As time passes and societal mores change, comedy is often one of the casualties. The shock of gross-out humor wears off. In the case of satire, what once seemed prescient can come off as either ridiculously off-base or just true. In other cases, such as The Odd Couple, the film can become funny for completely different reasons.
At the time, while the un-filmed Hollywood was well versed in gay culture, it wasn’t something a comedy would have tackled. I have no evidence to back this up, but my sense is that Neil Simon wasn’t intending to tackle homosexuality in any way with this film—the humor is centered on the utter ridiculousness of two men taking on marital roles in each others’ lives (and the ultimate unnaturalness and inevitable failure of such an attempt). Like Some Like It Hot, which in my opinion treats the subject of gender with less inherent misogyny, they couldn’t have gotten away with jokes about “the marriage being off” if gay marriage had been a remote possibility. But rather than dating the movie—or perhaps along with dating it—this sexless gay marriage is funny in a totally different way than seemed to have been intended.
Because you see, at this point, I find it impossible to watch this movie as anything but an unconsummated affair between two opposites, too locked into their hetero-normative worldview to see what’s really going on. I don’t want to paint a lurid picture of Felix and Oscar in a romantic clinch. But it’s hard to read their physicality, the quarrels that (until the last one) end in abrupt shifts back to companionability, as anything other than a primary relationship. At the time this was funny because it was so silly to see men taking on these roles—the sexual implications were unseen by dint of being impossible. Now the ending, with Felix gone and the line about marriages coming and going but the game going on, feels tacked on and apologetic. Felix and Oscar didn’t work out, not because they’re incompatible roommates, but because they were raised in such a way as to make the true nature of their relationship hidden from them. The tension between them, the protestations that Oscar makes about wanting to get out and have fun—specifically with Felix, not alone—read like sexual frustration. Can you read the following lines, spoken before and during their bowling alley outing, any other way?
“Getting a clear picture on Channel 2 is not my idea of whoopee… Bowling is wonderful exercise, felix, but that's not the kind of relaxation I had in mind. I mean, the night was made for other things.”
“Like unless I get to touch something soft in the next two weeks, I'm in big trouble.”
“Oh, you mean women?”
“If you want to give it a name, all right, women.”
“That's funny. I haven't thought of women in weeks.”
If you want to give it a name? Look, I know the humor here is in the fact we’re supposed to realize they’re talking like a married couple, which is silly because they’re men. But it’s equally silly, these days, to read this film as anything but a tale of would-be lovers whose wires get crossed somewhere, at the mercy of the imposed sexual roles of the day, who are shoe-horned back into the safe, poker-playing masculine space imposed by the filmmakers. And all this is really to say that despite Simon’s typical treatment of women as necessary irritants, the movie is still classic, still funny, and still relevant. Just, you know, gay.