Today is the birthday of Mike Nichols (b. Michael Igor Peschkowski, 1931). I wrote a little about Nichols and May in my new 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, 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. On the other hand, Nicholas and May also spearheaded the current movement of comedy improvisation. There are plenty of ways the current generation of videocam wielding improvisational sketch comedians resemble the early film comedians of the Mack Sennett era. Borat and Kid Auto Races in Venice have more in common than meets the eye.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc