It’s the reboot of What’s So Funny! and there’s a new spin on things! Our host, Dave Schwensen, returns and this time he’s brought three of his friends: Kelly, Tom, and Logan. Join in as we listen to comedy albums from the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘70s. We’ll take a look at the life of the comedian as well as the cultural relevance of the album then and now. So sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh!

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The Comedy Duo Nichols and May present “An Evening With Nichols and May”

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It’s hard to believe, but the parents of improvisational comedy didn’t even like each other the first time they met! In this episode of What’s So Funny! we take a listen to the live recording of their Broadway show “An Evening With Nichols and May,” by Mike Nichols and Elaine May. This comedy duo rose to fame in just 2 short years and paved the way for improvisational comedy that we see today!

Transcript

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Announcer:
Welcome to What's So Funny! A comedy podcast where we talk about some of the most influential and controversial comedy albums from the 1950s,'60s and '70s. Sit back, relax and get ready to laugh. Here's your host, Dave Schwensen.

Dave Schwensen:
Hi, I'm Dave Schwensen. Welcome to What's So Funny! And today I'm joined by Kelly Thewlis. Kelly, what's happening?

Kelly Thewlis:
Hi Dave. Ah, yeah. Just out there again doing the hustle for comedy.

Dave Schwensen:
Anyway, we're here today to talk about the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Kelly Thewlis:
That's right. Known as Nichols and May.

Dave Schwensen:
Unless you're really a comedy aficionado... Is that a term, a historian whatever?

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Schwensen:
Nichols and May doesn't really... They're not the big famous names from like standup comedy we usually talk about. There were more into improv, sketch groups, writing.

Kelly Thewlis:
Absolutely.

Dave Schwensen:
You've probably, I know you've done a lot of improvisation. You've been with Second City and some of these troops.

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) that's right. I got my start out at the Second City Conservatory. It's where I got into comedy. They actually, in that program, they are taught as sort of the parents of comedy.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, I was going to say they have that reputation.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes. They're very important within the improv world for formulating the way that they write sketches within Second City.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. Very influential.

Kelly Thewlis:
The other world that they're known for is the filmmaking world. If you are really into improv comedy or if you're really into film, you'll know them. If you're really into stand up, you've missed them.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Oh, that's a good point. I'm glad you made that point. Matter of fact should we just get right into listening to some Nichols and May right now?

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, I think so.

Dave Schwensen:
Kelly, you want to tell us about the album we're going to listen to here?

Kelly Thewlis:
Sure. The album that we'll be listening to today is excerpts from the Broadway presentation of An Evening with Nichols and May from 1960. It was actually a show sketch show that they had that was very interesting. They... The way that they formulate their sketches is that they would improvise a sketch over and over and over again until it formed into the permanent sketch that would end up in their show.

Kelly Thewlis:
So, they never wrote anything down and that's what we're seeing. One show out of every performance they would improvise. I don't know what on this album was improvised, if anything.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, we'll have to improvise like we know.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, exactly.

Dave Schwensen:
But I'm glad you brought that up though. This is from their Broadway show. That's how popular they were. In 1960, they had their own Broadway show and it was like the hottest ticket in New York. Everyone had to see this.

Kelly Thewlis:
So, this clip that we're going to be listening to, it's called Telephone. It's actually a longer clip. It's about eight minutes. So we're going to divide this up in chunks just to... Because there's so much to talk about within it.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Operator, give me the number please of a George Kaplan, K-A-P-L-A-N at 4411 Huguenot Walloon Drive.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)That is George Kaplan?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yes, that's right.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That is Kaplan?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That is K, as in knife?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) A as in aardvark. P as in pneumonia. L as in luscious. A as in aardvark again. N as in newel post. Kaplan?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) I think so, yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Just one moment. I will look that number up for you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Right, thank you very much. Operator, if you could try to hurry a little bit.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) I am looking the number up for you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) I know. I don't mean to rush you at all. It's just that I'm a terrifically late and though if I-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That number is listed in your directory.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Operator, there is no directory here. I swear to God.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Will you please take a pencil and write the number down.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) I promise, I definitely will. Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
All right, well that was the first chunk we're going to listen to of Telephone from Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who are just such a well-known comedy duo back in the late 1950s, early sixties.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes. Actually I think we missed bringing this up before, but this album actually won the Grammy in 1961. That's how wildly popular this particular album was.

