A kind friend provided a tape of a documentary about the career of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the Adam and Eve of hip comedy. (Nichols went on to become a highly original film director, responsible for, among others, The Graduate, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, and Silkwood.)
The distinctive thing about Elaine May as a comedienne is that she was neither plain like Lily Tomlin nor cute like Gilda Radner, but debutante beautiful, model beautiful. Looks of course don’t affect the range of character an actress can play, but having someone so comely to work with must have made life easier for the makeup, costume and lighting crews. Nichols was a handsome and quite presentable youth but behind all the stage makeup the poor guy looked like the Joker in Batman comics, or a vampire.
In vaudeville and early TV, the paradigm for comedy teams was the straight person and the funny person. May and Nichols may have been the first pair to fill both roles simultaneously. In those less sophisticated days, comics who were used to the non-visual media of radio and recordings probably laughed at their own jokes all the time. In many sketches, you notice May and Nichols couldn’t help cracking up at their own material, even though coming from the Second City comedy troupe, they must have been accustomed to live performance before an audience with eyes.
I remember as a kid seeing them on TV, but in circumstances where it was dangerous to laugh at lines like, “It’s a moral issue…so much more interesting than a real issue.” The documentary is a combination of their performances interspersed with interviews with other show biz figures. Steve Martin, for instance, says he used to listen to Nichols and May while falling asleep, in the same way I used to listen to Lenny Bruce.
In one sketch, Elaine appears on the left side of a split screen, the archetypal Mom, while Mike is on the right, as her grown-up son. It’s a phone conversation, a dead-on portrayal of maternal possessiveness, one of the most perfect works of satire ever created – and I do mean ever. It was brilliant for its time, and every word holds up today. It might even be perennial – comprehensible in Shakespeare’s day and throughout the foreseeable future. One of the commentators says Nichols and May were like music, the contrapuntal thing, and in this piece that musical element is apparent.
In one sketch, May is a funeral home employee and Nichols a bereaved relative. Their interaction is reminiscent of the way certain software companies function. You don’t get what you think you paid for, but find an endless series of add-ons are necessary to make the program work.
In another bit, he’s a dentist and she’s having her teeth worked on. They enact a schmaltzy romantic scene worthy of a 40s movie, with orchestra music swelling to enhance the drama. The lovely Elaine emotes her way through the dialog with a spit vacuum tube dangling from her mouth and a big bib flapping on her front.
At times they collaborated with animators. One sketch, from Michael Sporn Animation, is a conversation between a couple in bed, which couldn’t be shown on TV in those days. The screen is entirely black except for the two pair of eyes which tell the whole story.
Robin Williams in his appreciation of Mike Nichols notes that he was “happy to be a flaming asshole.” For example, in a sketch where May played an awards presenter, Nichols portrayed “the most total mediocrity in the industry,” one of those who bravely go on “quietly and unassumingly producing garbage.” This face-slap to the entertainment business was administered during the 11th Annual Emmy Awards broadcast in 1959. May and Nichols were introduced by master of ceremonies Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who said, “We recognize how fortunate we are that these men and women can say what they believe, and you who listen to them, if you don’t like it, can turn to another channel.” Right on!