Master of Revels
Neil Simon’s comic empire.
by John Lahr May 3, 2010
“The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart,” Simon said. “I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works.” Photograph by Irving Penn.
At the end of the 1984 play “Biloxi Blues,” Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical account of his induction into both the Army and adulthood, the wide-eyed nineteen-year-old hero, Eugene, is handed a book as a farewell gift by his first love, Daisy. “It’s blank pages,” she tells him. “For your memoirs.” The playwright, as it turned out, needed more than one book. At present count, Simon, who is eighty-two, has written two volumes of memoirs, thirty plays, more than twenty screenplays, and five musicals, one of the most successful of which—“Promises, Promises” (1968), with music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David—is now in revival (at the Broadway).
Although Simon had spent more than a decade in television, pioneering, among other things, the genre of situation comedy—Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “The Phil Silvers Show” were two of his assignments—it took him no fewer than twenty drafts to get his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” Broadway-ready, in 1961. “There were very few blind alleys I missed,” he told Playboy in 1979. But he found his theatrical voice soon enough—an audience member actually died laughing on opening night—and since 1970 almost no day has gone by without a professional production of a Neil Simon comedy playing somewhere in the country. Even in the current economy, demand for his plays hasn’t dipped. Last year alone, more than twelve hundred amateur licenses and a hundred and fifty-three professional licenses were granted.
There have been comic playwrights who were more daring (George Kelly), more witty (S. N. Behrman), more rebarbative (S. J. Perelman), and more up-to-the-minute (George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), but no playwright in Broadway’s long and raucous history has so dominated the boulevard as the softly astringent Simon. For almost half a century, his comedies have offered light at the end of whatever dark tunnel America has found itself in. “I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world,” he told The Paris Review, in 1992. “I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars.” Simon’s characters may attack one another, but he has no interest in smacking down their beliefs. He does not think against society; he thinks with it, observing and recording the sorrows and deliriums of the middle class, like a sort of swami of tsuris. For him and for his avid audience, his plays work as a kind of non-friction. Humor is not a weapon but a wink: a recognition from the stage, according to Simon, of “how absurdly we all live our lives.” In “Broadway Bound” (1986), an account of how Simon and his older brother, Danny, got their start as a comedy-writing team, in the late forties, the boys’ Trotskyite grandfather spouts the left-wing critique that has often been levelled at Simon’s comedies. The routines, the old man says of his show-biz progeny’s début, on a radio variety show, “have nothing to say.” “They’re looking for laughs, not an uprising,” one of the brothers replies.
Nobody has ever gone broke selling escape to the American public. “Funny is money,” one of the jokemeisters observes in Simon’s 1993 play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” His spruce entertainments have racked up sensational numbers on Broadway: “Barefoot in the Park” (1963) ran for 1,530 performances; “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1982) for 1,299; “Plaza Suite” (1968) for 1,097; and “The Odd Couple” (1965) for 966. And the list of fine actors for whom Simon’s plays have been both a platform and a paycheck is very long indeed: included are Walter Matthau, Joel Grey, Jason Alexander, Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson, George Burns, Robert Sean Leonard, Elizabeth Ashley, Art Carney, Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane. Since “Plaza Suite” premièred, Simon has been the sole or main investor in almost all his plays. From 1968 to 1982, he was the owner of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where many of his hits débuted. “It was like a negotiation in a mirror—you were talking to yourself,” Emanuel Azenberg, Simon’s long-time friend and frequent producer, said of mounting his plays. In the sixties, at the height of his success, with four plays running on Broadway, Simon was earning about sixty thousand dollars a week. Throw in the royalties from touring productions, foreign productions, and movie deals, and his takings were easily double that. (In an average year, not counting Broadway, Simon’s plays still gross about seven million dollars in the United States; his foreign box-office is ten million.) When Simon went Off-Broadway for the first time, in 1995, with “London Suite,” the Broadway stagehands’ union picketed him for endangering their income.