Dave Schwensen:
Oh yeah. Nichols and May came out of The Compass Players.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
Which was the name of their improvisational troop. And improv is different than doing a sketch. They were making things up on the spot.

Kelly Thewlis:
Right. So, one night in one of their shows, this just came out of absolutely nothing, just the air. They started making it up and going from there and working it over and over again in their shows until it was perfected enough to be recorded in their Broadway album.

Dave Schwensen:
Now let me ask you this Kelly, because I know you do a lot of improvisation. A lot of it's based on audience suggestions. Is that correct?

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
When you go to a show, an improv show?

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes, that's correct. Lots of audience suggestions. I'm not sure if at the time they were grabbing those suggestions? I'm going to assume that they were because...

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, it's hard to trace the history of this.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
Because a lot of it is not written down.

Kelly Thewlis:
Right. Nothing was written down.

Dave Schwensen:
They did shows and they were funny. It was hit and miss maybe sometimes.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. Bring up a good point of them not writing anything down. They didn't even write down this album. So, when they're on Broadway they... The tech, the lighting guys, they had to actually have it transcribed. They had someone bring someone in, record them rehearsing and then transcribe it. That way they could get the lighting cues for it because they wrote nothing down.

Kelly Thewlis:
And then that later on that transcription of it, Elaine saw it and saw it as a script and then it made her insecure, which led eventually...

Dave Schwensen:
Well, didn't she read it and say, "Why does anyone think this is funny?"

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. It did.

Dave Schwensen:
So, with them too, it was a lot of... You don't pick this up on their album. You watch their clips on the videos and everything. A lot of it is facial expressions.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
They're timing, their delivery. And I'll be honest with you, just listening to this last clip of Telephone, it seems to me that could have been an inspiration for Lily Tomlin's famous character, the telephone operator from Laugh-In and beyond.

Kelly Thewlis:
I'm so glad you brought that up because I was thinking the same thing as we were listening, but I wasn't sure on that, so I didn't want to say it. But yeah, I would think it would have because it's similar vein there.

Dave Schwensen:
Let's keep listening to this and see how this Telephone skit plays out.

Kelly Thewlis:
So far Mike Nichols is trying to get a phone number from the telephone operator. So, let's see what happens next.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) There is no directory here. I swear to God.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Will you please take a pencil and you write the number down?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yes, I promise, I definitely will. Yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That number is Fairfax 9.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Hello? Hello? Operator? Hello?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Operator, you collected my dime.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information is a free service, sir. When you hang up, your dime will be returned to you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Miss, listen, I know it's usually a free service. See, the thing is, in this case, I heard the dime hit all those other dimes.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) See, I know it's in there and I wouldn't bother you about a dime operator. In this case, miss, it's my last dime. I have no change. My car has broken down and I'm an hour late for a very important appointment so you can see... Hello?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Oh, no. Miss, please return my dime.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Sir, I cannot return your dime to you until you hang up. And when you hang up your dime will be returned to you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) No, it won't. Operator listen to me. I know that sound. I've heard it all my life. That dime is in there.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information cannot argue with a closed mind. Why don't you try hanging up?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Because I can't take the chance. I'll lose the dime. I'll lose you. Look miss, can I go over your head? Is there someone else I can speak to? A human.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Do you wish to speak to a human?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) About your alleged dime?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) It's a real dime.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Just one moment. I will connect you with the information supervisor.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you very much. Hello? Miss? Operator? Hello?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Information.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Listen, there is no chance that you would, say, jostle something with your elbow and just cut me off completely?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) We do not have to work with our elbows, sir.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Sorry.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Oh, come on, come on.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Information supervisor, can I help you?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)I sincerely hope so.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Yes sir.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Just a minute ago operator-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Supervisor. I'm information supervisor.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)I'm sorry.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Oh, that's all right.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Just a minute ago, one of your girls inadvertently collected my last dime, and you see, as I explained to her my...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Oh, no sir. Information doesn't charge you dimes.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)No, look, miss, I've already gone through-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Now you see when you hang up your dime will be returned to you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)The other girl-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Information is a completely free service.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Not tonight! Now miss, please try to understand what I'm saying to you. I'm speaking as one human being to another. Forget that you're an operator.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I'm a supervisor. I'm an information supervisor.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)All right, fine. All right, supervisor. Bell telephone has stolen my last dime. That's what it comes down to.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) [crosstalk 00:09:44] Oh, just a minute sir.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)You stole it. I put it in the telephone and you took it away.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Just a minute you know. I mean, Bell Telephone wouldn't steal your dime you know.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Miss, they have stolen my dime.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)No, I mean Bell Telephone doesn't need your dime.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)I know, that's exactly my point.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Bell Telephone gets millions of dimes every day. They wouldn't pick out your dime to steal.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)They stole it, damn it. They stole it.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I'm not going to just sit here and argue with you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Now, miss, look.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I mean you sit there and tell me that you think that the Bell Telephone Company had stolen your dime?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)That is what I've been telling you now for 20 minutes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I'd be very happy to return your dime to you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)You will?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Yes.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Not at all. What is your name and your address?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Miss?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Yes?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)You're going to send me a whole lot of stamps, aren't you?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Yes we are, that's right. Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)I knew it. Look, I've received stamps from you people in the past and it's a swell surprise. I need the dime. Now look, can I go over your head? Is there someone else I can speak to?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Well, I could connect you with the managing supervisor Miss Jones.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)She wouldn't be able to help you either if you want to give it a whirl.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Miss Jones, please and please hurry.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Just hold the line.

