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Nichols and May

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Nichols and May
An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Playbill (1961)
Years active1958–1962, 1971, 1977
Notable works and rolesImprovisations to Music (1958) An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors (1961), In Retrospect (1962)

Nichols and May was an American improvisational comedy duo act developed by Mike Nichols (1931–2014) and Elaine May (born 1932). Their three comedy albums reached the Billboard Top 40 between 1959 and 1962.[1] Many comedians have cited them as key influences in modern comedy. Woody Allen declared, “the two of them came along and elevated comedy to a brand-new level".[2]


Nichols and May with Dorothy Loudon (r.) in 1959



Nichols and May met as students at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s.[3] They began their career together at The Compass Players, a predecessor to Chicago's Second City which included Paul Sills, Del Close, Loretta Chiljian, and Nancy Ponder.[4] Nichols dropped out of college in 1953 and moved to New York in 1954 to study acting with Lee Strasberg.[5] May remained in Chicago at Compass, and Nichols returned in 1955. For a short time they worked as a trio with Shelley Berman, but Nichols felt a duo worked better for their style.

Both Nichols and May held various jobs and pursued their craft until 1957, when Compass began an expansion to St. Louis, Missouri. Nichols rejoined the company but was fired in 1958, because May objected to Nichols's treatment of Close, and because the producer suspected Nichols and May were honing an act they planned to take with them.[6] They soon auditioned for agent Jack Rollins in New York, and within weeks they were booked on The Steve Allen Show and Omnibus. Soon they were touring the country and doing voiceover work for ads, most notably a cartoon campaign for Jackson Brewing Company[7] and Narragansett Brewing Company.[8]

On Broadway


On October 6, 1960, Nichols and May opened on Broadway in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May at The John Golden Theatre.[9] The show ran for 306 performances, and closed on July 1, 1961.

Comedy albums


Their 1958 album Improvisations to Music featured the pianist Marty Rubenstein playing improvisations to existing classical and popular songs, as well as original material, with humorous conversations by Nichols and May.[10] Their 1960 album An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May was a recording of their Broadway debut and won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance. Their next album Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors was also nominated for a Grammy. Nichols and May grew in fame quickly, and in 1962, for John F. Kennedy's birthday, they performed, alongside Marilyn Monroe.[11] They also recorded a series of short sketches for the radio program Monitor, which were aired over several years in the 1960s. Monitor Radio was an NBC radio broadcast before 1960, featuring Bob and Ray, as well. Nichols and May were heard on Monitor Radio in the late 50s.



The duo discontinued the act in 1961, with each pursuing different careers. Nichols worked as a film and theatre director, and directed such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director. May appears in an uncredited cameo in "The Graduate." May primarily worked as a screenwriter, writing such films as A New Leaf, which she also directed and played the lead role, and Heaven Can Wait.



The duo continued to sporadically reunite after 1961. In the early 1960s they appeared several times on NBC's The Jack Paar Program. The duo reunited in 1972 at New York's Madison Square Garden for the all-star Together For McGovern rally for Senator George McGovern's presidential campaign. They also took the stage at President Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural gala. They appeared together in a 1980 stage revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in New Haven, Connecticut.[12] May also wrote the screenplays to The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998), both of which Nichols directed.

Nichols and May: Take Two


In 1996, the PBS series American Masters released a 90-minute documentary film on Nichols and May, titled Nichols and May: Take Two on PBS.[13][14] The documentary was directed by Phillip Schopper, and features several celebrities and entertainers such as Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Tom Brokaw, Arthur Penn, Jack Rollins and Steve Allen.[15] The documentary features rare clips of their comedy sketches in which their combination of great comic timing and natural improvisational ability is showcased. Steve Martin observed, "I had never actually heard someone deliver irony just in the tone of their voice." The Chicago Tribune critic noted, "Unlike many films of this kind it understands, too, the importance of including full-length routines, rather than mere snippets."[16] To this date, there remains no DVD or VHS copy available to own.

Influence and legacy


In an interview with Vanity Fair, Nichols and May said their comic heroes were Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.[2]

In Vanity Fair, Woody Allen declared, "Individually, each one is a genius, and when they worked together, the sum was even greater than the combination of the parts—the two of them came along and elevated comedy to a brand-new level".[2]

In Netflix's comedy special Jerry Before Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld displayed his personal standup comedy albums he collected as a kid, which include Nichols and May's Improvisations to Music.

In an interview with Pitchfork, standup comedian John Mulaney, described Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors (1961) as one of his favorite comedy albums of all time.[17] Mulaney stated, "I got this album for Christmas when I was in junior high. The last track, “Nichols and May at Work,” is an outtake from recording the album, they were just improvising dialog in a studio. They're trying to do a piece where a son goes to his mother and says that he wants to become a registered nurse. It's something you just have to experience, because two people that funny laughing that hard is really, really, really funny. I think it might be the happiest thing ever recorded."[17]




  1. ^ Holland, Bill (September 28, 1996). '50s trailblazers brought social satire to the masses. Billboard, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c "Exclusive: The Reunion of Mike Nichols and Elaine May". Vanity Fair. December 20, 2012.
  3. ^ Staff report (Nov 21, 1960). Fun with human foibles: Nichols and May's satire prickles and tickles. Life
  4. ^ Coleman, Janet (1991). The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre That Revolutionized American Comedy. University Of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-11345-6. p. 128
  5. ^ Lahr, John (2002). Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-23377-5. p. 265
  6. ^ Nachman, Gerald (2004). Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Back Stage Books, ISBN 978-0-8230-4786-4
  7. ^ Rice, Robert (April 15, 1961). "A Tilted Insight, The Improvisational Genius of Nichols and May". The New Yorker.
  8. ^ Turley Hazel B. (2007). Narragansett Brewing Company. Arcadia Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7385-4905-7
  9. ^ "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May Broadway @ John Golden Theatre - Tickets and Discounts".
  10. ^ a b Anon. (December 15, 1958). "Sold Out". Billboard. p. 17. Retrieved June 5, 2018.
  11. ^ Marks, Peter (May 18, 1996). "The Brief, Brilliant Run Of Nichols and May". The New York Times.
  12. ^ Hill, Lee (June 2003). "Great Directors Critical Database: Mike Nichols". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  13. ^ Marks, Peter (May 19, 1996). Television: The Brief, Brilliant Run Of Nichols and May. New York Times
  14. ^ "Nichols & May | About Mike Nichols and Elaine May | American Masters | PBS". PBS. January 8, 2005.
  15. ^ ""American Masters" Nichols and May: Take Two (TV Episode 1996)". IMDb.
  16. ^ "American Masters: Nichols and May -- Take". Chicago Tribune. May 22, 1996.
  17. ^ a b "John Mulaney on His 5 Favorite Comedy Albums". Pitchfork. September 27, 2018.