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Nichols and May - a comedy post - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Nichols and May - a comedy post

You've probably never heard of the late 1950s American comedy team of Nichols and May. Their style was approachable, mildly absurd, yet not roll-on-the-floor funny; it had a lightly intellectual charm to it. Over the years I'd heard them on classic comedy radio a couple of times, but knew little about them.

So when A&E's television show Biography had an episode about them, I was expecting... y'know, a biography. Instead it was solely about their few years of fame around 1960. The show never explained who they were, how they met, where they came from, or what happened to them afterwards. (And why the show interviewed Tom Brokaw about them, I'll never understand.) On the positive side, the episode was full of rare video clips!

Mike Nichols and Elaine May were born Michael Peschkowsky and Elaine Berlin in the early 1930s, and became actors in improvisational theatre in the early 50s. I should note here that modern English improv was largely founded and influenced by two people. (1) Keith Johnstone, who taught theatre in England and Canada, and paved the way for TheatreSports, Whose Line is it Anyway, and Colin Mochrie. (2) Viola Spolin, whose influence was a little more abstract and more prevalent in the United States. If you've ever had a drama teacher bark the phrase "Point of concentration!" at you, it's her fault. Her son started Second City in Chicago, originating from a group called the Compass Players. Second City later served as the breeding ground for Saturday Night Live and SCTV. Okay, background history established.

Nichols and May were in the Compass Players together, that first generation of modern improvisers, in the mid-to-late 50s. They worked really well together, and their skill and popularity started scoring them TV appearances. They also made a couple of comedy albums, and their act culminated in a 1961 stage show that won them a Grammy Award. They broke up afterwards due to personal tensions, but remained friends.

So what happened to them? Well, Mike Nichols went into Hollywood. He directed The Graduate, Catch-22, and Wolf (amongst others), and produced The Remains of the Day. Elaine May has also dabbled in film, and is an uncredited scriptwriter for Tootsie and Labyrinth. She also helped Nichols with scripts - in regards to Wolf, Nichols later said, "she saved my ass on that one." And aside from her other scriptwriting work, she continued to work in theatre, mainly in New York.

Allow me to digress. Elaine May is also, unfortunately, responsible for Ishtar, a film I feel I have to defend. I'm not going to defend it as a good film, because it isn't. I'm going to defend that its notoriety is an exaggerated reputation that it can't shake off, and that aside from going horribly over-budget, there's nothing that makes it distinctly awful. Sure, it has stupid dialogue, bad pacing, contrived situations, unsympathetic schmoes as main characters - but it's interchangeable with any similar idiotic one-to-two-star comedy movie on late-night TV. There are definitely worse films out there. Given a choice, I'd gladly choose to watch Ishtar again over Battlefield Earth or Armageddon.

Part of my personal frustration in watching Ishtar comes from seeing unfulfilled potential - not that I could do any better. During the film I see the setups for gags, only to see them horribly wasted or ruined. Like a scene where Dustin Hoffman finds himself pretending to be a multi-lingual auctioneer for a black-market arms dealer. A great idea, and wrecked in its execution. The film has some good lines, scenes and gags - but they're very brief and vastly overshadowed. ("It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age, don't you understand that? Most guys would be ashamed, but you've got the guts to just say to hell with it. You say that you'd rather have nothing than settle for less.")

I've got one video clip to share from the film. Warren Beatty has been given a code phrase, to go to a market and to tell a man called Mohammed that he wants to buy a blind camel. When he gets there, he doesn't know anyone, so he says "Mohammed?" out loud, which of course five or six guys all answer to. They're confused about why he wants to buy a blind camel, and ask him if he'd also be interested in a camel with a crippled leg and no teeth. Anyway - this is the scene right after he's bought a blind camel and met up with Hoffman. [1:15]

Hoffman and Beatty play two wanna-be songwriters who love music and composing it - they truly "click" together. And they're totally unaware of their incompetence. This is the best aspect of the film which I think gets completely overlooked. (But still, don't rent it.) Their songs were composed by the talented Paul Williams (hooray!) with May supplying some of the lyrics. Said Williams, "The real task was to write songs that were believably bad. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had in my life. I've never had more fun on a picture, but I've never worked harder." And he did a really good job!

53rd wedding anniversary song [1:22]
Software [0:08]
That a lawnmower can do all that [0:30]
Wardrobe of love [0:15] (my favourite)
Dangerous business [2:07] (their "hit" - you can skip the second half, it's all repetitive)

And to conclude this post, here are some of Nichols and May's sketches!
If you're short on time, I've bolded the best ones.

The most total mediocrity [2:15]. A great act at the 11th Emmy Awards. The sound's not very good. I wish someone would pull a stunt like this today!
Love at the dentist's [3:00]. This is the kind of sketch born out of improv.
Mother and son [6:30]. A nagging mother guilt-trips her son. You'd hear this on the radio occasionally, but I like the video version better. The United States' space program had had a series of failed rocket launches at the time.
An ad for Jax beer [0:45].
Dating [9:53]. Two high school seniors in a car. The best part of this is the physical humor - watch at the 2:00 and 4:00 mark; you can skip the rest.
The $65 funeral (Save this for last!) [6:00]. A sketch satirizing the enormously high cost of funerals. Brilliant - takes the gag all the way to its conclusion.

Telephone [8:00]. A man's struggles against a pay phone and Bell Telephone's operators, who have bizarre accents and use words like "newel-post".
Mysterioso [4:38]. Not all that funny a sketch; I just happen to like the piano music's atmosphere and their style of silliness. Every place mentioned ends with "-port". Favorite lines: "Elbows" and "Why is he so short?" Interesting fact: this is based on an improv they did on the subway together; it was the second time they had met. Brief mention of the Good Humor Man.

I hope you've enjoyed this slice of comedy history!
2 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 14th, 2007 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)


They say that people either love or hate Ishtar. You seem to be in the middle, so you're ok. Haters should go away. For people that love Ishtar, this 20th anniversary year is going to be great!

Right on! The guy that runs the Ishtar fan website
(http://www.ishtarthemovie.com/) is putting together a tribute CD featuring cover versions of songs from the movie.

There is a documentary film about Ishtar fandom in the works, an Ishtar fan
group, and possibly a US release on DVD (something the heathens in Europe have been enjoying for years). So shake off that square world, get with the countdown, and blast off to Ishtar!


And have a great day!
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 18th, 2007 06:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Woot! I heard that telephone sketch on the radio ages ago. The bit with "You wish to speak to a human?" stuck with me for some reason.
2 comments or Leave a comment