Dave Schwensen:
You know, there was nothing on television like them.

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-mm (negative).

Dave Schwensen:
Nichols and May were different. Like I said, they were not like the comedy teams audiences had been used to.

Kelly Thewlis:
Right.

Dave Schwensen:
So, and this was about 15 years before Saturday Night Live came out. And I look at the original Saturday Night Live, not ready for prime time players.

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Schwensen:
And a lot of them came out of Second City, okay... The improvisational troops. So, it was a combination of sketch/comedy, but improvisation. You always had that danger. You never knew what was going to happen.

Kelly Thewlis:
Right. And he would always laugh when people broke, when people were laughing. And so I think you see that within this album. You hear Elaine just laughing along with the audience at the things that she and Mike are saying. They would break so often that Mike would actually just say to Elaine, "Oh, just go on without me. I got a case of the giggles here.

Kelly Thewlis:
And so then she would actually go on improvise for a little bit until he could calm back down and go back into the sketch. And that's how they got back into it.

Dave Schwensen:
But that's so interesting and it's so real. And that's what good comedy is.

Kelly Thewlis:
Everybody's involved in that fun where I think before that, sketch comedy was very clean, very perfected before they went on the stage. So, I don't think you would ever have heard the comedian laughing along at what they're saying as they're saying it.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, the one thing you changed... I remember reading when they first met each other. Now they went to the university of Chicago, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They didn't know each other and I don't think they liked each other at first. He always felt she looked at him with suspicion or something.

Kelly Thewlis:
Right! That's right. Well, the way he worded it is that he remembers seeing her around the theater and he felt that she always looked at him with disdain and so he never approached her. And whereas she just went out and said, "No, I never even looked at him at all."

Dave Schwensen:
[crosstalk 00:12:48] "I never noticed him."

Kelly Thewlis:
"I didn't even notice him."

Dave Schwensen:
But there's a story, they finally got together at the train station.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes. A couple of years later, they both happened to be at a train station.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, and they sat down and really started improvising right there.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. For nobody. Just their...

Dave Schwensen:
Turned into like a Russian spy kind of bit and neither one remembered it later exactly what they said. But that's how they knew they could work together. And then they went on... Their histories with The Compass Players. Okay. Started Chicago, went to St. Louis, became Second City. Eventually that was the seeds of Second City.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah.

Dave Schwensen:
And the two of them went to New York. And their success was pretty fast.

