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My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

May 8, 2024: Beach Blogging: Brighton Beach Memoirs

[Released on May 11, 1964, “I Get Around” would go on to become the first #1 hit for The Beach Boys. To celebrate that sunny anniversary, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of beachtastic texts, leading up to a repeat Guest Post from one of our up-and-coming BeachStudiers!]

On three cultural genres and media on which Neil Simon left a lasting imprint [yes, I know the post is officially about his semi-autobiographical 1982 play Brighton Beach Memoirs, but I’m taking the blogger’s privilege and using the occasion as a jumping-off point for Simon’s impressive career overall]:

1)      TV comedy: When Simon was just in his early 20s, he quit an entry-level job at Warner Brothers to write comedy scripts with his brother Danny. The bold move paid off, as the pair were hired by influential producer Max Liebman to write for the popular sketch and variety show Your Show of Shows. Simon would later describe just how loaded that writers’ room was: “There were about seven writers, plus Sid [Caesar], Carl Reiner, and Howie Morris. Mel Brooks and maybe Woody Allen would write one of the other sketches.” Yet even among that powerhouse crowd, Simon stood out enough to be hired as well to write for a popular late 1950s sitcom, The Phil Silvers Show. TV was in many ways the center of the comedy world in that era, and Neil Simon became central to that community at a very young age.

2)      Broadway shows: While he was working on those TV shows, Simon was honing his first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn. The honing paid off, as after the show opened in February 1961 it ran for 678 performances at New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre (now renamed for the legendary Lena Horne). Over the rest of the decade Simon would pen countless Broadway smashes, including Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), Sweet Charity (1966), and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969). Those and many other simultaneously running shows throughout the 1960s and 70s (with many continuing into the 80s and 90s as he continued to produce new work like Brighton Beach Memoirs and the Pulitzer-winning Lost in Yonkers [1991]) made Simon the highest-paid Broadway writer in history, and as influential on the American stage as any single voice has ever been.

3)      Film screenplays: Simon adapted many of his plays into screenplays for the film versions, with The Odd Couple (1968) being the most famous. But he also wrote original screenplays for some of the smartest and funniest film comedies of all time, including The Out-of-Towners (1970) and two of my favorites, the mystery parodies Murder By Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978; Peter Falk has never been better, and I say that as a die-hard Columbo fan). Given the understandable ways in which Simon’s contemporary and Your Show of Shows colleague Woody Allen has lost much of his luster in recent years, I’d say that Simon’s film career is due for a reexamination—he was always a playwright first and foremost, but nobody wrote film comedy better than his multi-talented American icon.

Next Beach text tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other beachtastic texts you’d highlight?

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