Pop Poker: The Odd Couple's Common Thread
In Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple -- first a play, then a film, then made by others into a hit TV show -- poker is of central importance.
Indeed, in the original story, poker seems to be just about the only thing the mismatched title characters have in common.
The stage play was first produced on Broadway in 1965 with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. Simon also wrote the screenplay for the 1968 film adaptation starring Matthau again with Jack Lemmon as Felix.
Then came the popular TV version of The Odd Couple with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall which ran from 1971-1975.
In Simon’s play and film -- nearly identical in most respects, including the cast and much of the dialogue -- the story begins with a weekly poker game in which Oscar and Felix are regular participants along with their friends Vinnie, Speed, Roy, and Murray the Cop.
The game takes place in Oscar’s large New York apartment where all of the play is set, and most of the film.
HARDLY TWO OF A KIND
Oscar Madison, we soon learn, is a recently-divorced sportswriter and especially poor housekeeper.
Simon’s opening stage directions explain how “without the touch and care of a woman these past few months,” Oscar’s apartment has become “a study in slovenliness” with dirty dishes, empty bottles, unopened mail, and other items strewn about.
Roy even complains about the smell coming from a broken refrigerator.
“Temper, temper,” says Oscar in response. “If I wanted nagging, I’d go back with my wife.”
The retort suggests a couple of ideas. One is the association of home-making and cleaning up with women, as the complaint is clearly one Oscar had heard from his ex-wife many times.
The other is the idea that the poker game is no place in which to express such domestic concerns.
The game continues, although all are distracted by the fact that Felix has failed to show. In the play and film, Felix is a news writer, while in the TV show he’s made a photographer. (Also, while his last name is spelled “Ungar” in the play and film -- like Stu -- it is changed to “Unger” on the sitcom.)
A phone call from one player’s wife reveals Felix and his wife have suddenly split after 12 years of marriage, and Felix didn’t show up to work that day. In the film we’ve already seen him dejectedly wandering around New York, even renting a hotel room where he appears to prepare to kill himself though doesn’t follow through.
Meanwhile his poker buddies worry their overly-sensitive friend may in fact be suicidal.
Eventually Felix arrives and soon after the game breaks up, leaving Oscar to try to cheer up his friend. Each subsequently lists to the other his own faults, citing them as causes for their respective marriages having failed.
“I’m a compulsive cleaner,” confesses Felix, adding that his obsessive nature regarding home-making and bookkeeping likely drove his wife away. Meanwhile Oscar describes himself as inconsiderate, sloppy, and wasteful with money.
From there they hit on the plan for Felix to move in with Oscar. They’ll save money, Felix can cook and clean, and both can avoid having to endure living alone.
“WHERE'S YOUR COASTER?”
The pair immediately begin to drive each other crazy, with Oscar’s boorish carelessness clashing with Felix and his desire for all to be neat, under control, and orderly.
The rest of the play and film show their arrangement lasting all of three weeks before Oscar throws Felix out, the conflict building over three lengthy scenes -- another poker game, a failed double-date, and finally a no-holds-barred shouting match between the two.
The troubles begin with another meeting of the weekly poker game, once more taking place in Oscar’s now-immaculate apartment. Rather than take hands, Felix spends the entire time cleaning up while serving food and drinks.
At one point he hesitates before delivering a glass of beer to Roy.
“Where’s your coaster?” asks Felix.
“My what?” asks Roy.
“Your coaster, the little round thing that goes under the glass.” Roy looks up.
“I think I bet it,” he says. Oscar notices he has the coaster and tosses it over.
“Here,” he says. “I knew I was winning too much.”
“NATURE DIDN’T INTEND FOR POKER TO BE PLAYED LIKE THAT!”
Soon it becomes apparent that fastidious Felix and his constant cleaning is getting in the way of the men’s weekly gathering.
Given the context and era, it’s hard not to read the scene as showing something “feminine” having crept into what had been a wholly “masculine” sphere.
“In the last three hours we’ve played four minutes of poker,” says Speed, after removing a cigar from his mouth. “I’m not giving up my Friday nights to watch cooking and cleaning.”
“It was better before,” agrees Roy. “With the garbage and the smoke, it was better before.”
Finally Speed gets fed up with Felix and his fussing about crumbs, coasters, and cleanliness.
