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Neil Simon, A Yiddish-Influenced Wisecracker

In his heyday, the playwright Neil Simon, who died on August 26 at age 91, produced a series of long-running plays, some of them winners of significant awards, that tickled audiences as the height of the wisecrack genre.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983), “Biloxi Blues” (1985), “Broadway Bound” (1986), and “Lost in Yonkers” (1991) capped a long-running career with semi-autobiographical chortles about American Jewish experience. The verbal rhythms of Simon’s writing held willing audiences captive. They had paid Broadway prices to laugh at a Neil Simon comedy and fully intended to do exactly that — even if the literal meaning of some jokes did not live up to the snappy sound of the repartee.

Susan Koprince’s “Understanding Neil Simon” cites an exchange from “Broadway Bound” in which Eugene Jerome reacts to his grandmother’s disappointment that the Statue of Liberty lacks Yiddishkeit: “That would be a riot. A Jewish Statue of Liberty. In her left hand, she’d be holding a baking pan… and in the right hand, held up high, the electric bill.”

The line works in the theater, likely because of the vaudeville tradition, explained by the character Willy Clark in Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” (1972) that words containing the consonant “k,” such as baking and electric, are inherently droll:

Words with ‘k’ in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland … Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there’s chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny – not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.

This explanation, whether intended as literal truth or not, is quoted as authoritative in the “Routledge Companion to Commedia Dell’Arte” and a guidebook for comedians by Louis Franzini. For Simon, the primacy of sound content to draw laughter meant that apart from meaning, “k” consonants had to be present for actors to hammer out, eliciting Pavlovian responses from audiences.

This aural sense probably came from his social context. Drawing inspiration from colloquial exchanges, Simon was manifestly swayed by the sounds of Yiddish-accented English. His first stage success, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961), featured the character actor Lou Jacobi (born in Toronto as Louis Jacobovitch) who revelled in caricatural Jewish patriarchal locutions:

May you and your brother live and be well. God bless you, all the luck in the world, you should know nothing but happiness. If I ever speak to either one of you again, my tongue should fall out!”

Julius Novick’s “Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience” suggests that Jacobi’s character, neutrally named Mr. Baker, may be taken by the audience to be Jewish or not, according to their preconceptions of how Jews behave. The theory of double coding, as developed by Henry Bial, a professor of theater and author of “Acting Jewish,” is used to support this argument. Yet in reality, especially as boomed by the ultra-ethnic Lou Jacobi, what could the character have been other than a ludicrous Jewish father?

Although Simon’s lines were enlivened with Yiddishkeit, his characters could appear two-dimensional unless portrayed by transcendent actors. One example was Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz, the daunting German Jewish bubbe in the stage and film versions of “Lost in Yonkers.” The quintessential Simon comedian, Walter Matthau, owes that status to a magnificent single role, as Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple.” When Matthau was cast in screen versions of “The Sunshine Boys” and “Plaza Suite,” replacing the stage actors Jack Albertson and George C. Scott respectively, his unfunny, shouted performances were far inferior to his Oscar Madison. The effortful stress of amusing an audience is a constant in Simon’s plays.

Simon relied on great actors to bring life to his characters, but when he grappled with Jewish theology in later works, the results were even more chancy. In a memoir published in 1999, he wrote:

I am, as a matter of fact, a Jew and although Jews are devoted in their belief in God, they are not above asking pesky questions sometimes. They generally find the answers they’re looking for, and when they can’t find them, they accept the word of the great rabbis. If the great rabbis do not have the answer, they figure the question was not all that important in the first place.

As usual, in the reflections above, Simon prioritizes the jokester’s rhythms, with a pat, flip, superficially dismissive conclusion placing sound over meaning. Yet Simon’s own inner motivation was utterly serious, from his brush with anti-Semitism during military service and spiritual inquiries raised by the premature death of his first wife Joan Baim in 1973. Simon’s artistic method to express his emotions from such challenges produced disappointing results. “God’s Favorite” (1974), inspired by the Book of Job, opened on Broadway with a cast of non-Jewish principal actors and ran for just over 100 performances. The theatre historian Thomas Hischak opined that the play “moved into schtick the closer it edged to genuine grief.”

When in his most appreciated comic vein, the rat-a-tat rhythms of Simon’s dialogue possibly owed more to the verve of radio scripts than to stage performance. Under the tutelage of his brother Danny, who later became a teacher of comedy, Simon wrote for such comedians as Robert Q. Lewis (born Robert Goldberg) alongside such other writers as Paddy Chayefsky and Goodman Ace (born Aiskowitz). The Simon brothers would later write for the Jewish comedians Red Buttons, Milton Berle,and Victor Borge.

In 1953, the brothers landed a short-lived gig writing for Sid Caesar, then the monarch of TV. In this way Simon lived a rapid series of master classes in the brutality of showbiz destinies, a theme he would later explore in “The Sunshine Boys,” a play about two faded old vaudevillians. And indeed, no career had a more iffy resolution than that of his former colleague Lewis, an unctuous TV quiz show host who wound up as a superannuated chorus boy in the stage and film versions of “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”

Rather than Lewis though, in a 1996 autobiography, Simon revealed that he was moved to write “The Sunshine Boys,” by memories of visiting the performer Willie Howard (born Wilhelm Levkowitz), in a drab residential hotel. “The Sunshine Boys” was an unduly cruel portrayal of Howard as Willy Clark, especially since Howard was genuinely funny, whereas the recreated stage routines in “The Sunshine Boys” are tired and hackneyed. Anger seethes below the surface of this portrait of Willie Howard.

Perhaps had Simon ever let himself go to express the violence of his fears of professional failure, and emotions at witnessing disasters of others, forceful artistry may have resulted. Instead, Simon’s play recalling the days working for Sid Caesar, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (1993) was the usual collection of gags. It was outdone in human resonance by the film “My Favorite Year” (1982) produced and expanded upon by Mel Brooks, and containing the latter’s viewpoint on his own years writing for Caesar.

Facing all these challenges, Simon nevertheless managed to keep theater audiences laughing for decades, an accomplishment that will ensure he is remembered with fondness by countless fans.

Benjamin Ivry is a regular contributor to the Forward.

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