The Odd Couple aired between September 1970 to July 1975 was the original opposites-attract sitcom, pitting a neurotic neatnik named Felix Unger (played gleefully by Tony Randall) against the titanic slovenliness of his roommate Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman toes the line between a likeable regular guy and disgusting pig). The show was based on Neil Simon’s hit Broadway play, which itself spawned a movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. But for middle America, the introduction to the whole dubious concept of two guys living together as roommates came from this television series, whose endless reruns established an island of Manhattan sophistication in dens and rec rooms all over the Midwest.
The show was never a big hit during its heyday. In fact, after each of its first four seasons, the network cancelled it for poor ratings. It was only the following summer, when reruns pulled in surprisingly strong audiences, that the network executives would reconsider and sign up for another season. Both Randall and Klugman won Emmy’s for their nuanced and genuinely likable performances, but the show remained cult-ish through its brief mid-’70s run.
The third season of the television show, The Odd Couple, picks up about halfway through the series, the characters and settings firmly established and a certain proportion of the laughs (the show was “filmed before a live studio audience”) preceding the actual jokes. It opens with a shot of Oscar Madison’s disastrous room, his assistant, a very young Penny Marshall, peering uneasily past piles of laundry and garbage (“Gloria, Hallelujah”). Suddenly something moves under the piles and Marshall visibly jumps. It’s Oscar, burrowed under a month’s worth of dirty clothes. “You scared me,” says Marshall. “This room scares me.” And indeed, it is a filthy image, especially in contrast to the spick and span regions that the roommate Felix presides over.
A few moments later, Felix Unger appears, characteristically in an apron and fussing over crystal bowls of watermelon balls. “Not with your fingers,” he snaps at his oafish roommate. But something in his bearing suggests that it’s a losing battle. Over the course of this season, Madison repeatedly scoops up food with his hands, washes his face in the kitchen sink, and swills beer right from cans. It’s a two-man show, but Tony Randall is the tightly-wound star, radiating testy perfectionism, mild obsessive compulsive disorder, and an intermittent touching vulnerability in every stage-sized gesture.
The shows are nostalgic without being exactly dated. There are some time-sensitive references – at one point, seated in a pop art chair shaped like a hand, a character cracks that she feels like she’s insured by AllState – but for the most part the comedy is physical and timeless. The fashions are the main clue that this series is 30-years-old, evoking long-forgotten GQ covers in Felix’s wide lapels and bright ties, as well as old newspaper movies in Oscar’s weathered tweeds and plaid sport jackets. The women – mostly Felix’s girlfriend Miriam – sometimes sport questionable ensembles; in one episode she is caught wearing a matching knit pantsuit and sweater…in orange, with a cat on the sweater. Yet for the most part, the clothes are just different enough from current fashions to prompt fond recollection.
As are the guest stars – dusty b-listers like Howard Cosell, Allen Ludden and Betty White, and football stars like Deacon Jones and Bubba Smith. Jeanne Simmons does a beautiful turn as a foreign princess who briefly dallies with Oscar, while Howard Cosell plays himself in fine obnoxious style.
Oscar and Felix move through a lovely, bygone New York City, seen in generic shots of old Times Square (before gentrification), Restaurant Row (before $40 pasta entrees) and rent-stabilized Upper East Side. There are scruffy diners and pool halls alongside royal teas and theater openings, all co-existing in a fairy-tale clean and friendly Gotham. Felix and Oscar’s New York must have seemed quite exotic to the Middle American viewers who tuned in…with foreign princesses drifting in and out and key plot developments occurring at Greek restaurants. But it was clean and safe and fashionable, a sunny sort of town where the main risk was getting your feet caught in wet cement, if you were following a pretty girl and not paying attention.
The City only occasionally made its more unsavory side felt, as on the somewhat disturbing “I Don’t Believe in Rumors”, where Oscar picks up a female drifter at a diner, gives her a meal, and brings her home. She falls asleep in Felix’s bed, while he is supposed to be away; he returns from an out-of-town trip and in a superb bit of physical comedy, mimes exhaustion as he gets into bed, not noticing until he is fully asleep that there is a woman beside him.
