Saturday, December 29, 2007

54. The Odd Couple

"On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. (Unger's unseen wife slams door. She reopens it and angrily hands Felix his saucepan) 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?"

There are a lot of ways to set the scene of a sitcom; but for my money there has never been a better way of doing so than this. Never heard of “The Odd Couple”? Just tune in to the opening credits and you’ll know everything that you need to know about the premise of the show.

The scenario isn’t overly original, there have always been odd couples from Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton to Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell but Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) set the new gold standard. You know the story: Unger was the anal retentive neat freak photographer while Madison was the compulsive slob sports writer. From the above the surface neat vs. messy dynamic to the undercurrent of words vs. pictures, Madison and Unger were as different as can be.

Yet they survived with each other for five solid seasons.

And that’s what the mid to late 60s were all about; surviving with someone that you have nothing in common with for the better good. I know that before the television show there was the play and the movie, but for a generation the television version of the “Odd Couple” is the only version that resonates. And like a number of other shows aired during that time, the comedy was garnered from surviving with someone that was foisted on to you by uncontrollable circumstances.

In that way, the “Odd Couple” is a lot like two other shows I’ve discussed (“The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island”). Look at early episodes of the Bradys, those kids hated each other and weren’t happy with their parents for sticking them with another three siblings. And with Gilligan, the original idea behind the show was to put –isms aside in order to thrive. The Howells were clearly classists, but they needed working schlubs like the Skipper and Gilligan to survive. The professor obviously had no use for idiots, yet he need Mary Ann and Ginger in order to eat.

This type of programming was radical for the time. The Bradys and Gilligan were obviously geared for kids, but “The Odd Couple” was aimed at adults. Shows like these were the bridge from family-friendly entertainment like “The Patty Duke Show”, “Gidget” and the like to the Norman Lear “serious” comedies that preceded it. “All in the Family”, “The Jeffersons”, etc. were great programs and probably would’ve been hits, but without shows like “The Odd Couple” it would’ve taken much longer.

For one reason, it showed the viewing audience that it’s ok to tackle something like divorce and that the results of divorce don’t mean that the person has to walking around with a scarlet D on their chest. If Americans can handle that, then an episode about a menopausal Jean Stapleton is only a hop, skip and jump away.

The great thing about “The Odd Couple” wasn’t that the show wasn’t really heavy; in fact I don’t recall a serious episode. Divorce was a bit more serious subject a generation and a half ago (sure the Brady boys’ mother died, but what the heck ever happened to Carol’s husband .. see a fate worse than death itself), but TOC was a light hearted look at it. The show proved that it actually could be sort of fun, as long as Felix Unger wasn’t your roommate. Their relationship, which bore the comedy crux of the show, was more mother-son than friend-friend. And while that was funny, Oscar telling Felix off was the best part. Because although you love mom, when you’re 14 who doesn’t want to tell her to leave you alone?

And make no mistake about it, Oscar was the consummate 14-year-old; he’d have his buddies over for poker every week, he played the horses, he threw crap all over the floor. Felix always cleaned up after him and he did it in the most obnoxious way possible: by lecturing him and making faces. It was great.

With two different actors, the characters of Felix and Oscar could either be completely obnoxious, flat or worse of all—forced. Klugman and Randall (especially Randall) were able to bring some sort of humanity to their archtypes. I know that this is probably heresy to say this about two characters written by Neil Simon (and to be fair, he wrote one play—there was more than over 100 episodes), but one guy was a slob and the other was a neatnik. That’s it. “Your motivation in this scene Jack, is that you don’t like to pick things up and when Tony tells you to, you get mad.”

With anyone else, this show could’ve turned into “Shasta McNasty” after three episodes. Both Klugman and Randall brought something else to the table, which is probably why this show is an all-time classic. If either was off, it wouldn’t matter how good the other was. Playing a walking cliché is tough, but these two brought their A games every single week. If you met or had to live with either one in real life you’d want to kill them, but each week you tuned in to see what they were up to.

The one thing that rang a bit untrue was the opening credits, specifically the end where Oscar and Felix are in Central Park and are dancing around a May Pole with a bunch of little kids. Huh? I don’t get this. Maybe Felix would do this; he had a little girl and maybe she wanted her daddy to dance around a pole with her friends. But Oscar? Mr. Big Time Sports Writer? That was a little weird. Whatever, every show needs an unsolved mystery, even if it’s a little one.

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