Just about the only thing that Simon’s playwriting hasn’t earned him in America is the honorific of “artist.” “I didn’t write Art,” Simon noted in his 1996 memoir “Rewrites.” Comedy is often relegated to the kids’ table of American theatre, and critics have rarely given Simon his creative due. In this regard, he is one in a long list of comic maestros of the mainstream, including Georges Feydeau and Noël Coward, whose artistry could be distinguished from their popularity only with the passage of time. “He doesn’t have his credentials,” Mel Brooks once quipped. “And he will not be allowed into Serious Land.”
Simon has always felt that every play he writes is a drama with “comic moments.” He doesn’t write jokes or particularly like telling them. (On occasion, however, he doesn’t mind borrowing them. “My wife’s a woman”—a joke in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”—can also be found in works by Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton.) His laughs are character laughs: they emerge from the distilled reality of personality. “The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart,” he told The Paris Review. “I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works.” Simon said that when he started writing he was warned by people like Lillian Hellman not to mix comedy with drama. “But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play?” he said. The characters in his works face challenges worthy of any tragedy: Evy Meara (“The Gingerbread Lady”) struggles with alcoholism; Willie Clark (“The Sunshine Boys”) with desolation and revenge; Felix Ungar (“The Odd Couple”) with loneliness; Mel Edison (“The Prisoner of Second Avenue”) with disillusion and unfulfillment. “I find that what is most poignant is often most funny,” Simon said. When he was writing his masterpiece “The Odd Couple”—which was turned into a movie and a TV series that ran from 1970 to 1975—Simon thought it was “a grim, dark play about two lonely men” that “would probably be the end of my career.”
Simon’s comedy lies as much in structure as in dialogue. His setups have what Mike Nichols, who has won four Tony Awards for directing Simon’s comedies, calls “recognizability”: hilarity is teased out of the ordinary. Simon often notices audiences sighing in recognition at certain lines in his plays. “You’d hear an ‘aah’ from the audience, a sound of ‘My God, that’s me,’ ” he told me. “ ‘That’s me, that’s you, that’s Uncle Joe, that’s Pop.’ ” In “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971), for instance, the dyspeptic Mel Edison, demented by the pressures of city living, flops down on a sofa stacked with pillows. “You can’t even sit in here,” he bellows at his wife, pulling a puffy pillow out from behind him and throwing it on the floor. “Why do you keep these ugly little pillows on here? You spend eight hundred dollars for chairs and then you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back.” “There is no joke there,” Simon said. “Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me: saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. . . . It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.”
Simon’s characters don’t analyze themselves; their psychology is evident in their behavior, and the audience gets the pleasure of connecting the dots. In “The Odd Couple,” Felix, devastated by the news that his wife, Frances, is done with their marriage, is talked out of committing suicide by his poker-playing friend Oscar, with whom he decides to move in. “Oscar! I’m going to be all right! It’s going to take me a couple of days, but I’m going to be all right,” Felix says. “Good!” Oscar says. “Well, good night, Felix.” “Good night, Frances,” Felix says, as the curtain falls on Act I. The precision of Simon’s characterizations invites laughter. “When people care, even the slightest joke will get a big laugh, for they’ll be so caught up in what’s going on,” he told Playboy. “If they don’t care and are not caught up, you need blockbusters every two minutes and even that won’t fulfill an audience.” In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” for instance, the teen-age narrator, Eugene, is forbidden to eat cookies by his put-upon mother, Kate. He bounds past her on his way out of the kitchen. “Good night,” he says. Without turning around, Kate says, “Put the cookie on the table.” There is no joke on the page; on the stage, it’s a huge laugh. “I asked him, ‘Did you know that was funny when you wrote it?’ ” Azenberg said. “He said, ‘Yes—it’s an organic moment.’ ”
The notion that comic drama is created by the friction between opposites is Simon’s greatest theatrical legacy. “Dilemma is the key word,” he has said of writing character-driven comedy. “It is always a dilemma, not a situation.” In Simon’s comic calculus, the greater the pressure of the dilemma the more outrageous the behavior. “By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written,” Simon said in The Paris Review. “All you have to do is put the words down. . . . One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict.” When Simon finds himself at a narrative impasse, he goes back to a play’s opening scenes, where he has mapped out his landscape of opposites. “The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes,” he said. “The answers always lie there.” In his weaker work, this trope can seem glib and schematic. In “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” (1969), for instance, the repressed, married restaurateur, Barney Cashman, full of Weltschmerz and lust, contends in vain with three potential hookups at his trysting pad, his mother’s apartment. Cashman’s dilemma never changes; only the eccentricities of the women do. His itch to get laid fights a series of losing battles against clear-eyed rapacity, ditzy psychopathy, and corrosive depression, allowing Simon easy laughs at the expense of his cartoon Lothario. One woman speaks of physical cravings that need immediate satisfaction. “You mean like after an hour of handball, a cold Pepsi,” Cashman says.
