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.