Where do comedy writers get their ideas?
Throughout the fifties Neil Simon wrote jokes for radio and television stars. During the 1960s and 70s he conquered Broadway with plays such as The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park. His work has made millions of people laugh (making millions of dollars in the process). But how did Simon master the art of the Witty Comeback?
The origins of Neil Simon’s comic sensibilities are revealed in his semi-autobiographical trilogy:
- Brighton Beach Memoirs
- Biloxi Blues
- Broadway Bound
Also known as the “B.B.” trilogy (because of the B-words in the title, get it?) or the “Eugene Trilogy” (named after the main character), these plays are the most personal of Neil Simon’s work.
The protagonist, Eugene Jerome, serves as Simon’s alter-ego. As Eugene grows up, he develops a unique sense of humor that helps him deal with family pressures, coming-of-age-angst, and the sometimes frightening “grown up world” that follows adolescence.
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983)
Set in 1930s New York, the first play in his autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs chronicles the embarrassing misadventures of Eugene and his erratic family. Struggling with hormones and nagging parents, the young protagonist copes with his daily frustration by offering sarcastic commentary to every situation.
Although the okay is inspired by Simon’s adolescent years, it has been suggested that the playwright could have incorporated more actual events from his past, instead of fabricating the much of the storyline. According to Newsweek critic Jack Kroll, Simon’s childhood was painful and often sad: “He lived with a pillow over his head to block out the bitter fights of his parents,” and “he was abused as the only Jewish kid in school.” Brighton Beach intermingles drama with the comedy, but it never delves too deeply into the more upsetting areas of Simon’s past.
Biloxi Blues (1985)
In 1945, Neil Simon enlisted in the Army. Shortly after his enlistment, World War II ended. Although Simon would not see combat, imagine how it felt for an 18-year old to be thrown into the rigors of boot camp, all the while expecting to be shipped overseas to where “the action is.” These challenges inspired Simon to write Biloxi Blues.
The second installment of the trilogy begins with Eugene arriving at boot camp. He and the other new recruits face a frightening adversary: Srg. Toomey – the meanest, cruelest drill sergeant, second only to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
When not training, the new recruits pass the time by harassing each other. Sometimes they debate over important issues. Sometimes they exchange crude insults. Their conversations cover a wide range of topics:
- Army Life
In between their arguments, Eugene shares journal entries with the audience. He observes his fellow soldiers, and watches as others stand up for their beliefs. Biloxi Blues also explores the different duties of a writer. Should an author stay neutral and merely observe? Or should the author fight for a specific cause? The supporting character Arnold Epstein insists that Eugene, as a writer, should get involved:
EPSTEIN: You’re witness. You’re always standing around watching what’s happening. Scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.
Broadway Bound (1987)
Neil Simon began his career as a comedy writer partnered with his brother, Danny Simon.
These promising beginnings became the subject of Broadway Bound, the final installment of Simon’s trilogy. Eugene and his brother write comic skits for radio broadcasts, and most of the punch-lines are at the expense of their family members. Despite their amusing endeavors, the play is more somber in tone than Brighton Beach.
Eugene’s mother and father are on the verge of separation. Jack, Eugene’s father, is having an affair with a terminally woman. After Jack abandons his wife entirely, Eugene and his brother receive the opportunity to launch their careers. However, their jobs as comedy writers will take them away from their lonesome mother, Kate.
Contrasts to Other Simon Plays:
Aside from the autobiographical connections, Neil Simon’s trilogy differs from his earlier work in terms of plot and character development. Other plays and films such as The Odd Couple and The Goodbye Girl rely upon humorous situations that create humorous results. Characters are “forced” to co-habitat, often due to “plot convenient” circumstances.
In the “Eugene” trilogy, the characters are certainly “stuck together” (as families and/or soldiers often are), but the reasons for their close quarters are drawn directly from Neil Simon’s life experiences. The plot of these three plays is less contrived, less like a sitcom, allowing the playwright to create a wonderful blend of comical and dramatic dialogue.