Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Nothing Odd About Loving "The Odd Couple"

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 some day he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years 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?
- The narration in the opening credits of "The Odd Couple" television series (you can watch it here)

When people make lists of the greatest situation comedies of all time, the usual suspects appear, from "The Honeymooners" to "The Office." If I had to list my five favorite sitcoms of all time, I think my list would be, in no particular order, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Seinfeld," "Scrubs" and a show that seems to be forgotten in these kinds of discussions: "The Odd Couple."

I should note that my list would exclude otherwise-deserving shows that did not make it beyond a third season, like "Sports Night" and "Arrested Development," on the idea that part of what makes a program great is its ability to sustain its quality over a significant period of time. And, if you catch me on a different day, the list could be different. But it is highly unlikely that I would ever fail to include "The Odd Couple."

Based on the play and film of the same title (both written by Neil Simon), the television version of "The Odd Couple" starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as, respectively, Oscar, a cranky, sloppy sportswriter, and his fussy, neat opera-loving photographer roommate, Felix. The first season of the sitcom, the only one shot in single-camera format on the same set as the movie, will finally be released on DVD on April 24. The series debuted in 1970, and for five seasons, the two divorced men, as the opening said, tried to share an apartment without driving each other crazy.

So, what about "The Odd Couple" has left me such a devoted fan? First and foremost, the show features the sharpest comedy writing I have ever seen on television. The deft use of language in the scripts managed to take essentially silly jokes and render them unforgettable. "The Odd Couple" is arguably the most quotable sitcom of all time, perhaps battling it out with "Seinfeld" for that honor.

For example, after a greyhound co-owned by the roommates loses his first race, Felix, who had originally been against racing him, declares, "He has racing in his blood, and I'm going to race him." Oscar replies, "Yeah? And I'll bet you beat him." Or, when Felix discovers that the woman he has been dating is married to a large professional football player (portrayed by real-life gridiron great Alex Karras) and decides to confront him, he tells Oscar he's not afraid because, "Love has made me strong!" Oscar calmly replies, "But strength has made him stronger."

"The Odd Couple" is the kind of show that no matter what two quotes I decided to relate, fans of the show would reply, "Wait, what about ...." Just say "Aristophanes" to someone, and if they break out laughing, they are an "Odd Couple" fan. (Felix and Oscar go on "Password," and "Aristophanes" is Felix's weird clue to the word "bird" because, of course, Aristophanes wrote a play called "The Birds.") From "When you assume ...", to "I must destroy Nosenstein"; from Howard Cosell saying, "The man is an inane drone," to, well, Howard Cosell saying, "Don't call me Howie!", "Odd Couple" gems are exchanged between fans the way Trekkers trade memorabilia at conventions.

Garry Marshall was the executive producer, before he went on to do "Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley" and other hit shows, and then made his way to Hollywood to direct films like "Pretty Woman." Watching an episode of "The Odd Couple" is like sitting in on a class on how to perfectly craft a joke. You laugh out loud. Really loud. Be careful, your family will think you've lost it.

The cast of the "Odd Couple" also stands out. In the theatrically-trained Klugman and Randall, the show had two actors that could handle anything, from the silliest comedy to the most poignant moments. It allowed the writers to give the show a depth and three-dimensionality that is not often seen in television comedies. Oscar and Felix cared a great deal for each other, and they would also stick up for each other often, but there was nothing "sitcomy" about their relationship. They fought. They betrayed each other on occasion. Their relationship felt real.

The series finale stayed true to the complicated tone of the show. Felix finally gets Gloria back and they get married in the apartment. Oscar finally has Felix out of the apartment. Most shows would have gone out on the sappy high. Instead, Marshall added a tag before the end credits (as he often did) that made sure the "Odd Couple" went out like it had come in, battling. As Oscar and Felix say goodbye, Felix dumps over a trash bin as a tribute to Oscar. Oscar responds by saying he will clean it up as a tribute to Felix. When Felix leaves, Oscar says, "I'm not going to clean that up" and leaves. A second later, the door opens, Felix comes back in and says: "I knew he wouldn't clean it up." The show ends with Felix cleaning up the mess.

The show's use of guest stars felt as real as the two main characters (in most cases, anyway). Oscar was a sportswriter, so it felt perfectly natural that he would know football greats like Deacon Jones and Bubba Smith, and would be considered for a slot on "Monday Night Football" alongside Howard Cosell. It also was natural that Oscar would know Bobby Riggs, and that "Password" host Allen Ludden would be a fan of Oscar's column. As Felix was an opera buff and classical music aficionado, there was nothing weird about ballet star Edward Villella and opera singers Richard Fredericks and Martina Arroyo dropping in on episodes (Villella and Fredricks as themselves, Arroyo as a shy member of Felix's opera club). Felix also took pictures of David Steinberg and, in a flashback, met Hugh Hefner when he shot his then-girlfriend Gloria for Playboy.

My favorite guest turn might have come when a pre-Laverne Penny Marshall (Garry's sister), who played Oscar's secretary, Myrna, left the show. In her farewell episode, her real-life husband, Rob Reiner, played Myrna's boyfriend Sheldn. No, that's not a typo. Sheldn explained that the "o" was left off his birth certificate. When Oscar sees him and says, "Sheldn?" (dropping the "o"), Sheldn responds, "You got it right."

The celebrity guests, of which there were many more, never felt like stunts as they so often do on shows today. Of course, Richard Dawson serving in the army with Felix, Monty Hall and Jaye P. Morgan being friends of Oscar's, and Rodney Allen Rippy owning Oscar and Felix's apartment building (seriously) were a bit of a stretch. But, in the world of "The Odd Couple," it all worked.

One thing I loved about "The Odd Couple" is that even though it was a silly comedy, there was an underlying dark tone to the characters. The men were divorced. And, in a flashback, we watched Felix's beloved wife, Gloria, leave him. (You can see it here.) Felix dated a married woman and photographed his girlfriend for Playboy (even as he panicked and sued to get the pictures back, leading to one of many riotous courtroom scenes in the show's history).

The men went out with women regularly and, it was implied, had sex. Oscar drank a lot and experienced money problems that led him to do things like give blood for money and turn his saxophone in to a pawn shop. (Spawning the great exchange: Felix, "I didn't know you play the saxophone." Oscar, "I don't. I have it for hocking.")

Oscar also gambled with bookies and, often hung out with a sketchy crowd (which, by the way, led to him ending up with the aforementioned racing greyhound). I'm not arguing that the show was "Mean Streets" on television. But, there was a level of grit associated with Oscar that would never be allowed around the protagonist of a sitcom now. Remember, we only get to see Earl do bad things in flashbacks on "My Name Is Earl." In the present, Earl is all about redemptive acts.

And now, after the release of so many inferior shows, "The Odd Couple" is making its way to DVD. Don't make the mistake Felix did when he said "Aristophanes," and don't gamble your money away on a bad horse like Oscar was prone to do. Instead, buy yourself the first season DVD. You will be as happy as Oscar was when Felix finally moved out.