“I’m going out of my mind!” he yells, then gets up. “I’m going home... the day his marriage busted up was the end of our poker game.”
Soon after Roy begins sniffing.
“What’s that smell... disinfectant?” he asks. He then holds the cards up to his nose and his face quickly droops.
“It’s the cards. He washed the cards.”
That revelation is enough to send Roy away as well.
“I’ve been sitting here breathing cleaning fluid and ammonia for three hours,” he says as he departs. “Nature didn’t intend for poker to be played like that!”
The whole scene furthers the idea that home-making is not “masculine” while poker is, and thus problems inevitably arise when the two are mixed.
Even though one might argue our ideas of gender roles are produced by our culture (i.e., they are learned, not innate), Roy still thinks Felix’s less-than-manly intrusions into their manly game somehow go against “nature.”
“MARRIAGE MAY COME AND GO, BUT THE GAME MUST GO ON”
From there Oscar arranges the double-date for the pair with two sisters from England, Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon, who live upstairs in the same apartment building.
The Pigeon sisters begin the date all giggles, but Felix quickly ruins all when he cannot stop talking about his wife and kids.
All smiles before, the sisters -- both of whom had failed marriages, too -- end up crying along with Felix about their pasts.
It’s another scene that marks thin-skinned Felix as somehow less masculine, and certainly different from the hyper-macho Oscar.
The fight between Felix and Oscar follows, ending with Felix getting ejected from the apartment. He ends up staying with the Pigeon sisters, as we learn during a final scene -- yet another meeting of the poker game.
Interestingly, Oscar doesn’t want the game to be played while he worries about Felix, only allowing the game to continue after Felix returns and the pair make amends.
After they make up, Oscar asks Felix if he’ll be coming to the following week’s game.
“What about next Friday night?” asks Oscar. “You’re not gonna break up the poker game, are you?”
“Me? Never. Marriage may come and go, but the game must go on,” explains Felix.
He then adds “So long, Frances,” repeating a funny slip he made before when bidding Oscar goodbye.
The film clearly presents poker as a male ritual, associating it closely with Oscar’s character and personality as the host of the games.
In that final scene, one of the Pigeon sisters apologizes for interrupting the men.
“So sorry to interrupt your bridge game,” she says, not recognizing the game is poker, but also suggesting that poker is something entirely foreign to women.
In the play version, the sisters even tell Felix to “invite your friends to play in our flat.”
“The five men stare dumbfounded at the door without moving,” go the stage directions afterward, underscoring how absurd the idea of moving the poker game into a non-male setting really is.
“IT’S NOT A POKER GAME... IT’S A WAY OF LIFE!”
The later TV series (with which Simon wasn’t involved) borrowed a few elements from the play and film, including remaking some scenes in early episodes.
Much is different, however, including details of the characters’ back stories as well as the fact that Oscar and Felix remain together as roommates for a much lengthier period.
The poker returns, however, in the TV show, as do the same group of poker buddies. In fact, the very first episode reprises the double-date with the Pigeon sisters, with Oscar and Felix this time trying to figure out a way to have their date without interrupting the weekly game.
As Felix points out, the group has been playing “every Thursday night for the four years. The guys lie to their wives, they get babysitters, they sneak out of work early. It’s not a poker game anymore, it’s a way of life!”
In other words, just like in the play and film, poker is still being presented as something that allows men to take refuge away from women.
Only unlike in the earlier versions, Felix in this instance is not interfering with the game, but rather trying to ensure it continues as a needed escape -- a “way of life” for the men who play.
The show would continue to use poker as an occasion to create humorous plots and dramatize differences between Felix and Oscar, although ultimately the game continued to be presented an activity essentially reserved for men.
Twenty years after his original play, Simon would write a new version in 1985 called The Female Odd Couple. It featured a similar story, but this time with two women roommates, Florence and Olive.
As if to emphasize even further the association of poker with men, he had the pair play a different game with their circle of friends.
What game did they play instead?
The answer seems like it might be the sort of thing to come up in the very game itself... Trivial Pursuit.
More Pop Poker posts from Martin Harris:
- Pop Poker: Is Kaleidoscope Among Best Poker Movies?
- Pop Poker: Baseball and Poker in American Culture