On “The Odd Couple” (For Odd Couple Day)

At some point in recent years November 13 became “Odd Couple Day”, due to the voiceover narration at the top of every show during the ABC situation comedy’s first season:

“On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence.  That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that someday, he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison’s wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

November 13 was also the birthday of The Odd Couple’s co-creator and executive producer Garry Marshall, who passed away a year ago. He gets his own post today, too.

As a teenager in high school, I lived for tv sit-coms. The Odd Couple (along with the first 5 seasons of M*A*S*H) was far and away my favorite. Though I was very much alive during the show’s original prime time run (1970-1975) and knew of its existence, I hadn’t watched it then. I was a kid, and our family tended toward variety shows, news programs, and police and detective dramas when we watched tv together, as people used to do in those days. In fact, it is quite possible that before I ever engaged with The Odd Couple, my true introductory encounter was with the 1975 animated cartoon take on it, The Oddball Couple, which I blogged about here. 

But shortly after its cancellation, The Odd Couple went into syndication and the re-runs were broadcast on one of my local tv stations daily. This was a wonderful thing. It was the closest we could get to binge-watching in those days and it was almost as good. You could get really immersed in something you liked, and I really liked The Odd Couple, and so did my friends. We watched every episode many times, and memorized the dialogue and the line readings and recited them and re-enacted it. It was like a master class in comedy — I still think of it that way; my appreciation for the show is undiminished. I blasted through the boxed set a couple of years ago with great nostalgia and enthusiasm. And the show’s loving depiction of New York (warts and all) is without a doubt one of the factors that stoked my imagination and inspired me to move here.

Both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman influenced me enormously. Interestingly (and not surprisingly) their approaches to acting are as different as their screen characters’ personalities. Randall was an opera-trained Okahoman, known mostly known for being third-billed in light comedies in the 1950s. He was all about form; he clearly worked out the funniest way to do or say something in advance. Klugman, on the other hand, was a Jewish method actor from Philly, best known for heavy dramas like Twelve Angry Men and anthology tv series like The Twlight Zone. His whole thing was “Truth”. To see any of his work before or after The Odd Couple, you could be forgiven for asking “Jack Klugman can be funny?” But he was enormously funny, especially when his character was upset or angry.

There was an instructive brilliance to the layout on the television version of The Odd Couple. In the original 1968 film version of Neil Simon’s stage play, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are indeed extremely funny as Oscar and Felix, but they are more three-dimensional, more nuanced in conception, both as written and as performed. I like this approach too. In fact, when I first discovered the movie after having lived with the series a few years, I was briefly partial to the film’s more naturalistic approach. It seems funny to call any Neil Simon script naturalistic, but there you have it. TV sit-coms (especially back then, when they only contained 22 minutes of material, allowing for commercials) are straight up jolts of entertainment, like shots of espresso. The older I get, the more astounded I am at how brief, economical and “sketchy” these shows are. A whole bunch is accomplished with the simplest of strokes. And to make this possible, the characters are distilled to their purest, most cartoonish essences. They are brought more in line with, oh, Amos and Andy, or Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, or Lucy and Ricky. They become more like a vaudeville comedy team. The ritual of expected behavior becomes important. If Felix Unger was fussy in the original, he is FUSSIER in this. If Oscar Madison was messy in the original, now he is MESSIER.

Interestingly, it took them a little while to work this out. The first season was shot on the same set as the movie, used a one-camera shooting technique, and was in general more “real”. The 60s had been dominated by one camera sit coms with laugh tracks. But in a burst of inspiration, for the second season the producers rejiggered the show entirely.

In early 1971 All in the Family debuted, which reintroduced the concept of three camera shooting before a live studio audience, as in the earliest days of tv. It became like theatre: real audiences laughing at real funny lines and behavior. This methodology was appropriated for The Odd Couple straightaway. The strategy called for a radical simplification of the set into something much more stagey. One of the inspired results of this is that we associate each of the men with a place on the set: Felix is dictator of the kitchen; Oscar’s bedroom is just as epic and comically forbidding in its own way.

The chemistry of Klugman and Randall was so palpable, and they liked each other so much, that they never let go, appearing together as their characters (or as themselves) in tv commercials, and live productions of the plays, and in a 1993 reunion movie. You can’t buy chemistry like that. And so many attempts have been made to recreate it, all of them terrible. There was the all-black New Odd Couple (1982-1983) with Demond Wilson and Ron Glass, both well-loved sit-com stars being asked to do an impossible job. In 1985, there was an all female Broadway version with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno, which was widely panned. And I honestly have no idea why the Matthew Perry-Thomas Lennon reboot exists, other than vanity. The times when I have been most tempted to say, “Ah! They remind me of The Odd Couple!” have been when the creators didn’t try to shoehorn the thing into The Odd Couple. Some great examples are Marshall’s own Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983); Perfect Strangers (1986-1993), which was co-created by veterans of Mork and Mindy and other Marshall shows; and the Sam-and-Diane relationship on Cheers (1981-1993).

I got to meet Tony Randall once in a work situation. It’s one of the great regrets of my life that I didn’t tell him how much his work meant to me. But it wasn’t opportune; he was a busy man, he was sick (he died just a few weeks afterward) and my job was to greet him and escort him from Point A to Point B. Still…I got to shake Tony Randall’s hand. Which is more appropriate: to not have washed my hand for a week out of veneration, or to have washed it immediately with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer out of tribute?

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3 comments

  1. Randall and Klugman also starred in a sad revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at Randall’s National Actors Theatre. Klugman’s voice was gone and Randall was, ironically, a most un-Jewish Al Lewis in a play which celebrates (I won’t say “borrows”) the Yiddish inflections of Smith and Dale in their famous Dr. Kronkeit sketch

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