September 8th, 2004
Elaine May
About Elaine May

Mike Nichols and Elaine May revolutionized the landscape of American comedy. By perfecting the art of improvisation and introducing it to the public through their appearances in clubs and on television and radio, they forever changed our expectations of comedy, and our sense of humor.

Born in Berlin in 1931, Nichols attended a segregated school for Jewish children. His father, a doctor, fled the Nazis by moving the family to New York City when Nichols was still a child. May was born in 1932 in Philadelphia, the daughter of the director, writer, and principal actor of a traveling Jewish theatrical company. She caught the thespian bug early, appearing on stage in the roles of little boys. The two met while attending the University of Chicago, and they first worked together honing their improvisational skills at the Compass Theatre, a Chicago nightclub. Later, Nichols and May decided to take their show on the road. Their meteoric rise as a comedy team began in 1957, when they first performed at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Masters of the dead-pan dialogue, Nichols and May created flawlessly improvised scenes that were outrageously funny, yet simply understated. Their dry wit and wry satire enabled them to lampoon faceless bureaucracy and such previously sacrosanct institutions as hospitals, politics, funeral homes, and even motherhood. Like other great comedy duos, Nichols and May perfectly complemented each other. They seemed so attuned and at ease with each other that the miscommunication they often based their skits on were all the funnier.

Within a short while of arriving in New York, they were the talk of the town — appearing on THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, introducing a nationwide audience to a humor unlike any on television. Nichols and May spent much of the next three years traveling the country performing together on stage, radio, and television. Their high-paced satirical sketches played as well over the radio waves as they did on the screen. In 1960, “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” had opened on Broadway to rave reviews, but by 1961, Nichols and May would announce the end of their partnership.

Interested in pursuing individual careers, the two left behind one of the most popular and imitated comedy acts of its time. Continuing to work in the entertainment industry, both Elaine May and Mike Nichols have had exceptional careers. Nichols, who concentrated primarily on directing, worked often with Neil Simon and has won seven Tony Awards, for plays including “The Odd Couple” (1965) and “The Real Thing” (1984). Among his better known movies are such classics as WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), THE GRADUATE (1967), and CATCH-22 (1970). May, who has written a number of movies, including A NEW LEAF (1971) and HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978), continues to direct and act.

Most recently, the two have come together to work on a new version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. THE BIRD CAGE, written by May and directed by Nichols was a triumphant return and one of the funniest movies of 1996. In its perfect timing and over-the-top humor, one could still see the two comic geniuses that first thrilled audiences nearly forty years earlier.

  • Tom McLellan

    I’m seeking to purchase videos of sketches by Nichols & May. Any suggestions?

  • Z Budapest

    Dear Elaine May!
    This is a long overdue fan letter from across several decades, when you were in Chicago, and i was there as a married student. You and Mike were my shining light that there ware new ways of thinking, and this is why i went to Second City to study with Viola Sills.
    Since then i have become a non fiction writer, several books published via big publishers, and the world has changed once again. technology is finally more in the writers corner.
    I had big dreams of becoming a comedy writer, always deeply in love with political satire. Now in my third destiny, i am sitting on those dreams no more. But i am 70 years old. I have a TV show that needs a funny cartoonist, I am writing “Berkeley Broads,” about characters from the second wave. I am isolated. I have no agents. I know nobody who could hook me up with a cowriter, and artist, agent. You must have gone through all this is there Any way you could help me hooking up with the creative community? If you look at my website you’ll see i spent my youth on inventing and developing the Women’s Spirituality Movement, which has been very successful, and i could be free again to make political satire. As a Hungarian Political refugee, this is what we used to live on.
    Anyway, Ms May , THANK YOU for the deep laughs , hopefully you get this. A lonely writer Z Budapest

  • Graham

    How can I get a copy of this special?

  • David H Smith

    I absolutely love the film “A New Leaf” which to my mind is an Elaine May tour de force. However, it would appear that there are no versions of the original movie (120 minutes) available anywhere, and very few copies of the 102 edited version that Elaine May disliked so much she wanted her name off the credits. The few that are around are on VHS and are ludicrously expensive.
    Why are there no PAL DVD versions of either cut of this film, which I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking is one of the finest comedies ever written?
    Kind regards,
    David H Smith

  • raffaella frontiere

    To Elaine May: “A New Leaf” has always been #1 on my favorite comedy short list. A top-notch cast and a story
    to match, this neglected masterpiece still awaits its DVD debut. Equally tragic was that even though a now discontinued VHS version was released, Paramount made the contemptible decision to replace the original music-sorely missed during the poignant scene, where Graham discovers he’s broke. Who chose to do that
    and why? Please try to correct that, if possible, when negotiating the DVD release. And unless legalities and/or inequities make it impossible, please see that the final retail product is a 2-DVD set, including your original film version-which you and Paramount producer Robert (“Chinatown”) Evans had sparred over its ending. Thank you!

  • Joe Keith

    Agreed on the need for a DVD. More so on restoration to the work as done by Ms. May. There is something historical here that needs to be preserved, preferably within Ms. May’s lifetime. Comedic genius needs suitable avenues for its expression, and these need not be exclusively avenues constrained by the profit motive. (although admittedly that helps get the comedic cart moving.) OBTW, the youtube version of the pix includes the original “tweety bird” music but various online full feature downloads include the later dub-over music. This film – or Ms. May’s original copy if it still exists – MUST be in the public domain by now. Time for my Mogen David Malaga Cooler now. (Snicker.)

  • George Arndt

    I just saw “A New Leaf” for the first time. Not bad. Now I want to see the original version.

Inside This Episode

  • About Elaine May


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