In the best plays, however, Simon’s schema enables him to dole out the contradiction of personality in small hints, keeping the conflicts surprising until they attain a critical mass. At that point, toward the end of the evening, a character will often explode in a comic summation of events, a sort of aria that Simon calls his “fingerprint.” “The character has reached the point where he can’t contain himself anymore, and everything comes spurting out . . . a cascade of irritations,” Simon said. “Just mentioning one of them wouldn’t be funny, but to mention all the irritations wraps up a man’s life in one paragraph.” In “Plaza Suite,” Roy, the father of a bride who locks herself in a hotel bathroom and refuses to come out for her wedding, finally erupts at his wife:
Do you know what I’m going to do now? Do you have any idea? I’m going to wash my hands of the entire Eisler-Hubley wedding. You can take all the Eislers and all the hors d’oeuvres and go to Central Park and have an eight thousand dollar picnic. . . . I’m going down to the Oak Room with my broken arm, with my drenched rented ripped suit—and I’m gonna get blind! . . . I don’t mean drunk, I mean totally blind . . . because I don’t want to see you or your crazy daughter again, if I live to be a thousand.
In “The Odd Couple,” Oscar is a carefree, sloppy, fun-loving, louche spendthrift; Felix is a nervous, fastidious, compulsive, bourgeois penny-pincher. Once Felix takes up residence in Oscar’s West Side pigsty and starts trying to transform it into House Beautiful, their differences quickly lead to a war, which is summed up in Act III:
OSCAR: I’ll tell you exactly what it is. It’s the cooking, cleaning and crying. It’s the talking in your sleep, it’s the moose calls that open your ears at two o’clock in the morning. I can’t take it anymore, Felix. I’m crackin’ up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you a hundred times, I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. “We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.” It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar. It’s not your fault, Felix. It’s a rotten combination.
FELIX: I get the picture.
OSCAR: That’s just the frame. The picture I haven’t even painted yet.
Simon struggled with this rant, especially the note about Corn Flakes. “I said to myself, ‘How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar,’ ” Simon recalled. “So I signed it ‘Mr. Ungar.’ Then I tried ‘Felix Ungar.’ Then I tried ‘F.U.’ and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room.”
“The Odd Couple” is a classic of American comedy. Two other Simon works—“The Sunshine Boys” (1972) and the underrated “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”—match its exquisite precision and, it seems to me, share the same pantheon: “The Sunshine Boys,” which pays homage to vaudeville comedians, and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which gives us a fictionalized look at the talented zanies who worked on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the early fifties: Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and Mike Stewart. (It was “like a cocktail party without cocktails,” Simon said.) In these inspired and brilliantly structured comedies, the inciting incidents are strong, the characterization is meticulous, even uncanny, and the aggression is allowed to let rip. The hostile outrageousness of all three plays lifts them beyond the geniality and the safety of Simon’s other work, calling out of him a different kind of license, something deeper, darker, and more thrilling. They chronicle the fierce heart, not the winded one.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is one of the rare Simon plays in which politics encroaches on the comedy. Into the happy melee of the writing room Simon introduces the unhappy facts of the day, and shows how the anarchic enterprise of the writers deflects them. “How do you feel about McCarthy, Max?” Val, one of the writers, asks the star of the show. Max turns and smashes his fist through a wall. “There! That’s how I feel,” he says. When Val asks him if he can get his hand back out of the hole, Max shouts, “LEAVE IT THERE!! Get a knife. Cut it off. Send it in a box to that no good bastard. Let him know what I think of him.”
