Neil Simon On Playwriting XVI

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

I’d call myself a great audience. I’m appreciative of good work, no matter what its form—comedy, drama, musical. I saw Amadeus four times. A Streetcar Named Desire I could see over and over. When I’m in England I go to some of the most esoteric English plays, plays that never even come over here, and I’m just amazed at them. I’ve recently caught up with the works of Joe Orton. I love Tom Stoppard’s plays Jumpers and Travesties, and I admire the work of Peter Schaffer. If it’s good theater, yes, I’m the best audience. I’m out there screaming.

I like the fact that one can touch on subjects one wouldn’t have dealt with in years gone by. The things that Lenny Bruce got arrested for you can find on any cable station today. Television situation comedy doesn’t seem as funny to me as what Chaplin and Buster Keaton did without words. There are a few good comedians, but by and large I don’t think comedy is a lot better today.

I think to say fuck once in an entire play is much more shocking than to say it sixty times. Four of the last five plays I’ve written took place in the thirties and forties, when profanity wasn’t used on stage—or in the home. The fifth play, Rumors, is contemporary and it’s filled with profanity. But I don’t need profanity. I love language and I’d rather find more interesting ways to use it than take the easy way out.

I don’t find television comedy very funny—because it’s hardly ever about anything important. I think the weightier comedy is, the funnier it is. To me, Chaplin’s films are masterpieces. Remember him running after a truck with the red warning flag that has fallen off it?

I think Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people in the world, but when he makes a picture like Spaceballs, he’s telling us, This is foolishness. No one is in danger, so the audience knows it’s too inconsequential to laugh at. But when he does a picture like High Anxiety or Young Frankenstein there’s something at stake. He’s taken a frightening idea and twisted it, so we’re able to laugh at it.

As surely as two plus two is four, the things you write in the play must add up to some kind of logical figure. In Broadway Bound, when Stan is teaching Eugene the craft of comedy, Eugene says, “It’s just a comedy sketch. Does it have to be so logical? We’re not drawing the plans for the Suez Canal,” and Stan says, “Yes we are. It’s not funny if it’s not believable.”

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.

The final installment of this Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

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