• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #343: Oscar Madison


"Sir, you can't perform this autopsy with that cigar in your mouth."

I know The Odd Couple originated on Broadway with Walter Mathau as the lovable sportswriting slob Oscar Madison, and that old friend Matthew Perry has reprised the role this year, but the only Oscar I've ever known was Jack Klugman. There was a common dignity to Klugman, a rough-and-ready kind of familiarity, like a well-loved station wagon. His characters were always unpolished and yet reliable, comfortable in their own skins. His Oscar Madison following in that mold, a slovenly, hedonistic bachelor and sportswriter who was very much set in and happy with his lifestyle. The introduction of Tony Randall's fey, foppish Felix was a bolt of lightning into his settled existence, and the byplay between the two was an amalgam of chaste romantic comedy and the tension between brothers. Their yin and yang approach to cleanliness and behavior and style was mined for all sorts of comedy in the 1970s' TV run of The Odd Couple (and subsequent revivals).


Here's the thing: all couples are odd. Every pairing of human beings is unnatural and uncomfortable, requiring compromise and sacrifice and accommodation, all things we are ill-equipped for as selfish, self-centered, self-involved creatures. We learn some of the skills to manage cohabitation as young siblings, and then with roommates in college or early adult life. I think of the four years at UNH I spent with Joel Mellin and our struggles to make the trains run on time - and we actually got along (for the most part). By the time we shack up with a lover or spouse, we've figured out at least some of how to get along with someone else who doesn't share our unshakeable beliefs about how often to change the sheets or when to take out the trash or how loud the music should be played. We take turns being Oscar and Felix, quietly (or not so quietly) debating the proper management of a household. Throw children in the mix and it's a wonder any of it works.


I'm not sure people are meant to live together. That said, we're not meant to live apart, either. Sharing space is a brutal, never-ending exercise in self-denial and respect. That's what makes it so hard. And what makes it so great.

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