In “The Sunshine Boys,” the pigheaded and ancient Willie Clark is persuaded to reunite for a TV special with his former vaudeville partner, Al Lewis, who put him out of business by retiring eleven years earlier. Of Simon’s many running gags, the argument between these two bickering old-timers over whether to say “enter” or “come in” as they perform a doctor sketch from their act is Simon’s best, acquiring metaphoric weight right up to the end of the play. “ ‘Come in’ I’ll stay. ‘Enter,’ I go,” Al tells Willie, ready to walk out of the seedy hotel room where they meet to rehearse at the end of Act I:
AL: Don’t fool around with me. I got enough pains in my neck. Are you going to say “Come in”?
WILLIE: Ask me “Knock, knock, knock”!
AL: I know you, you bastard!
WILLIE: ASK ME “KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK”!
AL: KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK!
WILLIE: (Grinding it in) EN-TERRR!
AL: BEDBUG! CRAZY BEDBUG!
(He starts to run out)
WILLIE: (Big smile) ENNN-TERRRRR!
(The curtain starts down)
AL: (Heading for the door) LUNATIC BASTARD!
The battle continues even as they run through their routine in front of the TV cameras. Apoplectic in the midst of the argument, Willie collapses, and, in a masterly piece of comic construction, the next time Al knocks on Willie’s door real doctors are involved; Willie has had a heart attack. “Aha! This is it! . . . This was worth getting sick for!” he says, hearing Al outside his door. “Come on, knock again. En-terr!” Willie has had his chair pushed to the farthest corner of the room. “I want that son-of-a-bitch to have a long walk,” he says, envisioning a pageant of humiliation for Al, whose expected apology, of course, never comes. Willie, with his fragility and his fury, has a terrific humanity; he is coming to the end of both his career and his time on earth.
The world of “The Sunshine Boys” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is wittier, freer, crueller, and more original than that of the stranded bourgeois souls in most of Simon’s other comedies. The freewheeling sharpshooters in these works are an antidote both to Simon’s sentimentality and to his habit in his later plays—“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Broadway Bound”—of using a narrator to make his themes explicit and to take the edge off the pain. The life we see onstage in those plays may be uncomfortable, but we never are; we never have to work for meaning, which is half the fun of theatre’s game of show-and-tell. The device curries favor with the audience and insures that Simon’s words, like a fly line, go below the surface but only so far.
When I first saw “The Sunshine Boys,” on Broadway, in 1972, Willie’s combination of hurt and hostility felt eerily familiar to me. At the beginning of the play, Willie tells of going up for a potato-chip commercial and being unable to remember the name of the brand, Frito-Lay. “Because it’s not funny,” he explains to his nephew, an agent, who sent him up for the job. “If it’s funny, I remember it. Alka-Seltzer is funny.” Willie didn’t get the commercial, but, as it happens, my father, Bert Lahr, a former vaudeville headliner in a famous double act, did. I wrote to Simon back then to ask about the source of his inspiration. He replied:
My father who prided himself in the fact that no one could make him laugh (which any Freudian will tell you was the reason that I have been hell-bent on trying to make the whole world laugh) succumbed to only one man’s talents: Bert Lahr. Bert was physically very much like my father and when I watched him on the stage or screen I both loved and feared him at the same time—(father transference, if I’ve ever seen it).
