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.
(A tip of the kippah to Dan Mosenkis for bringing this video to our attention.)