Laughing at misery

We have learned in our civilized society not to speak ill of the dead. It’s a tradition, scholars inform us, that we can trace back to about 300 AD when Digenese Laertius compiled the wise expressions of several philosophers of his time. In it, he quoted Chilon of Sparta as saying “Don’t badmouth a dead man,” or words to that effect. Chilon was taken seriously in his day. He was one of the Seven Sages of Greece, a title bestowed on a select group who were revered for their wisdom.

One need not be a sage to understand and avoid the discourtesy. We do tend to polish the images of recently deceased people with whom we have disagreed. Every life, every person, is worthy of our respect.

Most of us today are expressing our affection and respect for John McCain, U.S. senator, who died during this past weekend after battling brain cancer. But I write instead about the passing of Neil Simon, a writer of plays and films, who also died recently at 91 years of age.

During the 1970s, I was privileged to write for readers of The Miami Herald reviews of several plays, both professional and amateur, written by Neil Simon. I was struck by a theme one found consistently in his scripts: deriving laughter from another person’s misery. In social circles, we consider this bad manners. In the theater, we laugh at it.

In writing The Prisoner of Second Avenue, playwright Simon creates Mel Edison, a neurotic principal character who has lost his job, requiring his wife to go to work to pay the bills, which plunges him into a depression, and he suffers a nervous breakdown. Isn’t that hilarious? I didn’t think so when I reviewed it and still don’t. Others did, though, laughing at Mel’s misfortunes and paying big bucks to watch.

The Sunshine Boys centers on two retired Vaudevillians who hated each other but worked together for 47 years. Simon’s Plaza Suite is actually three separate stories, all of them focusing on anxiety and conflict. The Odd Couple is about two grown men who couldn’t be more different yet live together in a relationship filled with conflict. Even Simon’s more upbeat Barefoot in the Park nearly brings a happy young couple to divorce. Isn’t that funny? Well, no.

Simon seemed to mellow in his later years. Give him credit. In his autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs, he shows us a 15 year-old kid in 1937 Brooklyn as he learns about family, girls and the coming of war. The lad’s observations about life and the importance of family are funny and wise. It’s a relief.

Good comedy does need some tension to succeed. I get that. But Neil Simon’s propensity for cashing in on the miseries of others never made sense to me, and it certainly didn’t make me laugh. I am sorry he’s gone, but I never felt comfortable with his pattern of extracting cheap laughs from other’s misfortunes. So, with apologies to the ancient Greek sage Chilon, I suppose that means I am badmouthing a dead man.

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