The two of them are draped over one another, eyes closed when Felix wakes and does a broad double take. “This isn’t my birthday,” he says.” Perfect.) Both the two men develop a crush on the girl, whose name is Lisa, and she models herself, separately to each of their tastes. She greets Oscar by tossing a football, Felix by doing pliés at an improvised barre. It’s sitcom madcap, but also sort of psychotic, the woman obviously not-quite-well.
Klugman and Randall work really well together, partly because they have dramatically different acting styles. As Felix, Tony Randall has an astonishing range of stylized physical shticks, from the “honk, honk” of clearing his sinuses, to the drama club showiness that inevitably overtakes him whenever called upon to dance. Jack Klugman, as Oscar, has a far more natural, unamplified approach to character building, finding the unassuming, nice guy even as he’s tipping a soup bowl to his lips or pouring an entire bag of potato chips onto the living room table.
You see this most clearly when the two switch personalities in “I Gotta Be Me”, Randall caricaturing oafishness in a plain white tee shirt and backwards baseball hat, Klugman turning sports-jacketed martinet. But Randall still acts in broad, very funny gestures, while Klugman finds the sweetness in his borrowed character. Randall may steal the show, but Klugman wins your loyalty.
Yet the show would be unbearable if two of them didn’t always pull back from the brink of real unpleasantness in the nick of time. In maybe the funniest episode of the third season, “My Strife in Court”, Felix is arrested for appearing to try to scalp a theater ticket. Oscar emerging into the lobby to see his roommate in police custody, also gets hauled off by the cops. Later in the episode, Felix decides to contest their false arrest, acting as his own lawyer (and Felix’s lawyer). He inhabits every legal drama cliché in the book, objecting and using lawyerly words all over the place, but amazingly wins the case. He closes with what is possibly the best remembered line of the whole series. When a witness says that she “assumed” Felix was trying to sell her a scalped ticket, he trundles out a blackboard, writes the word “assume” in big capital letters and makes the observation: “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” I can remember people riffing on this line at playgrounds and shopping lines when I was a child, but I had no idea where it came from.
This episode is a fine example of the way that Tony Randall plays with the audience’s sympathies and expectations. Through most of the half hour, his Felix is so over-the-top annoying, that you aren’t surprised when the judge assesses a $100 fine for contempt of court. If it stopped there, it would be standard sitcom fare, but immediately after Felix has a moment of self-knowledge where he admits how pesky he can be, and bemoans how his efforts to do the right thing almost always end with everyone worse off. You can’t help but like him…or be exasperated when half a beat later, on being forgiven by all concerned, he begins haranguing the judge again.
The elephant in the room in this very 1970s comedy is whether the two men are gay or not, and the script goes to great pains to indicate that they are not. There are girlfriends and dates and children and ex-wives in almost every episode, telegraphing that, whatever the relationship looks like, it is not that. And yet, you could hardly ask for a better send-up of closeted gay people relating to their parents than the episode where Oscar’s mother visits, “The Odd Couples”. (She is played by Klugman’s real mom.) Both Felix and his ex-wife Gloria and Oscar and his ex-wife Blanche reunite so that she will not find out about their divorces. More subtly, in nearly every episode, you see Felix slaving over this or that elaborate cookery, usually in an apron, while Oscar demands “Where’s my coffee?” or “Where’s my dinner?” If they are not married, I don’t know what marriage looks like, never mind the separate bedrooms and window-dressing girls.
But gay-themed or not, The Odd Couple is primarily about the way two people relate to each other — in affection, in rage, in exasperation, and in simple recognition of each other’s quirks. There’s gentleness in the way these two always forgive each other, and a lack of real venom in their traded barbs. Maybe two men can live together in a single apartment without driving each other crazy…as long as they’re on TV.