Kelly Thewlis:
It was. It was very fast. This album launched them and then, like I said, they won the Grammy and then they disbanded right afterwards.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah they were only together for a few years.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. It was a very quick rise to stardom and very quick departure. I'm glad you brought up the SNL though because in that sketch they, you could hear Elaine giggling and that's something that I think was definite roots of SNL right there.

Dave Schwensen:
Saturday Night Live.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah.

Dave Schwensen:
When I listen to them, there was nothing on television like them.

Kelly Thewlis:
A lot of the things that they did, it was about human connection. I think we'll hear that as we continue to listen to album. It was all about just human connections.

Kelly Thewlis:
And so, I think the thing that makes this so funny is that you have a human who's dealing with someone who is not behaving like a human.

Dave Schwensen:
Right.

Kelly Thewlis:
And so, what they talked about in Second City was that every sketch you come up with is a game and everything you do there is some sort of game to it. So, right here we have the game is Mike's character is just trying to get some real information. He's just trying to get his dime back. Or Nichols' dime back? Anyways, Mike Nichols getting his dime.

Dave Schwensen:
That's confusing. Okay.

Kelly Thewlis:
But he's just trying to get his dime back. And right now he's dealing with this robotic human who just doing her job. And so, that's sort of the game that's being built upon here.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, that's really interesting. I feel I've been learning something here Kelly. That's great. Let's find out what happens. Let's go to the second part of this clip. Telephone by Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Managing supervisor, Miss Jones. Can I help you?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Oh, Miss Jones. I'm so glad I finally got a hold of you.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)What is it sir?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Miss Jones, this is my story.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Yes, yes, I'm here.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Miss Jones, a long time ago, one of your operators inadvertently collected my last dime.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Oh my God.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) You see, as I explained to her... I'm sorry, Miss Jones. I don't usually do this.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) No sir, you go ahead and cry.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Oh, Bell Telephone understands.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) You're very kind.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) You've lost your dime.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) No, she took it and I haven't got it back.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Of course, you do, sir. And Bell Telephone will be very happy to give you a free call for that dime.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Oh, Miss Jones...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Yes, sir?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) If this is true, I'll never forget you as long as I live.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Well, it's true.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you. Thank you, Miss Jones. Thank you.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Oh no. Our pleasure to serve you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) You just give me the number you're calling.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Miss Jones.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Yes, sir?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) You're dealing here with an ass. You see, as she took the dime before I ever got the number... Look, we'll forget it. I'll lose my job. That's all.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) There's no need to take that attitude.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) No?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Not at all. You can simply give me the name of the party you're calling. I can look that number up for you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Oh, grand. The name is George Kaplan. K-A-P-L-A-N as in newel post.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)One moment.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Hello sir. I have that number for you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yes. Yes, Miss Jones, yes.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That number is Fairfax 91975.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) 91975. Tell me what to do.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Hold on to your receiver...

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Right. Check, right...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Until you hear the dial tone.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Wait for the dial tone.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Then dial your number sir.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Dial as I ordinarily would.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) You have a free call.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you Miss Jones. I'll never forget you.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) 78-91975

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) This is a recording. You have dialed a wrong exchange.

Dave Schwensen:
Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Kelly Thewlis:
You can just hear how much fun they're having working together.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, and how we can relate to it because things really haven't changed that much, have they?

Kelly Thewlis:
Not so much. Maybe we don't have a telephone operator per se, but we've all certainly been on the phone with some sort of service fight for over whatever it is. And then having to argue our way through an answering loop.

Dave Schwensen:
And that's the great thing about comedy. Because even though we're talking about humor from the late 1950s, early '60s, it really is like a time capsule. You really go back to see what it was really like for their generation.

Kelly Thewlis:
Hey music fans, what do Peter Gabriel, the Who, Stevie Wonder and nineties hip hop group 3rd Bass have in common?

Dave Schwensen:
Oh geez, Kelly, I don't know.

Kelly Thewlis:
They're featured in a podcast by Evergreen podcast called Riffs on Riffs. Riffs on Riffs is a podcast that studies sampling in popular music. Host Joe Watson and Toby Brazwell connect the musical dots between legendary tracks and the often not so well known songs they've sampled.

