When I was nine, I freaked out a shrink. She was testing us – to make sure we were smart enough and suitably well-adjusted for school. "Nickels and -----," the psychologist prodded (wanting me to say "dimes"). When I answered, "and May," the poor woman didn't know what to think. My parents later told me that the lady was confused and still unsmiling when they explained the reason for my unusual response: they loved to listen, a cocktail in hand, to Nichols and May albums. ("This child and her parents lack a grounding in practical reality," I'm sure the mental health expert must have written on my school record, "if this neurotic tendency is left unchecked, the youngster will not develop normally and will become a poet or comedienne.")
I thought of this childhood moment last month when I learned that Elaine May, writer, director and performer, was one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts. President Obama presented the Medals along with the National Humanities Medals in the East Room at the White House. The initiative is managed by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is this country's top arts honor. "Today...," Obama said at the awards ceremony, "is all about –celebrating some extraordinary men and women who've used their talents in the arts and humanities to open up minds and nourish souls, and help us understand what it means to be human..."
Some of you maybe are wondering: Is comedy an art? Why is a big honor going to someone who, horror of horrors, has made us laugh; and what, in the name of tragedy, Hamlet, Eugene O'Neill, pomposity, and gravitas, does comedy have to do with understanding the human condition or nourishing souls? I imagine some of my fellow and sister poets, holding fast to their iambic pentameter, are protesting outside the West Wing as I write.
But if you require wit, insight, satire and irony to wake up in the morning; worship at the feet of women who are talented and funny comedians; or you love humor that comes out of characters and improvisation; then you're over the moon with May receiving the Arts Medal. I know I am.
May, born in 1932, appeared in the Yiddish theater from the time she was a child – making her debut on stage at age three. At age 11 after her father died, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. May who loathed school dropped out of high school when she was 14. After studying with acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya and doing odd jobs to make ends meet, May, with only $7 in her pocket, began sitting in on classes at the University of Chicago. (The University didn't require their students to have finished high school.) May met Mike Nichols at the University.
There they became instant friends. "We had instant rapport," Nichols recalled, adding that they were "dead broke theater junkies." They became part of a new group called the Compass Players (a forerunner to Second City). There, Nichols and May honed their style of groundbreaking comedy. In a bizarre twist in 1957, Nichols was axed from the Compass Players because he had "too much talent." After May left with him, they became Nichols and May. In short order, Jack Rollins, the producer, had the duo audition for him. "I was stunned by how...good they were,...as impressed by their acting technique as by their comedy...these are two people writing hilarious comedy on their feet," he later recalled.
Nichols and May quickly became famous, appearing on Broadway in 1960 in "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May." The record of that show won a Grammy. They made several albums, justifiably regarded as classics, including "Improvisations to Music," "In Retrospect," and "Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors." Nichols and May were stunned by their meteoric success. "When we came to New York, we were practically barefoot," May told "Newsweek," "And I still can't get used to walking in high heels."
But as quickly as they reached the heights of fame, Nichols and May broke up. Nichols became a renown director of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," among many films. May went on to act, direct and write. She has written several plays, including "George is Dead," which was performed on Broadway from 2011 to 2012. She directed "A New Leaf" and "The Heartbreak Kid." May, along with Nichols, received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay for the movie "The Birdcage." She earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for "Primary Colors." As an actress, May lights up the screen, even in movies such as the Neil Simon vehicle "California Suite," which is more entertaining brain candy than great cinema.
Yet, her sublime work with Nichols will be her legacy. Their comedy was groundbreaking for its time (and is still funny now). As one writer in the 1950's said of their work, their comedy had "snob appeal and mob appeal." Nichols and May were one of the first comedy duos to use comedy to satirize everything from corporations to hospitals to psychoanalysis to "relationships." The same can be said even now in this era of Twitter, cell phones and the Internet. Though dry, understated, and dry, the sophisticated comedy of Nichols and May still reveals the quirks, true colors and traits of the human condition.
If you've ever run up against a vast bureaucracy, you can't help but laugh with knowing recognition when you listen to Nichols and May perform their "telephone" improvisation. Nichols is a character who has lost his last dime when he's trying to make a phone call. His car has broken down, he's quite late for an appointment, and he's trying desperately to call the person he's supposed to meet. No matter how much he argues, he can't get the telephone company operator to return his dime–so he can make his call. (The operator wants to send him the dime in stamps). You feel both like laughing and howling with rage (like Nichols' character), when the telephone operator, in an officious tone, says, "Information can not argue with a closed mind."
Have you ever felt a lunge in your stomach on hearing the voice at the other end of a phone (or in a text or Facebook message) say, "This is your mother! Do you remember me?" If, as is the case with many, the answer is yes, then you'll laugh and wince with psychic pain when you listen to Nichols and May's "Mothers and Sons" sketch.
Are you tired of hearing not only celebs, but your BFFs name drop – about their mentors, house guests, their cats' famous vets? Then, you'll enjoy Nichols and May's improvisation of the DJ Jack Ego and Barbara, an actress. Barbara tells Jack that her next movie is "The Big Sky." It's "the life story of God," she says. "God...he's one of my best fr....," Jack says as the sketch ends.
Nichols and May have influenced contemporary comedians from David Letterman to Lily Tomlin to Tina Fey. "The nuances of the characterizations and the cultural types that they were doing completely appealed to me," Tomlin has said of the duo, "They were the first people I saw doing, smart, hip character pieces."
"There was nothing like Elaine May, with her voice, her timing and her attitude," Tomlin added.
May is the first person working in comedy to receive the Arts Medal since 2003. Congrats to the National Endowment on the Arts for bestowing well deserved recognition on one of the great practitioners of the art of comedy. There is no one like Elaine May.