The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] “The odd couple” in our time

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Aug. 18, 2021 - 05:31

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“The Odd Couple” is a 1968 American comedy film, starring Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau, based on Neil Simon’s 1965 play. It is a comic story of two divorced men, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, who decide to live together in a New York City apartment. Soon they become an “odd couple” because one is almost a “neurotic neat freak” and the other is a messy, “fun-loving slob.” Actually, their ex-wives dumped them because they could not stand their husbands’ extreme personalities.

The popularity of the movie led to a TV series on ABC two years later. “The Odd Couple” sitcom, which was on the air until 1975, instantly became a huge success because the contrast of the two drastically different types of personalities brought humor to each episode. Presumably, Neil Simon wanted to portray the two men as symbols of conservatives and liberals cohabiting uncomfortably in the 1960s.

In real life, I know an odd couple who are also radically different from each other: The husband is obsessed with neatness and thus wants to arrange everything in apple-pie order, whereas his wife is terribly unorganized and even messy. She throws her socks here and there and her husband has to clean up the messes she creates.

Another irreducible difference between the two is body temperature. The husband’s body temperature is high, whereas the wife’s is low. As a result, the husband cannot stand the heat and turns on the air conditioner whenever the weather is warm. Unfortunately, his wife shivers in the cold when the air conditioner is running. In the wintertime, the opposite happens. His wife turns on the heater all the time and her husband is sweating all over due to the unbearably high temperature.

Moreover, the husband is stingy and thrifty, but his wife is generous and wasteful. He buys cheap stuff only and his wife always purchases expensive things. Consequently, she has about 10 famous brand handbags, 20 luxurious shoes and 50 designer dresses, whereas the cheapskate husband has only one ready-made suit and a pair of shaggy shoes.

Their preference for food, too, is radically different. The husband is a vegetarian of sorts, while the wife likes red meat and fish. He likes salty food, but his wife does not like anything salty. She prefers seafood such as oysters and clams, but he does not like the fishy smell. She likes wine, but he does not touch liquor. She likes to dine in fancy restaurants and he likes McDonald’s and KFC.

Furthermore, the husband watches American TV dramas only, whereas the wife is a huge fan of Korean soap operas. He cannot stand the loud yelling and frequent sobbing of Korean dramas, and she does not understand the English in American dramas.

Ostensibly, the above couple look like archenemies in every respect, who cannot possibly cohabit together. Nevertheless, they love each other dearly and appreciate their better half very much. They seldom quarrel, either. Once, I asked the husband, “How do you cope with the differences between you and your wife?” Then he answered rather seriously, “Well, we try to supplement and complement each other. My wife has so many things I do not have. To me, that is what makes her charming. We are like left and right, you know. Together, we make the well-balanced perfect one.”

The above seemingly incompatible couple reminds me of our conservative and radical politicians who antagonize each other as if they were archenemies. Every day, they criticize each other and condemn the other as evil. If only they could think of their opponents as a complementary and supplementary being, they could get along well. Unfortunately, however, our radical politicians have treated their conservative counterparts as hostile enemies. If the above odd couple had detested each other, their home would have broken up a long time ago. Likewise, if our politicians do not tolerate differences, they will surely end up destroying the nation.

As I grow older, I feel sorry for what I did to others when I was young and reckless. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. However, now I regret what I did in the name of justice, equality and fairness. I have now belatedly realized that I should not have been so judgmental. Regrettably, however, it is too late to straighten it out.

As they grow older, our radical politicians, too, would surely regret what they did when they wielded political power. Think about those whom they led to suicide, sent to prison, or persecuted in the name of justice. How can they cope with the immitigable sense of guilt that surely must come later?

A home is a microcosm of a society or a country. Our politicians, who run the country, should learn from the odd couple’s wisdom. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.