(Louis Menand’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 2/1; PHOTO: Nichols on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which swept the Academy Award nominations.Photograph by © Bob Willoughby / MPTV Images.)
An intuitive storyteller, the director perfected narratives—including his own.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in October, 1957. Apart from their manager, Jack Rollins, whom they’d met for the first time just a week or two before, no one in New York had ever heard of them.
Nichols and May had worked out their comedy act in Chicago, playing mostly hole-in-the-wall venues as members of a local theatre group called the Compass. They performed sketches—a man on the phone with his mother, a movie star getting interviewed, a man trying to pick up his secretary in a bar. They had a script, but left room for ad-libs, and they ended the show by asking the audience to suggest an opening line, a closing line, and a style (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Jack Kerouac), and then improvising a skit. They were an overnight hit. By the second week, they were upstaging Sahl, a man not renowned for the length of his fuse, and he began cancelling their set.
They moved uptown to a tonier joint, the Blue Angel, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where they did a midnight show. It quickly started selling out, and soon they were the talk of the town (night-life division). In those days, television variety shows scouted talent in supper clubs like the Blue Angel, and in December Nichols and May went on “The Steve Allen Show.” In January, they performed two sketches on an NBC special, where they were seen by tens of millions of viewers.
They were now nationally known and in demand. Rollins asked for big fees, and by the spring May had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and Nichols was living in a duplex on East Fifty-eighth Street and driving a Mercedes convertible. He was twenty-six. It was the first time that he had had any money. He found that he enjoyed the life style.
Nichols and May released an album, “Improvisations to Music,” in 1958. It made it onto the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1960, they took their act to Broadway, where “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” ran for three hundred and eleven performances. The album of the show went to No. 10 in the Billboard rankings and won a Grammy.
Some people who saw them perform—including the critic Edmund Wilson, who went to the Broadway show four times—thought that May was the star. May is a kind of comic genius. Her father, Jack Berlin, worked in the Yiddish theatre, and she had been appearing onstage since she was a child. She was fearless—also glamorous, sexy, and terrifying to men. (She and Nichols were not lovers.) There is a story that when they were performing in Chicago she would go onstage without underwear and flash the audience.
She married when she was sixteen, had a daughter (Jeannie Berlin, who became a movie actress), split from her husband, and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she hung out at the university, attending classes but never registering. That was where she met Nichols, a University of Chicago dropout who had found a home of sorts as an actor on the local drama scene.
Nichols was widely regarded as (his term) a prick. He was supercilious and had a quick tongue—“a scary person,” as one colleague put it. May was introduced to him by the Compass’s director, Paul Sills, as “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.” (The Compass became Second City, the legendary feeder troupe for “Saturday Night Live”; Sills was its original director.) They quickly recognized that they were soul mates. They were sophisticated, faster with a comeback than anyone they knew, and unencumbered by conventional, or even unconventional, pieties. They saw through everything and everybody, including themselves.
More to the point, as May put it, “we found each other hilarious.” Onstage, they were complementary. “He was always directing the scene while he was doing it,” one of the Compass players remembered. “Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.” Nichols did not disagree. “She was more interested in taking chances than in being a hit,” he said. “I was more interested in making the audience happy.”
What made the show so hot? Nichols and May were witty people, but they used standard comic setups (the quarrelsome couple, the all-thumbs first date), and they lampooned some pretty soft targets—the British movie “Brief Encounter,” for instance, which they set in a dentist’s office. (“There, I’ve said it. I do love you. Rinse out, please.”) Despite the reputation the act acquired, the dialogue was not remotely risqué. They were not in Lenny Bruce territory. They were barely in Mort Sahl territory.