Kelly Thewlis:
It's interesting to see how much changes and how much doesn't change. So, one of the things, as I had mentioned before, the way that they wrote these sketches was having a game in mind. Every sketch has a game.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Kelly Thewlis:
You've got Mike Nichols up against a robot and you get that eventually, as all the games and sketches go, that you have to go somewhere with it. You've got to have some switch. It's just like good theater storytelling. So-

Dave Schwensen:
You have an obstacle in there.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah.

Dave Schwensen:
You have the set up and-

Kelly Thewlis:
Right.

Dave Schwensen:
It's good storytelling.

Kelly Thewlis:
Exactly. So, you feel the game switch, right when you've got the operator saying, "You know, I can't deal with a closed mind. Our information can't argue with a closed mind." So, you feel that like in an information sense, he's being the robotic one.

Dave Schwensen:
I know that feeling.

Kelly Thewlis:
Exactly. So, then from there it evolves. The next person's a little more human and then finally gets to the last person where she's very human, very understanding. I think she does a great job at being over the top. "My God, they stole your dime!" And it's very hilarious. But you still need that pay off of the game of him dealing with a robot in there. You just wait for it the entire time when you're listening to that. "Okay, where is it going, where's it going?"

Kelly Thewlis:
And then it hits on that last... He finally dials that number and he gets a, "You've dialed the wrong number," robot.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. The conclusion. It's good storytelling. The beginning, the middle and the end.

Kelly Thewlis:
Absolutely. You can see why they ended up going into film. They both ended up going into theater and film it's because they just... At their core, they're storytellers.

Dave Schwensen:
But I'm always interested in the journey a lot of these performers make, comedians. And when Nichols and May... We mentioned earlier that success happened fairly quickly for them. The two went to New York City after The Compass Players sort of went out of business in St Louis. They were shut down and they had a connection for an agent. Jack Rollins was a big agent. I don't know how, they had a phone number or something.

Dave Schwensen:
So, they called him up. They wound up doing an audition for him, I think it was in the Russian Tea Room.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. They met for lunch and then he liked them and asked them to come audition for him.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. And they did and he enjoyed it more and he started getting them work right away. They were in the village in New York City, opening shows for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard. I know they auditioned at the Blue Angel, which was a big club in New York City. I mean, it's where everyone went to be seen.

Dave Schwensen:
And I'm pretty sure they had Lenny Bruce opening for them.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes, they did. I don't know which club, but Lenny Bruce did open for them. It's interesting how much they all were connected.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Kelly Thewlis:
All the comedians of this time, they all interacted with each other.

Dave Schwensen:
I find that fascinating. And the ones we just mentioned, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce Nichols and May... They were doing something very, very different. This was extremely different and it was down with the younger generation. They were all college age kids at the time.

Kelly Thewlis:
They were in their late twenties when this happened. So, I think they disbanded before they're even 30. They were very young. Actually, Shelley Berman was in The Compass Players too with them.

Dave Schwensen:
Oh yeah, we have them coming up on an episode of What's So Funny!

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, they all were interconnected.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, let's move on to our next clip from Mike Nichols and Elaine May. This one is called Disc Jockey.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) This is a scene about name dropping and show business. You've heard the kind of thing. It goes roughly like this.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is Jack Ego broadcasting from the Tiptop Lounge atop New York City's beautiful Ansonia Hotel. We're very, very lucky to have with us tonight sitting right here next to me, lovely Miss Barbara Musk, who is in town. Barbara's publicizing her latest motion picture Two Gals in Paris. How are you Barbara?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I'm fine.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Sweetheart, I understand from the Pope that you just finished a movie.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)He just can't keep a secret.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)But really, I'm really glad that you brought up the movie Jack. That's why I'm on the show.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)My latest motion picture is a real great technicolor musical extravaganza called Two Gals in Paris and it is the life story of Gertrude Stein.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)How about that?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Tell me, it's funny... It's a very funny thing, honey, that you should mention it. Gerty was a very, very dear friend of mine. A swell gal. They don't make them like that anymore. What do you play in the picture sweetheart?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Well, Jack, it's just like a real great break for me. Because I mean, it's a real change of pace for me right now.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Terrific.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I mean, I don't swim in this at all.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I'm lucky enough to get the part of Gertrude Stein, so...

