Wedding Cake photo by Paul Haberstroh.
- Play title: The Odd Couple
- Author: Neil Simon
- Published: 1965
- Page count: 86
The Odd Couple is a comedy set in the New York apartment of divorcee Oscar Madison. Each week a gang of five friends join Oscar for a poker game. On one particular night, Felix Ungar is late for the game and we soon learn of his marital breakup and resulting personal crisis. The crisis which serves as the play’s opening scene prompts Oscar to invite Felix to live with him. There are three acts in all which chart the events from Felix’s initial predicament due to his marriage breakup, the subsequent move into Oscar’s apartment, and finally the move out of said apartment. The central theme is friendship and how dissimilar and uncompromising personalities will eventually clash. Neil Simon’s play is a comedic classic that inspired several movies and a TV show of the same name. Simon also wrote a new all-female version of the play in 1985.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening.
The play text is available online via the website training.calstatela.edu. However, while the play is a fun read, it is much more enjoyable as an audiobook.
Unfortunately, there is no free audiobook currently available online but please note that many audiobook websites offer a 30-day free trial, and most have the L.A. Theatre Works audiobook of The Odd Couple with actor Nathan Lane narrating the role of Oscar.
Why read/listen to The Odd Couple?
An incompatible couple.
The comedic dynamism of the play is based on the total incompatibility of Oscar and Felix. Both men are divorced/newly separated, and echoes of their previous marriage problems are exposed in their current, shared living situation. The characters are somewhat exaggerated types but retain a degree of relatability which is essential for the audience. Oscar may be described as confident, belligerent, spendthrift, expressive, and carefree, whereas Felix is very much the opposite – nervous, passive, frugal, repressed, and conscientious. The play follows the story of how these two friends embark upon what could be called a ‘marriage of convenience,’ where Oscar saves money and Felix has a place to stay. Neil Simon cleverly uses several parallel situations to emphasize the difference in the two men’s characters. For example, Oscar is late with his alimony payments and has killed his son’s goldfish but jokes that he is not going to commit suicide using the garbage disposal, yet this is precisely the kind of hysterical reaction we come to expect from newly separated Felix. After a mere three weeks of living with Felix, Oscar is on the edge of a nervous breakdown and exasperatedly says, “it’s nothing you did. It’s you!” The comedy is light and full of fantastic one-liners. Simon based this play on his own divorced brother’s experience of living with a friend.
The play explores the theme of friendship in a thorough manner. The six friends, Oscar and Felix plus the four other guys, meet up for a poker game each week. While the game is all-important, it is important only because it offers an opportunity for male bonding which includes jokes, chat, and beers. These all-male nights are an escape for the guys from the worries of life. The game is a metaphor to describe a friendship cocoon which weathers all the inevitable challenges of life, such as divorce, money problems and mid-life crises! The poker friends, Speed, Murray, Roy, and Vinnie all have distinct characters and the playwright expertly captures the teasing that happens between pals especially when they are all quite different people. While The Odd Couple is often described as intellectually undemanding entertainment, Simon does keep emphasizing the key point that friends are loyal to one another, like when Murray says of Felix, “we all know he’s impossible but he’s still our friend.” The play works because we can all relate to the dilemma of having infuriating friends who still, somehow, remain our friends. At the end of the play, the importance of the poker night is re-emphasized because it represents a friendship unit where each individual adds something special.
A gay marriage.
Neil Simon takes full advantage of stereotypes of gender and sexuality for comedic effect. While much of the play’s humour is indeed based on the differences between Oscar and Felix, it is primarily the fact that they adopt traditional marital roles which accentuates the humour. Felix notably plays the role of wife. In one sense, this tactic reveals how the play has aged yet it would be difficult to brand it as outright homophobic. What rescues the play from that accusation is the central theme of friendship which translates into tolerance of each character’s quirks including what could be classified as Felix’s femininity. Also, since Simon based the play on his brother and a friend, it is less likely that his approach to characterization was intentionally cruel or belittling. To dissect the humour of the play may strike some readers as contrary to enjoyment of the play, but Simon is not subtle in his use of stereotypes, in fact it is only the recognition of the stereotypes that secures the laugh. If one wanted to pinpoint the specific unease that helps generate the humour then it is certainly the volatile chemistry between the two main characters, and this comes about because of their new, unusual living arrangement. To fully understand how the comedy works then one needs to look at language use, role play, and popular culture references.