Simon, who had once worked with my father, on a TV special, went on:
I couldn’t help noticing . . . how little joy Bert “appeared” to be getting for himself as the rest of us were convulsed. It is not difficult to see therefore, where much of the heart of “Sunshine Boys” springs from . . . especially the line late in the play where Sam Levene says, “Willie, you’ve done comedy on the stage for 45 years and I don’t think you’ve enjoyed it once.” To which Willie replies, “If I were there to enjoy it, I would buy a ticket.”
Simon, too, works out of a melancholy climate, which his therapist called “sad enough to be sad, but not happy enough to be happy.” “I always need that escape hatch,” he told The Paris Review, “that place to go that’s within myself.” From an early age, he found in laughter a refuge from his impoverished and impoverishing family. He and Danny, who was almost nine years older, grew up in the vortex of their parents’ stormy marriage in a two-bedroom apartment on 185th Street in Upper Manhattan—“the squalid world of [my] unhappiness,” as he called it. Simon’s father, Irving, an unworldly piece-goods salesman, made frequent traumatic exits from the family for “anywhere from a month to a year at a time.” “It was like coming from five broken families,” Simon said. “That pain lingers.” Simon’s mother, Mamie, had no skills and no means of earning a living. “We never knew where our next meal was coming from,” Simon told Playboy. To keep Danny from quitting school in order to support the family, Mamie slept on the sofa and rented her bedroom to two local butchers, “who paid most of their rent in lamb chops and liver.” For an extra six or seven dollars, she also rented out her kitchen for a ladies’ card game. Mamie was often at a loss in difficult situations. “It was when she felt helpless, as when my fever rose to a hundred and five, that I felt my own helplessness,” he remembered in “Rewrites.” “She would curse my father for his absence and run out to the hallway, banging on the doors of neighbors to help her find a remedy, screaming up to a God who had once again abandoned her. . . . Listening to her . . . frightened me more than my own illness. . . . I vowed, even at that early age, that if I could take care of myself, I would spare such painful remorse.”
Thinking funny was part of Simon’s campaign of self-sufficiency. “I’m usually funniest when there’s trouble,” he said in “Rewrites.” His comic impulse was the opposite of iconoclastic: instead of smashing, it wanted to bind; instead of subverting, it wanted to contain. Laughter served Simon as a kind of “nourishment,” engineering in public the embrace he rarely received from his parents. “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” he wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted.” At the same time, like most comedians, he used comedy as a kind of armor that allowed him to maintain a certain distance from others and from himself. At one point during his first marriage, his wife, Joan Baim, in the middle of a vicious argument, picked up a defrosting veal chop and threw it at his head. “I was so stunned I could barely react; stunned not by the blow nor the intent, but by the absurdity that I, a grown man, had just been hit in the head with a frozen veal chop,” he wrote. “A faint flicker of a smile crossed my face. Suddenly the anger and hostility drained from me and I found myself outside the situation looking in, no longer involved as a man in conflict but as an observer, an audience so to speak.”
Simon’s ability to stand outside himself and to observe the folly of Homo sapiens is both his honey and his cross: instead of working through the emotion he sets up in some of his plays, he deflects it with laughs. “Do you know what you are?” the newly married Corie says, indicting her workaholic husband, in “Barefoot in the Park.” “You’re a Watcher. There are Watchers in this world and there are Do-ers. And the Watchers sit around watching the Do-ers do.”
Framed on the wall of Azenberg’s office on the top floor of the Neil Simon Theatre are two notes that Simon passed to Azenberg during read-throughs of his plays. One says, “Don’t worry, I know how to fix it,” the resulting “it” being the most memorable scene in “Broadway Bound.” The other note says, “Worry—I don’t know how to fix it,” which signalled the collapse of a musical based on the Gershwin catalogue. Revising is a lifelong habit for Simon, one he learned from his brother in their early sketch-writing days. “Danny was a relentlessly, compulsively dissatisfied person,” Woody Allen, who started writing with Danny when he was nineteen, after the brothers broke up, in 1954, told me. “He was constantly starting over, constantly rewriting, always explaining to me helpful things, like, The punch line is not what makes the joke, it’s the straight line. What you have to have is a great straight line—completely natural, what the character would say—then your obligation is to find the joke within that line.” (With a few notable exceptions, Simon’s plays are also an ongoing rewrite of his own story, and he considers it his greatest weakness that he is unable “to write outside my own experience.” It’s no coincidence that his latest play, like his first memoir, is called “Rewrites.”)
