprofound,''' asks Simon's friend, producer Emmanuel Azenberg, ``how come in a country of 250 million people, not one person has come even close?''

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Refreshingly free of hype, the program declines to spell out the Simon track record no one else has come close to: 24 plays and 17 motion pictures in 28 years; more Academy Award and Tony nominations than any other writer; translations in over two dozen languages and successful productions from Beijing to Moscow. Simon also holds the distinction of being the only playwright to have hadfour plays running on Broadway simultaneously.

By juxtaposing relevant scenes from his plays with the playwright's own remembrances of events and people that inspired them, the film assesses the links between Simon's life and work. We see his early haunts - the house where he was born, the room where he and brother Danny wrote their first TV sketch, his honeymoon suite, the bungalow in Far Rockaway, Long Island, where his family spent the summers of 1938-39, which inspired the setting for``Brighton Beach Memoirs.''

Those who both drew on and influenced Simon's trademark humor and drama are presented as willing testifiers to his genius.

``He was the quiet one. ... He sounded like a turtle,'' recalls Carl Reiner, referring to Simon's place in the famous coterie of writers for TV's ``Your Show of Shows'' - a legendary group that also included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Larry Gelbart. Sitting in a circle around a desk with star Sid Caesar in the center, they would be given a hypothetical situation. Then they would concoct one-liners until the show was completed. Simon was so shy he would whisper his ideas to Reiner who would then stand up and say, ``He's got it!''

Leaving ``Your Show of Shows'' after winning an Emmy for his work, Simon went on to write his first stage hit, ``Come Blow Your Horn'' in 1961. ``I went to see the play six days a week, and I went to some of the matinees for about three weeks, because I was positive it was the only play I was ever going to write in my life,'' recalls Simon. Shortly after, he would phone friends to ask them how to begin his plays. ``What has happened over the years is not `How do you start it?''' he now says, ``but `How do you stop it?'''

In addition to offering comments from fellow writers, the program also calls upon such Simon associates as directors Gene Sak and Herbert Ross to discuss the his writing style. Says Mr. Ross: His plays ``seem very artless in terms of the writing, and you think anybody could write that. But, in fact, they are very carefully written. ... He knows changing `and if' to `but if' can ruin a rhythm, change a meaning. You have to observe even his punctuation, which is very precise.''

Says actor Jack Lemmon: ``Neil has the ability to write characters - even the leading characters that we're supposed to root for - that are absolutely flawed. They have foibles; they have faults. They are not all bad or all good; they are people we know.''

ONE of the most revealing aspects of the program focuses on the long-term writing relationship Simon had with his brother, Danny. They wrote together for many years, until Neil wanted to separate to find his own style and voice. And it was Danny's life, after divorce, that formed the basis for the hit ``The Odd Couple.'' (Neatness fanatic Felix was based on Danny; the slovenly Oscar was based on another divorced man, Roy Gerber.)

When Neil suggested that Danny write the situation into a play, Danny spent months writing only 15 pages before giving the manuscript to his younger brother to finish. ``The Odd Couple'' became one of Simon's longest-standing hits.

If there is one main insight into Simon, the film shows his zest for writing and, perhaps more important, his endurance in rewriting - an energy, patience, and willingness to remain at work throughout rehearsals until every detail is perfected. ``He listens for the [audience's] coughing,'' says Azenberg of the playwright's method of pinpointing a play's weakness. ``Then he deals with the shortcomings. ... He very often solves them.''

When asked about his willingness to examine the personal pain in his life as a way of investing his plays with realism - as he did in ``Chapter Two,'' which examined the feelings he had after the death of his first wife - Simon replied: ``The more painful the better, because it's closer to the truth.''

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