There was a moment in The Odd Couple when Gwendolyn, no Cecily, no Gwendolyn, asks news writer, Felix Ungar, “where do you get your ideas?” Everyone laughs. It’s a sexist joke these days, since we’ve discovered that lots of men wonder about where the news gets its ideas too. But there are layers to this problem that are pretty fascinating. Let’s go beyond sexism for a moment and allow this 1960s Neil Simon creation its hegemonic view. There’s nothing much we can do about it, since we all laughed, 21st Century men and women attending the performance at the Purple Rose. There was something curious in that joke beyond the sexism, and beyond the 20th Century notion of the writer, and even beyond the cynicism about the news. I claim that if the audience laughed it was because of several things they had to believe, such that the laughter was instantaneous. There was something we should think of as ideological about that set of beliefs.
To lay out these beliefs simply:
1. We all believed the character, Gwendolyn, could ask such a question because she is portrayed as a shallow person who asks any writer that question.
2. We believe the question is, from that character and in that sense, unintentionally funny.
3. However, we believe, outside of this gaff within the the script, that Neil Simon did intend for us to note it instantly and find it funny.
What is interesting is how we, the audience, were so quick to respond appropriately to the intended unintentional. For had we been able to believe that Simon himself intended the question as serious, it would not have been funny. It would have been a mistake. We also believe that other kinds of writers are often asked that question and we too may wonder where those ideas come from. Hence, to ask a news writer that question is silly: Felix answers, “the news?”
The humor of that moment relies upon an audience’s set of beliefs, particularly from Neil Simon into the script and its performance. We instantly assign sets of intentions and the opposite, the unintended, with lightning speed that surpasses any careful reasoning. One could say that we had to bring with us a whole social fabric of these possibilities in order to respond to the play as we did. The Odd Couple is a play where you have to bring with you lots of stereotypes, sloppy men who do not appreciate the finer things, silly or perhaps designing women, ex-wives who demand child support, and some interesting ideas about depression and suicide. The play is an exercise in establishing and then challenging these stereotypes in certain ways.
It was kind of surprising how easily the audience, a group of various ages, from retirement age to college, were able to recognize and respond appropriately, though the character stereotypes are currently being revised in the society outside the Purple Rose. I keep thinking some younger folks should have stormed out, or we should have sat deadpan. I don’t know how polite we were being because the play isn’t really polite. What this suggests to me is that the writer depends heavily on a set of beliefs he or she shares with the reader or audience. I guess one has to bring a lot more than the price of a ticket.