Nichols and May: The Cool Parents of Modern Comedy

When it comes to comedy duos, it’s hard to find a cooler one than Nichols and May. In fact, what do other comedy teams have on these two? Abbott and Costello? Hacks. Cheech and Chong? Junkies. Flight of the Conchords? Foreigners. Laurel and Hardy? Clowns. The Smothers Brothers? Pinkos. Penn & Teller? Degenerates. None of them can hold a lighter to the smooth, refreshing, great tasting comedy that Mike Nichols and Elaine May brought to the stage. Mmmmm… satisfying! Of course I’m joking with the 1960s cigarette copy and the knocking on those other guys (except for those shifty Smothers Brothers). But what is it about Nichols and May? Why bother getting into them?

Up until recently, I was loosely aware of Nichols and May as a comedy team, though I never felt a real urgency to listen to their material. I knew they were supposed to be good, but sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to appreciate the old stuff. Seriously, it’s time to watch and return that Citizen Kane Netflix DVD.

I did, however, know of and appreciate Mike Nichols, director of many excellent films. One of those films happens to be The Birdcage, the 1996 remake of the French play/movie La Cage aux Folles. For my money, I’ve always considered The Birdcage to be not only one of the best comedies of the 1990s, but one of the best comedies of all time (but that’s a whole other topic). When I found out it was Elaine May who adapted the screenplay, essentially teaming up again with Mike Nichols, that was the trigger for me to dive headlong into the Nichols and May catalogue.

Once immersed, it quickly became apparent how significant they were. Now that I’ve listened to all their old albums and watched as many of their clips online as I could find, I’ve come to this conclusion: they are the mom and dad of modern comedy. Well, maybe that’s not right; parents aren’t supposed to be this cool. Nichols and May were so far ahead of the curve, they had already come full circle.

The duo met at the University of Chicago and started doing improvisational theater together with the Chicago-based Compass Players troupe, which later became The Second City. They began performing in 1957, hit Broadway in 1960, and broke up in 1962. In just five short years, they went from young college kids to some of the most sought-after entertainers in the world. In large part because their comedy style was something completely different.

Here is the classic Nichols and May “Teenagers” sketch, which catapulted them to fame after they performed it on Omnibus in 1958:

As you can see, Nichols and May were far beyond the well-honed, jokey patter that was found on many of the sitcoms at the time. They were creating a sophisticated, almost musical blend of comedy and drama that skewered everything from art and politics to human flaws and universal emotions. In Nichols and May: Take Two, an American Masters program that aired in 1996, Steve Martin said each routine was “like a song — you could listen to it over and over. I used to go to sleep to them at night.” In addition to Martin, it’s astounding how many modern comedians they influenced. On the family tree of comedy, Nichols and May are definitely one of the roots.

What’s still amazing to me is that, like almost all of their material, their bits were improvised. Nichols and May generated their comedy from putting characters in situations and riffing effortlessly off one another. Even once they had regular bits down pat, the pieces would change and evolve naturally in live performances.

Here is the “Mother and Son” skit from their Grammy-winning album An Evening with Nichols and May, which was made up from performances of their Broadway show:

After they split up their comedy act, Mike Nichols and Elaine May have reunited here and there, but never for an extended run. If they got together for a limited engagement, I think Broadway would explode. Just look at how The Book of Mormon is being devoured right now; Broadway is starved for good material. They’re both still around. Why not?

For more on Nichols and May, there’s some good stuff out there. I recommend reading this old New York Times article, this great post over on Dangerous Minds, and checking out the American Masters program (which hey, PBS… how about putting it up online). In addition to the limited amount of recorded material they produced, there’s also a bunch of unreleased Nichols and May tracks floating out there on the Internet. But you didn’t hear that from me.

For a final clip, here they are performing one of their classic bits on Jack Paar’s show:

Ben Worcester is a sometimes writer who wishes he could form a comedy team called Nichols, May, and Worcester.

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