For my first official musing, I decided to muse about the comedic roles that Simon played (which, incidentally, happens to include my first encounter with him), and why I find them so appealing.
There are different kinds of humor in the world, but, by far, the most challenging kind of humor to present is the understated humor—making people laugh without actually acting crazy or resorting to random slapstick or jokes. It takes talent; not everyone can pull off understated humor, but those who can do so with the ability to have you in stitches. And Simon Oakland could.
Simon did this by always playing the straight man to whoever was sharing the scene with him. Get Smart is a perfect example. Simon’s cowboy character is best described as a “dying informant” (one of many “dying informants” in the series, I might add) when he desperately tries to communicate to Maxwell Smart about a KAOS plot. In a comedic series, there generally is an opportunity for “dying informants” to ham it up with their waning breaths (and I’ve seen several that have—both in Get Smart and in another show where the situation was played for laughs), and while that can be amusing, Simon went with a different approach—he played his part of a “dying informant” as straight as possible. And it worked. He had a wonderful foil in Don Adams, who bounced off all of Simon’s seriously-delivered lines in a back-and-forth actors’ tennis match that was a joy and an amusement to watch. Simon proved that a “dying informant” does not have to be melodramatic to get laughs. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was this skill in understated humor that made me adore this episode for the longest time.
In pretty much all of the comedic roles I’ve seen him play, Simon plays them as straight as possible while still making them funny. Two examples that come to mind are as Lieutenant Murphy in the pilot episode of My Favorite Martian and Mr. Cordner in the Car 54, Where are You? episode “Hail to the Chief.” Once against playing opposite wonderful foils that complimented him, Simon made the roles of these exasperated authority figures believable and hilarious—you can see them try to maintain some level of sanity when all seems to be going crazy around them. And it’s hilarious.
One of my favorite comedic roles that Simon has played is the crafty casino owner Nick from Follow that Dream. Simon’s foil here was none other than the King of Rock & Roll himself—the interaction between Simon’s serious, calculating character and Elvis’ laid-back, naïve character is done marvelously. Elvis’ character, Toby, is also humorous without even trying too hard. It’s not even a battle of wits—Nick tries a variety of schemes to get Toby out of his hair, and Toby’s naïve innocence baffles and frustrates Nick to no end. It culminates into a magnificently hilarious scene where both actors keep the straightest of faces—though the audience will find it impossible to keep one themselves.
But, by far, the best foil that Simon Oakland had was Darren McGavin, for both drama and comedy. True, Kolchak is not a comedic series per se, but the most humorous parts of any episode (and the pre-series movies—particularly the sequel) was the banter between Tony Vincenzo and Carl Kolchak. The ending of The Night Strangler proves this perfectly—you have Carl in his car, monologing into his tape recorder, and you assume he’s alone… but then you suddenly hear Tony grousing in the background—cue the camera pulling back to reveal Tony there, on what is promising to be a very long road trip indeed, without ever overstating the comedic angle—it’s just so believable and amusing. The series proper has many examples, as well—the looks of annoyance on their faces as one of their many arguments gets interrupted by the roar of a passing train, another argument in the middle of a ransacked office, a series of long-distance arguments over the telephone, and Carl coming to the rescue after Tony’s latest attempt at yoga ended with him getting stuck in the Lotus Pose, to name but a few. And, in all cases, the humor is never overstated—even something like the aforementioned Lotus Pose fiasco could’ve easily been hammed up for all it was worth, but that’s not what Simon and Darren did. And how they kept it to be so understated, yet still hilarious, takes talent. Of course, the chemistry between Simon and Darren had a lot to do with how this understated humor worked so well, but that is a musing for another time.
But, when all is said and done, it becomes clear that Simon’s skill at being able to make people laugh with understated humor is a very special gift. Understated humor is the most realistic, in my opinion—we don’t go through life laughing at people hamming it up or constantly tripping over things; we go through life laughing mostly at the little things, the understated things. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons Simon appealed to me so much as an actor—his comedic roles are a window to what is amusing in life.