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Uh-huh (affirmative). I'm very surprised to hear that. I had heard Gertrude Stein was to be played by Spencer Tracy.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Only as a child.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Tell me this sweetheart. Who else is in the picture with you?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Well, Jack also with me in the picture, and really seriously now and all kidding aside, doing just the greatest job is Sal Mineo who plays the part of my lover, Ernest Hemingway.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)How about that?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Tell me, honey, tell me this. Did you get to see Papa? Papa, ladies and gentlemen, is what his very, very intimate friends call Hemingway. Did you get to see... I tell you why I ask. We've all been very, very concerned about you Papa. I was discussing it with a very, very dear friend of his and mine. He is very old, very close, very, very wonderful friend, Albert Schweitzer.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Al is a lot of laughs. I'd love to have him on the show. He's always ready with a quip. I haven't seen the old son of a gun for a while. I think he's in Africa. I told him, "Al baby, you're nuts. There's no money in Africa." But he went and we haven't heard from him since. What do you say sweetheart?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)So, Al is in Africa? I didn't know that. No, really Jack, what is there to say about Al Schweitzer?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)Really, I think that he's such a really great guy.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Uh-huh (affirmative).

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I mean, I personally have never dated him.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Uh-huh (affirmative).

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)The word gets-

Dave Schwensen:
Okay, that was really like a time capsule blast from a way back past.

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh yeah. Lots and lots of names there.

Dave Schwensen:
You know, I got to tell you though, I really enjoyed that clip.

Kelly Thewlis:
I did too.

Dave Schwensen:
I thought it was very funny. It was very... You think about when they did this back in 1960, all those names they mentioned were very well known.

Kelly Thewlis:
I mean, he says right from the top, "This is about name dropping." And they do it. Absolutely.

Dave Schwensen:
Gertrude Stein. That was...

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, Gertrude Stein, Albert Schweitzer.

Dave Schwensen:
I mean maybe a lot of people don't know who those people are. Gertrude Stein was a poet.

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) who interacted a lot with Hemingway, which is the joke there of-

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. The Old Man and the Sea. And even Sal Mineo, he was in that movie with James Dean, I think. Rebel Without a Cause.

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh yeah.

Dave Schwensen:
A very well known actor at the time. One thing that maybe comedy fans don't realize, just how seriously Mike Nichols and Elaine May took their character development in improvisation. They were both trained actors.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. Formally-trained method actors.

Dave Schwensen:
The Stanislavski method, which is very famous. It's something Lee Strasberg, the famous acting coach...

Kelly Thewlis:
And you can see that within their characters. You have to, even though they break occasionally here and there on the sketches, I mean you really have to become that human to create these sketches that are so mundane.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah.

Kelly Thewlis:
They're really about human lives. There's two games that are going on here at the same time though. Right from the start, Mike Nichols agrees that his character is just going to drop as many, many names as possible and it's just going to get wilder and bigger and his connection to them is just going to get crazier as this skit goes along.

Kelly Thewlis:
And we didn't listen to the whole thing, but it actually ends with him saying, "God's a great friend of mine." And that's the end of it. So, he just builds up from there.

Kelly Thewlis:
And then there's also a subtle game going on with Elaine where she's playing these film starlet of the time. And the way that they interacted on these shows were just coming out of the 50s where starlets of the time were very giggly, bubbly. She agrees with everything he says. She's very just over the top likable about this whole thing.

Dave Schwensen:
I have to say I doubt she knows who any of these people really are as the starlet.

Kelly Thewlis:
[crosstalk 00:28:08] As the starlet. Right.

Dave Schwensen:
She's just pretending that.

Kelly Thewlis:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dave Schwensen:
There was a venue called Town Hall. I think that's where they were seen by producers of the Jack Paar show. And Jack Paar was the host of the Tonight Show at that time and they put them on the Tonight Show. That was a big national television debut.

Kelly Thewlis:
Big break, supposed to be. Yeah.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. And Jack Paar really didn't get it.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah right. Story goes he actually tried to hurry them up.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. "Hurry up kids."

