Nichols and May

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Nichols and May, 1960

Nichols and May was a Grammy Award-winning 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. “You can't get any better than they were," TV host Dick Cavett remembered, "They were one of the comic meteors in the sky.”[2]

Development and collaboration[edit]

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, 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. “Somehow we could talk in shorthand," Nichols remembered. "If one of us said, or someone in the audience said, ‘Two teenagers in the backseat of a car,’ we had the scene. We didn’t have to know more than that sentence."[6]

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' treatment of Close, and because the producer suspected Nichols and May were honing an act they planned to take with them.[7] 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[8] and Narragansett Brewing Company.[9] 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.

Disbandment and reunions[edit]

The duo discontinued the act in 1961, with each pursuing different careers. Nichols worked as a film 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 appeares 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. In 1996, the PBS series American Masters aired Nichols and May: Take Two, an hourlong documentary about the duo.[13]



  1. ^ Holland, Bill (September 28, 1996). '50s trailblazers brought social satire to the masses. Billboard, p. 1.
  2. ^ "Comedy's Perfect Pair". The Attic. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
  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
  5. ^ Lahr, John (2002). Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-23377-5
  6. ^ "Comedy's Perfect Pair". The Attic. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
  7. ^ Nachman, Gerald (2004). Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Back Stage Books, ISBN 978-0-8230-4786-4
  8. ^ Rice, Robert (15 April 1961). "A Tilted Insight, The Improvisational Genius of Nichols and May". The New Yorker.
  9. ^ Turley Hazel B. (2007). Narragansett Brewing Company. Arcadia Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7385-4905-7
  10. ^ a b Anon. (December 15, 1958). "Sold Out". Billboard. p. 17. Retrieved June 5, 2018.
  11. ^ Marks, Peter (18 May 1996). "The Brief, Brilliant Run Of Nichols and May". New York Times.
  12. ^ Hill, Lee (June 2003). "Great Directors Critical Database: Mike Nichols". Senses of Cinema:. Retrieved 2008-10-12.
  13. ^ Marks, Peter (May 19, 1996). Television: The Brief, Brilliant Run Of Nichols and May. New York Times

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