An Oral History of The Odd Couple’s Classic Scrooge Parody
It seems impossible today, but the now classic 1970s sitcom The Odd Couple, starring Tony Randall as the neat and fussy Felix and Jack Klugman as the sloppy grouch Oscar, wasn’t terribly successful in its day. Its first season was particularly hit or miss. But among the hits was the excellent Christmas episode, “Scrooge Gets an Oscar.”
In it, Oscar is in a particularly bad mood because he and his ex-wife married on Christmas, and he recently found out that she isn’t getting remarried, which means he still has to pay her alimony. Meanwhile, Felix is putting on a production of A Christmas Carol, and he wants Oscar to play Scrooge. Oscar, however, has no interest in the part. The second half of the episode is a dream sequence that parodies A Christmas Carol, with Oscar as “Ebenezer Madison” and Felix filling in as all the ghosts, taking Oscar on a journey that changes his mind about Christmas. When he wakes up, Oscar happily volunteers to star in Felix’s play.
The episode was written by Ron Friedman — author of I Killed Optimus Prime: Confessions of a Hollywood Screenwriter — who was responsible for more than 700 hours of primetime television and even more than that in Saturday morning cartoons. Even now, at the age of 90, Friedman cites writing for The Odd Couple as one of the proudest accomplishments in his long career, and he has particular affection for “Scrooge Gets an Oscar.”
Per Friedman, here’s the tale of how Scrooge indeed got Oscar and how Randall and Klugman found the chemistry to turn the show’s uneven early days into what today is widely considered to be one of the 100 greatest TV series of all time.
‘I need you. The Christmas episode fell out — it was shit’
Back in 1970, there was this writer and producer I knew named Jerry Davis, and whenever he worked, I worked. At that time, he was working on the first season of The Odd Couple. He calls me up one Thursday and asks, “Have you watched The Odd Couple?” I said, “No,” and he said, “Watch it. I need you. The Christmas episode fell out — it was shit. We’re having a table read on Tuesday.”
So I watched an episode and got back to him later that day. I told him, “I’ve got it. It’s A Christmas Carol with Oscar as Scrooge for Felix’s theater company.” He responded, “I love that.” So I wrote it, and got it in the next day. He called me back a while later and told me, “Jack and Tony love it, and I love it, too.” After that, he always called me when they were in a bind and needed something right away. They called me “Flash Friedman.”
‘This was in the days before every TV show did ‘A Christmas Carol’ episode’
The story for “Scrooge Gets an Oscar” took shape pretty quickly for me. Charles Dickens was my role model, and A Christmas Carol is perfect, so I just studied that — this was in the days before every TV show did A Christmas Carol episode.
Maybe my favorite moment in the episode is often cut out for syndication. Oscar is playing cards and then the doorbell rings. He answers the door, and it’s a singing telegram from his ex-wife. I wrote it over 50 years ago, but I still remember how that little song went:
Seasons greetings Oscar Boy, my alimony’s due
If you don’t pay up right away, I’ll get the cops on you
And you’ll spend Christmas in the clink with other bums like you!
I was very happy with that. I even included it on my Christmas album, Christmas Songs for Jewish People.
I was on set for part of the filming, and Tony and Jack’s favorite part came during the Christmas Carol dream sequence. Felix, the ghost, is trying to show Oscar that he really is magical, so he pulls out a deck of cards and starts to do a magic trick — they loved that. It was also really fun to put Jack Klugman into shorts and curls in the scene where they flashback to Oscar as a schoolboy.
‘That’s who Jack Klugman was: part day laborer, part blue-collar guy, part thug’
After “Scrooge Gets an Oscar” aired, both Jack and Tony called me up to tell me I was going to do more episodes. Tony also said to me, “I hear you know opera,” of which he was a big fan. I told him my mother was an opera singer, and Tony said, “Wonderful, you’re going to do an opera for me.” That turned into the Season Two episode “Does Your Mother Know You’re Out, Rigoletto?”
I got to know Jack Klugman a bit better. He was a graduate of my alma mater, Carnegie Tech. Jack was a brilliant artist and a really terrific actor. Whatever he did, it was like there was a real guy there. He wasn’t acting; that’s who Jack Klugman was: part day laborer, part blue-collar guy, part thug.
When I began doing more of The Odd Couple, I once asked Jack how he got into the drama department of Carnegie Tech. He told me, “I was a waiter at Bookbinders in Philadelphia, and I’m into the mob for seven large from the horses. A guy comes into the restaurant on a Thursday night and tells me, ‘Klugman, I’m coming to see you Saturday night. We want all the money back plus the vig, or I’m going to break off your legs and shove them up your ass.’ That didn’t sound like any future I was interested in, so I decided to become an actor.”
I also asked him, “For whom did you read?” Because to get into Carnegie Tech’s drama department, you had to read before one of the faculty members. He told me that he read for Henry Boettcher, the dean of the department. This was during World War II, and when he read for Henry, Henry told him, “You’re not an actor, you’re a truck driver. But there’s a war on and we need men!”
Of course, he ended up being a brilliant actor. Both he and Tony were true artists and really good friends in real life. They knew how to play off each other as Oscar and Felix and that’s what made The Odd Couple so great. For my money, they’re still the best guys ever to play those characters.