Neil Simon On Playwriting V

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I learned from watching Chaplin films that what’s most funny isn’t a single moment of laughter but the moments that come on top of it and on top of those. I learned it from the Laurel and Hardy films too. One of the funniest things I ever saw Laurel and Hardy do was try to undress in the upper berth of a train—together. It took ten minutes, getting the arms in the wrong sleeves and their feet caught in the net, one terrible moment leading to another. I thought, there could be no greater satisfaction for me than to do that to an audience.

You don’t know where the laughs are until you get in front of an audience. Most of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had I never knew were big laughs. Mike Nichols used to say to me, Take out all the little laughs because they hurt the big ones. Sometimes the little laughs aren’t even meant to be laughs. I mean them to further the play, the plot, the character, the story. They’re written unwittingly . . . strange word to pick. I cut them and the laugh pops up somewhere else.

It started very early in my life—eight, nine, ten years old—being funny around the other kids. You single out one kid on your block or in the school who understands what you’re saying. He’s the only one who laughs. The other kids only laugh when someone tells them a joke—two guys got on a truck . . . I’ve never done that in my life. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t like to hear someone say to me, Tell him that funny thing you said the other day . . . . Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it. I’ve expelled whatever it is I needed to exorcise, whether it’s humorous or painful. Generally, painful. Maybe the humor is to cover the pain up or maybe it’s a way to share the experience with someone.

Generally I’ve gone into analysis when my life was in turmoil. But I found after a while I was going when it wasn’t in turmoil. I was going to get a college education in human behavior. I was talking not only about myself; I was trying to understand my wife, my brother, my children, my family, anybody—including the analyst. I can’t put everything in the plays down to pure chance. I want them to reveal what makes people tick. I tend to analyze almost everything. I don’t think it started because I went through analysis. I’m just naturally that curious. The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart; I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works. Behavior is absolutely the most interesting thing I can write about. You put that behavior in conflict and you’re in business.

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 VI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

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