Kelly Thewlis:
They bombed apparently on the show.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. People watched. It didn't seem all that thrilling or exciting, as much as some of the comedy teams throwing pies in each other's faces, flipping up banana peels, whatever they were doing.

Kelly Thewlis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Schwensen:
But they were lucky because they were picked up by the Steve Allen Show.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes. And that's where they actually had their real break.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Steve Allen-

Kelly Thewlis:
They actually did that skit, the Disc Jockey on the Steve Allen Show.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. He really appreciated it and he gave them time. He gave them space to really milk it, to really do it. You know with their facial expressions and timing and delivery. Not hurried at all. And yes, that's really put them over the top. Huge success. And onto Broadway.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, and onto this album. Grammy winning album.

Dave Schwensen:
Let's move on to our next clip here with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. It's called Mother and Son.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Hello?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip). Hi. I was just going to call you. Is that a funny thing, that I had my hand on the phone to call you...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip), you were supposed to call me last Friday.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip). Darling. I just didn't have a second and I could cut my throat.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) didn't have a second?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) was so busy...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip), I sat by that phone all day Friday.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) know. It was just work, work, work and-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) day Friday night.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) kept thinking, "I got to call mom."

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) all day Saturday.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) believe me, I've-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) all day Sunday. And you father said to me, "Phyllis, eat something. You'll faint."

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) said, "No Harry. No, I don't want my mouth to be full when my son calls me."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Mom...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) You never call.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Mother, I was sending up Vanguard. I didn't have a second.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Well, it's always something, isn't it?

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Okay honey, look-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) You know, Arthur, I'm sure that all the other scientists there have mothers. And I'm sure that they all find time after their breakfast or before they're count off-

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Down.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)To pick up a phone and call their mother.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)Honey, listen. Now you have me on the phone.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)You know how I worry.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip)I do. That's the point.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip)I read in the paper how you keep losing them.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Mother! I don't lose them.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Well, I nearly went out of my mind.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) I thought, "What if they're taking it out of his pay?" Write me a letter if that's so hard. I'm your mother.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Look, darling. Mother. Dear, please just tell me how you are. How are you?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) I'm sick.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) I'm sorry to hear it. I really am. What's wrong?

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) Nothing. You know what it is, honey.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) It's the same thing it's always been.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah. Sure, yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) It's my nerves. And I went to the doctor. And he told me right up. He said, "Listen, Mrs. White."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) "Who are you fooling?"

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah, yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) "You are very nervous, very high strung woman."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah. Well, God knows that's true, yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) "And you cannot stand the slightest aggravation."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) I said, "Doctor, I know that. I do."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Yeah. Yeah.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) "But you see doctor, I have this son. It's the truth. The boy is not lying. He's very busy. You see doctor, he's too busy to pick up a phone and call his mother."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Honey. Listen mom. Dear. I want to-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) When I said that to him, that man turned pale.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Right. Dear. Mom.

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) He said, "Mrs. White, I have been a doctor for 35 years and I've never heard of a son too busy to call his mother."

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) Right, mom...

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) That's just what he said to me, Arthur.

Mike Nichols:
(Comedy Clip) I know honey, I want-

Elaine May:
(Comedy Clip) And that man is a doctor.

Dave Schwensen:
Kelly, any thoughts about that?

Kelly Thewlis:
Well...

Dave Schwensen:
I put you on a spot. See? That's improvising, right?

Kelly Thewlis:
That's what improvisers do.

Dave Schwensen:
You didn't expect that. You looked up at me like, "Hey."

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh no, I wasn't expecting that at all.

Dave Schwensen:
It's a game.

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh, wild of comedy. This actually... Their character is based off of their actual experience with mothers. They talk about this in the Mike Nichols documentary that came out in I think 2016 just right after he passed.

Dave Schwensen:
Wait a minute, you studied for this?

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh, I did a little bit of homework.

Dave Schwensen:
Jeez. Okay, I'm learning.

