Happy Roommate Day

Seems like every single day on the calendar can be celebrated through some food, relative or historical reference.  Take today, for example.  Do a quick Google search and you’ll learn of at least five:

Nothing against reminding people to be kind, and since today is a wash day for me, the chances of me honoring odd socks day is enhanced–inevitably, the machine in my building seems to devour at least one half of at least one pair every time I have a large load.

But if you’re of a certain vintage and background, specifically someone who grew up in New York in the 70s, you can’t help but identify today with the following spiel:

On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence.” (Unger’s unseen wife slams door, only to reopen it and hand Felix his pan.) “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?”

That prologue opened the majority of the 114 episodes of the original TV version of THE ODD COUPLE, which, to me, will forever define the experience of having a roommate.  Some roommate situations are created by desire; many people are fortunate enough to have a friend they simply don’t want to be apart from.  In these times, many are created by economic necessity; in a major city, a lot of us simply can’t afford to live on our own.   That seems to be especially true when you’re in the midst of divorce.  And in New York City, those needs and anxieties are amplified, then and now.

THE ODD COUPLE began as a well-received Broadway play, one of the first major hits of the prolific Neil Simon, who essentially defined sardonic comedy in the 60s and 70s.  Simon was inspired by the relationship between his brother Danny, a fellow comedy writer who, like Simon, cut his teeth on the classic live variety series YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, and his roommate, Roy Gerber.  Danny originally tried to turn his experience into a play at Neil’s urging, but eventually, as Ed Gross of THE CLOSER.COM told the story, Danny let Neil have at it:

Danny tried, but ultimately gave up on it after about 10 or 15 pages. Neil asked him for permission to take a crack at it and was given Danny’s blessing (though Neil insisted on making a financial arrangement with him should something happen with it). In a PBS salute to Neil, Danny was interviewed and he explained, “I thought there was an idea for a play about a divorced man from the time he breaks up with his wife until he finds his life again, but I couldn’t think of a good conflict. Then it struck me like lightning: the same problems that two divorced roommates had with their wives, they would have with each other.”

The incomparable Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau portrayed Felix and Oscar in the successful 1968 movie that eminated from the play.  Paramount knew there was a television series idea, and had the rights to do it from an overall deal they had done with Simon.  Getting it to air wasn’t easy; there were numerous conflicts about who would attempt this both in front of and behind the camera.   Garry Marshall’s legacy is arguably as strong as is Simon’s, given his prolific resume not only  in the creation of just about every hit ABC comedy of the decade but his subsequene theatrical successes.  But at the time THE ODD COUPLE was being turned into a series, he was still an emerging writer and producer.  When it came down to who would play the lead roles, Marshall fought numerous network and studio executives.  Gross let Marshall tell the story himself:

Originally, the producing duo wanted Art Carney as Felix and Martin Balsam as Oscar. “Luckily for us,” said Garry, “we couldn’t get them. Then Tony Randall and Jack Klugman occurred to us, and we knew it would be magic. Then ABC wanted Tony Randall and Mickey Rooney, which we thought was a little far-fetched for what we needed. I wanted Jack Klugman and the network didn’t really know who he was. I had seen Jack in Gypsy, and I figured if he could stand there with Ethel Merman, he could be with anybody. It surprised me that by the end of the play I really liked him. He did one hell of a job, and this was an actor who had no part to play, but he was great. I like a man who stands there and doesn’t carry on, which he was so wonderful at on The Odd Couple.”

THE ODD COUPLE was never a true hit,  rarely rating in the Top 30 despite being part of what was arguably one of the best lineups of TV in the history of television.  THE BRADY BUNCH and THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY led off Friday nights, followed by the acclaimed comedy-drama ROOM 222 and then, THE ODD COUPLE, with the night capped off by the titillating sketch comedy series LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE.  On many levels other than ratings, and certainly in the minds of baby boomers who grew up with them, that lineup was as close to bingable and walled-garden worthy as the vaunted CBS Saturday night lineup.  The TV series struggled to carve out an identity producers felt was necessary to sustain it as a show neeeding 25 plot points a year and characters with more elasticity than those which were featured in the one-off concepts of the stage play and movie.

And yes, research played a role in making November 13th identifed with the series.  Early episodes did not feature this classic prologue that effectively frames the series concept for the generations that have embraced it since its initial airing.  Gross allows Marshall to provide the explanation again:

The reason it was there, is that the network thought these two middle-aged men living together would be perceived by the audience as being gay (at a time when television didn’t have regular gay characters). Sighs Garry Marshall, “They were always sending memos like that. We kept sending them special shots from the set of Tony and Jack hugging, just to make them crazy. It was based on some research they did in some little town in Michigan.”

Well, once the show was sold into syndication and became a staple of late night lineups around the country, towns like those in Michigan and, of course, in New York fell in love with the Klugman/Randall team.  In my college town we had the luxury of back-to-back episodes in the 11 PM hour, one coming from WPIX New York, where the show reigned in the ratings even decades later, and one from the ABC affiliate in Syracuse that followed its late news.  Even when NIGHTLINE was created in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis Ted Koppel was initially delayed a half-hour.  And with MY roommates, who were equally Felix and Oscar in their own rights, those nightly episodes were among the few things that bonded us, and kept us from being at each other’s throats.

These days, I have a roommate once again, and I’m clearly Oscar.  A Mets fan, a tendency to be sloppy, often emotional and inconsiderate, and childless.  My roommate is in many ways Felix-like: a fan of opera and the arts, refined, a fantastic father.  We’re not quite an inseparable as were Felix and Oscar.  For the most part, we lead separate lives.  But more than ever, I can appreciate the premise and the enduring appeal of the concept of THE ODD COUPLE.  And it’s likely why even as many of Simon’s other works fade into the obscurity of history that only certain generations can appreciate–you arguably need to be more Jewish, neurotic and sardonic to appreciate works like THE GOODBYE GIRL and THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, and I’m just not sure those translate to Tik Tok addicts–THE ODD COUPLE is still relatable, and, to me at least, funny as hell.

Besides, any show that contributed two of the Top 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time per TV GUIDE, especially the one that ranked #5 that paired Felix and Oscar on the game show Password that both played fabulously in real life (Randall, in particular, was a favorite of other celebrity game shows of the era, equally adept at THE $20,000 PYRAMID and WHAT’S MY LINE), stands out in my personal pantheon.  I will forever respond to the prompt of the word “RIDICULOUS” with “ARISTOPHENES”.

So no, I’m not going to have Indian pudding today.  I’m too far away to hug any musician.  But I know I’m still breathing because of roommates.  And anything that salutes the concept of having one as comedically poignant and as enduringly as THE ODD COUPLE deserves its own day.

Thanks to my roommates, now and then.  And thanks to those Michigan research respondents for making November 13th a date I look forward to.

Until next time…

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