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The ‘Odd' Genius of Neil Simon

The "Odd Couple" playwright, who died Sunday at age 91, earned millions of laughs by mining despair and the absurd

Near the end of "The Odd Couple," inveterate slob Oscar Madison rages about a note left on his pillow by his neat-and-control-freak roommate: "We are all out of cornflakes – F.U."

"It took me three hours to figure out that 'F.U.' was 'Felix Ungar,'" an exasperated Oscar moans.

That marked perhaps the funniest line ever penned by Simon, the American bard of comedy, whose laughter-filled run ended Sunday with his death at age 91.

But like the best of the playwright's work, the scene delivered far more than a classic punch line: The sequence summed up the futility, frustration and underlying sadness of two divorced men unable to get along with their wives, and ultimately with one another.

Simon fired off countless great one-liners that drew smiles, chuckles and hysterical laughter in theaters, movie houses and living rooms over more than 60 years. But in his strongest work, his humor nearly as often hit the emotional bulls-eye.

Take "Barefoot in the Park," where a young, recently married odd couple's growing pains unfold through deceivingly light rom-com dialogue.

"You're almost nearly perfect," free-spirited Corie Bratter tells her uptight husband, Paul.

"That's a rotten thing to say!" he replies.

In "The Sunshine Boy," a reunion between two bickering old Vaudevillians plays out like an old stage routine. 

"We did comedy on the stage for 43 years," Al Lewis tells grumpier old man Willy Clark. "I don't think you enjoyed it once." 

"If I was there to enjoy it, I would buy a ticket," Willy retorts.

In "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," middle-aged Mel Edison, out of work and beaten down by a sweltering, declining New York, regularly curses the city from his terrace.

"I don't know either where I am or who I am," he confides to his wife. "I'm disappearing, Edna. I don't need an analyst – I need lost and found."

Those plays, like "The Odd Couple," became successful films, buoyed by performances from the likes of George Burns, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Anne Bancroft, and the two greatest avatars of Simon's comic angst, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. (Honorable mention honors go to TV "Odd Couple" Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.)

Simon could weave comic gold out of despair and absurdity. But unlike his peers Mel Brooks and Woody Allen (all three New Yorkers got starts writing for TV comedy great Sid Caesar), Simon largely kept his humor rooted in the ordinary.

In his later years, Simon dug deeper, telling more heartfelt, humor-tinged stories inspired by his youth, from 1983's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" through "Lost in Yonkers," which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize.

He proved most adept depicting fraught, intense relationships – whether familial, romantic or platonic.

Only Neil Simon could pen a break-up scene designed to break up the audience. His greatest case-in-point: "The Odd Couple," when Felix finally comprehends that he's being evicted.

"In other words, you're throwing me out," he says.

"Not in other words – those are the perfect ones!" Oscar declares.

Simon found the perfect words, time and again, as he wrung laughter out of the odd and bittersweet like no other writer.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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