I wrote a little about the team of Nichols and May in my book Chain of Fools. They represent a sort of bend in the road in American comedy. Interestingly, in different ways they bring it both farther away from and closer to its origins.
Firstly, their style was more sophisticated, subtle, ironic, topical and (occasionally) erudite than their predecessors. They and the tidal wave of comedians who followed their lead represent a turning away from the vaudeville punning style and pies in the face which had come before, as well as the convention of having the woman be either a Dumb Dora (as in Burns and Allen) or a nag (as in Fibber McGee and Molly). They were clearly coequal in the act. Also Nichols and May came out of the Compass Players. Their material tended to be more like playlets or sketches than conventional comedy duo crosstalk routines. They set a new bar for all comedians who went after them. They cited Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as their own influences.
On the other hand, thorough hey were groundbreaking and sophisticated, Mike Nichols and Elaine May also spearheaded the current movement of comedy improvisation, which isn’t intrinsically an “intellectual” proposition. There are plenty of ways the current generation of videocam wielding improvisational sketch comedians resemble the early film clowns of the Mack Sennett era. Borat, e.g. and Kid Auto Races at Venice have more in common than meets the eye, and it’s Nichols and May that made something like Borat possible. The team could be broadly comic as well as incisive, and May in particular specialized in low-brow characters and slapstick.
The team were only a going concern for four years (1958-62). They initially were a trio with Shelley Berman, but rapidly realized their best material came out as two-handers. They played clubs in Greenwich Village and San Francisco. They performed on the TV shows of Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, Jack Paar, and Perry Como. They are probably remembered best for their three classic comedy albums. On Improvisations to Music (1958), they were accompanied by pianist Marty Rubenstein. An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May was a recording of their popular 1960 Broadway show. This was followed by Mike Nichols and Elaine May Examine Doctors (1961). In 1962 they performed at the famous birthday party for President Kennedy, along with Marilyn Monroe and others. After this, they disbanded, each pursuing impressive solo careers, although they occasionally reunited in later years.
I eulogized Mike Nichols when he passed away here. I am planning a massive tribute to Elaine May, as well, called “The Genius of Elaine May”. So watch this space like a hawk!
To find out about the history of variety entertainment, including tv variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, for more on classic comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.