Play: Laughter on the 23rd Floor: Queens Theatre, London, 1996
Gene Wilder was one of America’s greatest comedy film actors and star of many classic films including The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) (all for director Mel Brooks), Stir Crazy (1980) (one of many collaborations co-starring Richard Pryor) and The Woman In Red (1984) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). In 1996, Wilder was to make his stage debut in the London’s West End starring in the play Laughter on the 23rd Floor written by America’s best comedy playwright Neil Simon.
Simon is responsible for many a funny stage script – a lot of his plays have been made into films. He is synonymous with writing romantic comedy to farce to more serious dramatic comedy and has won many awards. When I worked in the Civil Service, I joined the amateur dramatics society, the Maffickers, for something to do and I appeared in one of Simon’s great plays The Odd Couple (which was also a successful film starring Walter Matthau and my favourite actor Jack Lemmon). The plot concerns two mismatched roommates: the neat, uptight Felix Ungar and the slovenly, easy-going Oscar Madison (played by me). At the start of the play, they are both best friends and also divorcees who are forced to live together and get on each other nerves. The writing was brilliant and very funny and along with the challenge of writing this book, it was one of the most creative things I have ever done.
Myself and my brother were both fans of Wilder and Simon, so for his birthday in 1996, I bought two tickets so that we could go and see the play. I made it a surprise and my brother’s eyes lit up as we approach the theatre. I told him I was going to collect the tickets from the box office and walked past the theatre were Laughter on the 23rd Floor was playing and walked into the theatre next door where a musical was playing. My brother hates musicals and his face dropped as I walked back. I told him that the musical was sold out but next door’s show was available. I produced two tickets for the Neil Simon play which I had all along and he was delighted.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor is inspired by the playwright’s youthful experiences as a staff writer on crazy American comedian Sid Caesar’s 1950s television show Your Show of Shows, portraying the harassed writing staff as they frantically scramble to top each other with gags while competing for the attention of star comedian Max Prince (played by Wilder). The play was filled with Simon’s trademark humour and colourful characters. Wilder’s debut was assured, confident and very funny.
Wilder sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of 83. He was a genius at comedy with a wonderful look about him. His films brought pleasure to millions and I was so pleased to have seen this comedy great live on stage.