Sunday, December 13, 2009

Working Together: Elaine May and Mike Nichols

LEFT: Photo by Richard Avedon, 1960, from the cover of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mercury Records 1960

Go to this post:
Four Dialogues 4: On Elaine May.
Scroll down to this album cover. Right underneath is an icon of an audio speaker, with an arrow.
Click on it.
You will hear my favorite Nichols and May recording: the two of them cracking up while working on a routine together. *

I'm intrigued with partnerships between performing artists. Or working partnerships between other artists, like the married design team of Charles and Ray Eames, but their process is not on display the way the work of musicians and comedians is. I've mentioned liking the movie Music and Lyrics: the lyricist (Drew Barrymore) and the musician (Hugh Grant) fall in love because they work so well together.

It's extra intriguing to me when the partners are not in sexual relationship with each other: without the sexual, the erotic nature of the work comes through even more clearly.
(I'm intrigued, but I haven't actually looked closely at this phenomenon, so these are working notes, not conclusions.)

I'd always assumed Nichols & May were married. Reading up this weekend, I discovered they were, but not to each other. (Whether or not they had an affair early on is beside the point--a sexual partnership was not their primary bond.)
Such intimate but not sexual pairings seem common enough in comedy duos, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Lewis even subtitles his book about the duo A Love Story), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders... And of course, in music (John and Paul, Gilbert and Sullivan, etc.)
But how many exist between a man and a woman, I wonder? I mean, equal partnerships, like that of Nichols and May.
Brother and sister teams come to mind--Fred and Adele Astaire, Karen and Richard Carpenter.
I don't know. I'll have to research and think more on this.

Anyway, "Elaine May in Conversation with Mike Nichols"
(2006) is a great glimpse into how the two personalities interlock, even forty-plus years after they stopped working together. As I'm reading along, it becomes clear May was the dark pessimistic one and Nichols has a sunny outlook--sort of like Nimoy (dark) and Shatner (sunny). I suppose it often comes down to that old yin/yang energy balance.

Here's a good example. Elaine May is going on about how hard it is for moviemakers to get their movies shown on a big screen, and how bad and sad that is, while Nichols agrees with her but takes a much more expansive view:
MN:There’s a dozen ways to see a movie now, including on your computer or in the backseat of your car.

EM: But it’s not as good as a theater.

MN: It’s not as good as a theater, but it’s another way. And there’s something very nice about everything disintegrating, and this is certainly a time when you might say that. More things are possible.

"...there’s something very nice about everything disintegrating...."
I love this line. Probably because I've said the same thing myself.
* You can hear Nichols & May's deadpan final dish, "My Chosen Career," here, along with a lot of other audio clips.
I found that link at Isn't Life Terrible, with links to more Nichols & May clips too.
For me, glimpsing the process behind comedy is more interesting and sometimes funnier than the comedy itself. Maybe because I'm not much of a fan of stand-up comedy--I want to see the inner workings of a person, and comedy seems highly deflective.


ArtSparker said...

Re disintegration, don;t you think there should be a newspaper called "The Interestiing Times"?

Fresca said...

Or a blog!