It is obvious that Oscar and Felix enter what may mockingly be referred to as a marital arrangement. When Oscar invites his friend to live with him, he jokingly says, “I’m proposing to you. What do you want, a ring?” This is in keeping with Oscar’s style of humour because he also refers to his poker pal Roy as “pussy cat” and “sweety.” However, Simon sets up the two central characters to fulfil perceptions of traditional gender and sexual roles in a far more elaborate manner. One initial example of masculine versus feminine characterization can be seen in the two men’s differing reactions to marital breakup. Oscar goes on a drinking binge, but Felix considers suicide, takes pills (probably vitamins) and cries in the children’s toilet. While these contrasting depictions serve comedic ends, they crucially rely on gender stereotypes. Once Felix has agreed to live with Oscar, he immediately suggests that his contribution to the household will be to “tidy up and cook.” When the two men are sharing the apartment, they inevitably re-encounter the sorts of problems that each had with their respective former wives, Frances and Blanche. Oscar the stubborn slob infuriated his wife just as Felix the fastidious drove his wife demented, and each man now strangely reflects the other man’s previous partner making it look even more like a replacement marriage. In regard to sexuality, Oscar is the traditional red-blooded male who longs for female company, but Felix ruins the single opportunity for romance by making the potential love birds (the Pigeon sisters) actually start crying by reminding them of past relationships! The marital role play is at its most comedic when Oscar arrives home late for the special dinner Felix has cooked and then the two men truly morph into husband-and-wife characterizations. When Oscar has finally reached his limit, he says, “it’s all over, Felix. The whole marriage. We’re getting an annulment!” It is not by chance that Simon’s play spawned a myriad of spin-offs and copies as there is true humour in the comedy he presents with two men living as husband and wife.
Yet, one must concede that there is a homophobic edge to the humour at times. While the playwright may not have been in any way homophobic himself, the humour of the 1960’s reflects the stigmatization of any kind of sexual difference. Additionally, the playwright constructs his jokes in ways which reveal a strong intent to get the laugh from the suggestion of something sexually taboo. For example, when Oscar asks Murray the stolid, New York policeman for money during a poker game, Oscar warns that otherwise he will tell Murray’s wife that her husband is in Central Park wearing a dress. Then there are the popular culture references which are frequent enough to draw a reader’s attention to the theme of what is correct heterosexual, manly behaviour. For example, Oscar refers to the house-proud Felix as Mary Poppins, and there are also two significant references to The Wizard of Oz. Felix is called the Tin Man when he hurts his arm showing his fragility, and in the last scene Oscar calls Felix the “Wicked Witch of the North” after Felix removes the “spell.” Apart from Oscar getting his witches mixed up which helps to confirm his heterosexuality, the multiple references suggest that Felix may be a ‘friend of Dorothy’ which was post WWII slang for homosexual male. Also, there is a reference to Felix getting “tea and sympathy” from the Pigeon sisters which may be a coded reference to the play and subsequent movie both entitled, Tea and Sympathy, from the 1950’s. This play and movie dealt with the theme of homosexuality and involved an older woman putting an effeminate young man on the right path, so to speak. Oscar makes all the dubious references about Felix thus situating his pal as the butt of all the jokes. Felix is clearly heterosexual but the characterization of him as an effeminate fusspot creates enough ambiguity to allow Simon to use the situation for laughs.
There is escalating friction between Oscar and Felix as they try to live together. The two men have fallen into a marriage situation that turns out to be equally humorous and fractious. The core message is that obstinate characters will indeed come to blows unless someone compromises. However, when viewed from the outside by their friends like Murray, these men have “got the life” and can “go to the Playboy Club to hunt bunnies” if they want. The boring reality of their life together is quite different and is most certainly Playboy bunny free. Simon slowly builds up to one particular scene where the relationship between the two men has become abnormal, at least in Oscar’s view. The situation has evolved to the point where Felix constantly talks at (not with) Oscar, fulfilling the traditional role of nagging wife, but Oscar admits that “what’s worrying me is that I’m beginning to listen.” It is interesting that at this precise point Oscar decides they really need female company because as he says, “unless I get to touch something soft … I’m in big trouble.” Any reader who protests that this is an over-reading of the homosexual angle need only observe what Oscar’s breaking point is in the play – namely when Felix tells him, “I’m going to walk around your bedroom.” The argument that leads up to this moment has been about rent and Felix’s rights, and it seems that the mock-housewife is now about to enter the bedroom too. In this light, Simon has simply constructed a play about heterosexual men’s fears of homosexuality. This is obviously a reductive interpretation of such a funny play, but when one dissects the humour and tension, a considerable amount of it is based on a less masculine man being made fun of while his friend, Oscar, desperately needs female company because things have gotten too weird for him.
If Neil Simon is indeed depicting an early form of gay marriage in a politically incorrect manner, then it is nonetheless very witty and amusing. Oscar and Felix remain friends at the end and even jokingly refer to each other by the respective names of their ex-wives. One argument in defense of Simon’s portrayal is that any two people who live together, whether romantically or platonically, will end up adopting specific roles which will undoubtedly reflect traditional marriage roles. At no point does the reader ever believe that there is anything but plain friendship between the two men, but this consequently forces one to analyze what makes, for example, the image of Felix in a kitchen apron so funny as he chastises Oscar for not knowing the difference between a ladle and a spoon. Simon crafted his characters and their situation in order to amuse an audience and the situation of two divorced/separated men living together was still a little odd in the 1960’s, and odd enough to make us laugh even now.
Simon, Neil. The Odd Couple. Random House, 1966.
Tea and Sympathy. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956.
The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.
Travers, P. L. Mary Poppins. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.