Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
(T)here are various styles and attitudes towards comedy . . . . 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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
Part V of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.