“He rewrote and rewrote and rewrote because he wanted to,” Mike Nichols recalled. “For ‘The Odd Couple,’ we had so many endings I don’t remember how the play ends. Walter [Matthau] kept saying, ‘What do you care? It’s gonna run for years anyway.’ It was that he knew he could do better.” In the case of “The Gingerbread Lady” (1970), a play about Maureen Stapleton, in which she starred, the notices were so bad in Boston that the producer decided to close the show. “This is a potentially wonderful play,” Stapleton told Simon. “It needs work, but don’t walk away from it.” Simon took the challenge. Within a week, he’d written thirty-five new pages, and the play subsequently ran for more than five months on Broadway, won Stapleton a Tony, and was turned into the movie “Only When I Laugh,” which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1982.
Simon’s gifts for construction and for reconstruction make him an ideal collaborator for the Broadway musical, the epitome of the business of show. With the exception of “A Chorus Line,” some of which he punched up without credit, Simon has never collaborated on an innovative musical; nonetheless, he’s written the books for a number of slick, successful ones—“Sweet Charity,” “Little Me,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “They’re Playing Our Song.” The job of the librettist is to throw soft pitches to the musical team, to toss dramatic scenes to the songwriters so that they can belt the most emotional moments into the stands. “I wouldn’t want to write musicals all the time,” Simon told the Chicago Tribune. But when, in the late sixties, the producer David Merrick asked him what musical he’d like to make, he chose the elements that became “Promises, Promises.”
In “Promises, Promises,” an adaptation of the screenplay of “The Apartment,” by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, Simon buffs up the dominant character of his sixties comedies: the trapped bourgeois soul who finds that almost everything he yearns for is worthless. It’s a good story, and Simon tells it well. “Half as big as life, that’s me / But that’s not the way I always mean to be,” Chuck Baxter, the musical’s hapless and ambitious hero, sings. Baxter is a prisoner of his own inferiority and its corollary, grandiosity. In order to get a leg up on the corporate ladder, he lets company executives borrow his apartment to get a leg over. Baxter’s pad soon becomes so popular that he can hardly gain access to it, but by the finale he has overcome his inadequacy, regained his dignity, and won the girl of his daydreams. (“I don’t think I write happy endings,” Simon said. “I try never to end a play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical.”) Simon never compromises the portrait of the naïve Baxter with a crowd-pleasing wisecrack; instead, he meets the show’s commercial requirement—love and goodness conquer all. In this sense, “Promises, Promises,” with its melodic score that includes the hit “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” adheres to Simon’s early musical formula: hilarity with heart. It is a sort of accessible irony-free, pre-Sondheim production, in which the big heart still dominates over the atrophied one.
In the past few years, Simon has had bad luck with his Broadway revivals. The 2005 production of “The Odd Couple” was miscast; the 2009 “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” well directed by David Cromer but without a star, didn’t find an audience to sustain it; “Broadway Bound,” which was supposed to play in repertoire with it, was cancelled before it began. “Promises, Promises” (directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford) brings Simon back to Broadway with the added candlepower of Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes and the inclusion in the score of two extra Bacharach-David hits, “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home.” Simon told me recently that he doesn’t feel honored in his time. “Only from show to show,” he said. But what do you call someone who, over half a century, has brought millions of people together to tell them bittersweet stories that shed light and laughter on the follies of his small corner of the universe? I say you call him an artist, and the hell with it. ♦