Kelly Thewlis:
But it was based off their own... They both had similar mothers, even though he was from Germany originally and she was American. They both had similar characters of mothers. And so, they would call each other and be like, "You're not going to believe what my mom said today." And she'd be like, "Oh my God, that's hilarious. Write it down."

Kelly Thewlis:
And it sort of ended up being this skit. "Your father begged me to eat a sandwich, but I said no." She's the commanding force of this sketch.

Kelly Thewlis:
And then it goes on. We don't have time to listen to the whole thing, but it does go on to him. They set him up as being this like high powerful rocket scientist and then by the end of it he's just talking baby talk.

Kelly Thewlis:
So, it's establishes that if you have that over-caring mother, you all eventually feel like a child no matter how old you are.

Dave Schwensen:
That's right. Just breaks you right down. "I'm so sorry Mommy." They both went on to their own individual success, but when you mentioned it, Mike Nichols is the one that jumped out first as a director.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. She was the one to break it off. She said that she wanted to go off and do her own thing. And then just didn't really find it quite right away. Whereas him right out of the bat, he started directing a play that ended up being the classic hit. It's Barefoot in the Park. He directed young Robert Redford. His first move after that was directing a film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? And then after that he did The Graduate. So, he just was hit after hit.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Kelly Thewlis:
It's pretty amazing.

Dave Schwensen:
A lot of our possibly younger listeners might think of him first as a director.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
He was an Oscar winner, wasn't he? Didn't he win Academy Award for directing?

Kelly Thewlis:
Oh yes, absolutely. I think for The Graduate, but I might be wrong on that. But he's won several awards.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. And started out as a comedy team. We mentioned Neil Simon too. He's another one that comes out of that comedy background. He was a television writer, for comedy. For Sid Caesar and some of the others. Your Show of Shows and it goes on. They're all connected somehow.

Kelly Thewlis:
They are all. And well, Paul Sills and and Del Close. They both were. Paul Sills was for sure involved with The Compass Players. And they both went on to form Second City and the improv schools, which then led to SNL and all sorts of films.

Kelly Thewlis:
So yeah, they really are. All of these comedians at the time were all connected somehow and all the filmmakers branched out from there. And they collaborated one more time back in I think '95 or '96 was the time they interact.

Kelly Thewlis:
So, that's... I mean, look at that, decades later they collaborated on a film which was The Birdcage.

Dave Schwensen:
Oh, with Robin Williams.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, just wildly popular film. And that one, I mean, that comedy still holds up very well. And then after that, in '98 they did Primary Colors. So, they came together a few other times.

Kelly Thewlis:
Well, they worked together on those films. And then they also did a few sketches for charity events.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, fundraising.

Kelly Thewlis:
And TV appearances. But yeah, they didn't work too much after this album.

Dave Schwensen:
It's very interesting collaboration that they found that success together as a team and then off as individuals and found their own success and still could come back on a friendly basis, professional basis, and have more success.

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah. You don't see that very often with a comedy duo or any duo. I mean how we usually, it's, "That's it."

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. "We're done talking. I've had it with you."

Kelly Thewlis:
Yeah, but they became close friends throughout the decades. She actually directed the PBS special American Masters about Mike Nichols.

Dave Schwensen:
A comedy team that's not really a household name anymore, but so important in the comedy business and improvisation and sketch writing and movies and just everything.

Kelly Thewlis:
Absolutely. We've listened to some clips today, but definitely audience members, you should go and take a listen to An Evening with Nichols and May, their complete album. It's a lot of fun and you can see the roots of it all throughout our comedy history.

Dave Schwensen:
That's very good. All right, Kelly, now say goodbye.

Kelly Thewlis:
All right, goodbye!

Dave Schwensen:
I'm Dave Schwensen.

Kelly Thewlis:
I'm Kelly Thewlis.

Dave Schwensen:
You've been listening to What's So Funny! Thank you very much. We'll catch you next time and until then, keep laughing.

Announcer:
You've been listening to What's So Funny! Catch us next week with Co-host Tom Megalis as we take a listen to the one hit wonder, Vaughn Meader.

Announcer:
Special thanks to Executive Producers, Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Producer Sarah Willgrube and Audio Engineer Eric Koltnow.

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