Danny Simon

Comedy writer
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The Independent Online

"A long time ago, I realised I didn't like writing," said Danny Simon in a 1980s interview. Despite this allergy, the diminutive, nattily dressed Simon had a thriving six-decade career, turning out comedy material for such laughter-makers as Sid Caesar, Joan Rivers, Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas and Carol Burnett. Through his comedy seminars, too, he helped to launch the careers of many of today's funniest writers.

Born in the Bronx in 1918, he was eight and a half years older then his brother, the prolific playwright Neil Simon. After wartime service in the army, Danny began writing with Neil - first on radio for Milton Berle and others, and then on television for such performers as Phil Silvers, Red Buttons, Jackie Gleason and Buddy Hackett. For three years, the brothers hungered to write for the superb Sid Caesar/Imogene Coca series Your Show of Shows, which boasted such writing talent as Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. In 1954, Kallen became pregnant, an event which prompted the show's producer to hire the brothers Simon. "He brought us in until Lucille gave birth," Neil recalled. "So Danny and I were hoping for a three-year pregnancy."

Shortly after the baby arrived, Your Show of Shows departed. Both its stars were offered solo series, with Tolkin and the Simons joining the Caesarean camp and Kallen and Brooks joining Coca's. The Imogene Coca Show was a failure, but Caesar's Hour lasted three years. During its run, the brothers found time to write the sketches for the Broadway revue Catch a Star! (1955). Although the revue gasped its last after 23 performances, Neil had now developed a taste for the theatre, but as a playwright. When he broke away to write on his own, he was wracked with guilt, but was relieved to see his brother "making a name and a tan for himself in Hollywood".

Danny Simon's first major television assignment was as head writer for The Colgate Comedy Hour. For this variety series, he announced he was looking for "writers whose jokes stemmed from the human condition, rather than gags written for a laugh alone". After reading material submitted by a recent high-school graduate called Woody Allen, Simon announced, "I think this kid is my next brother." Allen later said, "I've learned a few things on my own since, and modified some of the things he taught me, but everything, unequivocally, that I learned about comedy writing I learned from Danny Simon. Also, he was very nice."

Simon went on to lucrative assignments on The Carol Burnett Show, The Kraft Music Hall and the sitcoms Make Room for Daddy, My Three Sons, Diff'rent Strokes and its spin-off, The Facts of Life. After a painful divorce in 1961, he moved in with a theatrical agent friend, whose marriage had also failed. The inevitable frictions between two divorced men living together suggested a stage comedy to Neil, who urged Danny to write it. He made many attempts, but never got past page 15, finally telling his kid brother, "You know how to write plays. I don't. You write it instead." Neil's The Odd Couple, for which Danny received one-sixth of the royalties in perpetuity, ran for two years on Broadway. Not to mention the film, the TV series and the play The Female Odd Couple. After his brother's death, Neil Simon said, "He was a character (in more ways than one) in at least nine or ten of my plays, and I'm sure will probably be there again in many plays to come."

In 1980, Danny Simon was asked to lecture on comedy writing at the University of Southern California. He spent the next 15 years hosting seminars. He would urge his students to hone their work, and never be satisfied with a first draft: "That's why God invented the word 'Rewrite'."

Dick Vosburgh