Neil Simon: “Hey, Luigi, How About a Little Service?”
January 22, 2012 2 Comments
It’s probably been more than twenty-five years since I read The Star-Spangled Girl. It’s a good candidate for Neil Simon’s weakest play, but there’s a joke in it that I’ve remembered all this time and enjoyed thinking about frequently.
(Looking back at the text for the first time in all these years, I see the ’60s-style ethnic stereotyping I’d forgotten. This doesn’t impede my enjoyment of the way the joke is structured. So sue me.)
Trying to avoid a creditor on the phone, Andy, an impoverished magazine editor, pretends that the caller has the wrong number. He records into a tape machine, “Hey, Luigi, how about a little service?” He also records the first few rings of the creditor’s call. Then he answers the phone in an Italian accent. “Luigi’s Restuarant… Who? No, is no magazine. Is Luigi’s Restaurant.” He turns on the tape: “Hey, Luigi, how about a little service?” “Si, si, I’m-a coming.” The tape plays back the phone’s ringing. “‘Scusa, my other phone, she’s-a ringing.” And he hangs up.
When the phone rings in the next scene, Andy says into the tape machine, “Oh sing mah toh wan po soo chow moo ling.” Then he quickly rewinds the tape and answers the phone in a Chinese accent. “Yes, please? Wo Ping’s Chinese Gardens.” Then he turns on the tape, which says, “Hey, Luigi, how about a little service?”
Thinking about why I love this joke so much has shown me a similarity between joke-telling and mystery writing.
A good punchline surprises. If in the second scene the tape player worked the way Andy wanted it to, there wouldn’t be much of joke, just a repetition of the dodge we’d seen him use earlier. But surprise isn’t enough. The joke is enhanced by being grounded in what came before. If the tape played something we hadn’t heard Andy record (“Where are those burritos I ordered?”), the joke would similarly fall flat.
Like a joke, a mystery story is built around a punchline of sorts. The solution disappoints if the reader sees it coming, and also if it comes out of left field, if, for instance, the murderer is a character that hasn’t already been introduced. (All good writing both confounds and satisfies expectations. If nothing in this post surprises you, you have no reason to read, and it won’t much interest you if it surprises by veering wildly from topic to topic. But solutions and punchlines intensify these conflicting demands.) In the classic tea-cosy mystery of the type at which Agatha Christie excelled, the solution grows so organically out of the story that the reader, though she missed it, feels she should have seen it coming.
Simon’s tape player business in The Star-Spangled Girl is a tea-cosy sort of joke. It surprised me, but I should have seen it coming. This is what has kept me enjoying and admiring it for twenty-five years.
Of course, this intellectual tea-cosy structure isn’t the only way to create memorable laughs. In the other joke I remember from the play, Andy is desperately trying to talk the girl of the title out of her low opinion of Norman, Andy’s best (and only) writer, who has fallen hopelessly in love with her and can’t write. While Norman tries to show his devotion by cleaning the girl’s apartment upstairs, Andy, downstairs, tells her, “He’s been offered jobs to write for every news agency in the country, plus Time, Look, Life, the Saturday Review and the Diner’s Club Monthly. Please believe me when I tell you that Norman Cornell is not only one of the brightest young men in America today, but he is also the hope and promise of today’s young generation and tomorrow’s future.” Just then, Norman bursts in with a mop. “I just knocked your cat in the toilet. It was an accident. He’s going to be all right.”