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Thoughts on WaterTower's 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor'

by Stephen Becker 25 Jan 2010 4:02 PM

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play opening this week at the WaterTower Theatre shows surprising parallels with the current Conan-Jay embroglio.


Elaine Liner points out in her review that WaterTower Theatre showed Nostradamus-like foresight by staging Laughter of the 23rd Floor. In the play, Neil Simon looks back at his time writing for Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows in the early ’50s. Standing in for Caeser is Max Prince, a comedian who’s as paranoid as he is funny. NBC execs threaten to shorten his show from 90 min. to an hour. And they are concerned that the show’s humor doesn’t appeal to a wide enough (read: lowest common denominator) audience.

Change Max’s name to “Conan” and you’re back to the future.

But the parallels between Laughter and our current state of affairs run much deeper. At the heart of the matter is the familial relationships we often form with our co-workers, and what happens when those bonds are broken.

During much of the play’s first act, the writers spend more time verbally poking at one another than they do coming up with the material that they are actually paid to write. The well-timed one-liner was a staple of television variety shows in those days, and the play makes clear that those zingers were workshopped plenty in the writers’ room. Sometimes the jokes cut too close to the bone and apologies, whether formal or symbolic, are made. It’s what families do.

As the infighting with the network gets more heated, a real sense of dread pervades the writers’ room. But the fear is less about losing a job and more about losing that daily camaraderie with co-workers who you enjoy spending time with. Carol, the lone woman among the writers, laments that if the show is canceled, she’ll actually miss all the dirty language she’s learned from her male counterparts. Milt, another writer, can’t wait to get to the office to try out the joke he thought of on the way to work.

Since the recession began in 2007, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. For many of the newly unemployed, losing their workplace families is almost as rough as losing the paycheck. During an average work week, most of us spend double the waking hours with our co-workers as we do with our actual families. It’s easy to become attached.

And it’s easy to see why Simon felt the way he did about his co-writers on Your Show of Shows. Among them were Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen. They were all talented writers who knew they could get other jobs. What they loathed was the idea of not working with each other. Once the dream team is assembled, it’s tough to go play with a bunch of scrubs. No doubt the recently released Tonight Show writers feel that way.

Fortunately for the audience, the characters who represent the comedy legends in Laughter never let a little personal gloom stand in the way of a well-executed joke. Was it laughter to keep from crying? Possibly. But more importantly, the characters all realize that they have something both special and finite. If there’s a chance to squeeze in an extra laugh and share a moment while the gang’s all here, they do it.

Maybe we should, too.