Remembering Mike Nichols the Performer

As you no doubt already heard, yesterday marked the passing of a man the media has aptly named an “entertainment icon” by the name of Mike Nichols. Mike earned his icon status by performing just about every major task one can perform in the modern creative arts, working as a comedian, a director, a producer, and a writer. He will be best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, for which he won an Oscar, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, Angels in America, Working Girl, and many others. But today, we dip into the archives and take a look at the first job Nichols performed that brought him to national attention: that of one half of the comedy duo Nichols & May.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May met in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago. They sort of darted back and forth from one another, as they both joined The Compass Players, a theater group that would eventually give birth to The Second City, Mike left, came back, they formed a trio with Shelly Berman, ditched him, and then got kicked out of The Compass Players. Eventually, in 1958 the pair auditioned for New York agent Jack Rollins who almost immediately got them on TV. In a New Yorker profile of Nichols, Rollins describes this audition, calling them “immediately astounding. They were complete. He is Mr. Practical. She is insanely creative. But Mike is the one that made the act live in this world.” In no time, Nichols & May appeared on the CBS variety show Omnibus, and on January 14, 1958 their sketch “Telephone” was shown to the nation for the very first time.

Now, here’s the thing to remember about comedy during this time. Up until this point, in general, comedians go on stage and they tell jokes. Maybe they’d act out a quick scene for emphasis, but much of what was seen on TV was a rapid succession of setups and punchlines. What Nichols & May did was different. They manage to create worlds for their audiences. Their scenes would build and build, making that final laugh all the more satisfying. That appearance on Omnibus led to The Tonight Show, which led toThat Was the Week That Was, and dozens of other television appearances over the years that followed, which eventually led to three comedy albums, each of which made peaked somewhere in the Top 40 on Billboard’s charts, with the second of which, An Evening with Nichols & May, made it to number 10 and also earned the pair a Grammy. The next selection comes from their first album Improvisations to Music, which is probably their least remembered of the three, probably due to its odd concept: music is played, and Nichols & May improvise scenes on top of the songs. Sometimes they address the songs and sometimes they don’t. “Bach to Bach,” is all about the music, and what it’s really trying to say.

In this sketch we get to hear the duo improvising and their individual strengths truly shine. Elaine comes in strong, establishing a character voice immediately. The fact that they’re only talking about the song that’s playing almost feels like a mistake. Like they couldn’t come up with anything else to talk about. But slowly the scene begins to take shape and these characters reveal themselves to be incredibly pretentious scholars, obsessed with trying to show off and one-up the other, all while agreeing. (For an updated version of this, see another famous male/female duo perform “Did You Read?” on Portlandia.) Just as Rollins described above, Mike brings the base reality to the scene. Perhaps sensing that he and May had established two characters that were, in the minds of their listeners, floating in an empty void, he interrupts her: “Can you move over a little? I’m falling off the bed.” There. We know where we are now.

Following their successes in record stores and television, Nichols & May took their act to Broadway. An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened on October 8, 1960 and closed on July 1, 1961 after 306 performances. The show ran like a greatest hits of their routines, and the album recording of the show sold like gangbusters. One of their most famous routines, and the centerpiece of their show was “Mother & Son.”

Shortly after their run of shows on Broadway ended, so too did their comedy partnership. In a later reunion/interview, recorded 51 years after the comedy pairing dissolved, Elaine makes a passing reference to having to perform the same sketch 50,000 times. Perhaps it was this that split the two, or perhaps they were just ready to try something new. May ventured into writing for the stage and screen, and Mike into directing.

It’s very important to note, though, that we talk about Nichols & May as this lauded comedic institution, but they only performed together as a duo at this scale for four years. If you grew up during this time, you knew who they were and their routines, but in terms of the amount of time they existed, they were a mere blip on the radar. Nichols & May managed to make such an impression on the comedic landscape that in their short time together they forged an extremely lasting legacy. Elaine, as far as I can find, has not commented on the death of her partner, but she has been historically very guarded with the press. Prior to her reunion with Nichols in Vanity Fair last year, the last time she spoke with the press in-depth was in 1967. Regardless, the world mourns the loss of Mike Nichols along with her.

I leave you with my favorite of their pieces, “The $65 Funeral.”

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

Remembering Mike Nichols the Performer