Friday, June 24, 2011

Elaine May (oh, and Mike Nichols)

I think my sense of humor began forming many (many) years ago when I was still in school. Apart from Popeye and the usual assortment of late afternoon cartoons, which never really did much for me -- and although I grew to appreciate the anarchic cast of Warner Bros characters, Daffy Duck being my favorite ---there was really only “Rocky and Bullwinkle” which was a show as much for adults as for kids.

At night, though, there was a whole other world of humor, the like of which we’ll probably never see again. I loved Jack Benny, as much for the subtle gay vibe he gave off as for the dry-as-dust, deadpan delivery. There was also Ernie Kovacs whose brand of humor was surreal and, well, weird. One of his standard set pieces was a group called the Nairobi Trio: three grown men in gorilla suits who played musical instruments and moved like the animatronic characters at a Disney theme park. It wasn’t riotous, laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping comedy. It was Andy Kaufman long before Andy Kaufman – if you remember Andy Kaufman. You can probably look it up on YouTube.

There was also the Steve Allen Show, the original “Tonight Show” from New York where, in addition to the guests who came out to chat, there was a cast of regulars who played the same characters in hilarious skits, week after week. It’s probably where “Saturday Night Live” got the idea, and Carol Burnett, among others. The cast included Louis Nye and a skinny little guy with a nonstop, nervous tick named Don Knotts, and another oddball named Dayton Allen who presaged Seinfeld’s Kramer in a way. Steve Allen loved his cast and as they worked you could hear him laughing helplessly off-camera, a raucous, high-pitched, infectious laugh as they did their stuff. I met Steve Allen years later in Los Angeles. Don’t get excited, I was cater waitering at a big, swanky event in Beverly Hills and Mr. Allen had a cold, so at his wife’s request I made sure he had a cup of hot tea in front of him at all times. He tipped me five dollars.

Around this time there was a humorist named Jack Douglas who, with his wife Reiko, would appear on the Jack Paar Show (which I also loved). Douglas was a writer and raconteur and wit who published a number of books of humorous essays, anticipating Woody Allen’s writing at about the time Woody was an up-and-coming Greenwich Village comic. The books had titles like “My Brother Was an Only Child”, and essays with titles like “Stella Dallas: The Story of a Blind Olive and Its Seeing Eye Pimiento”. I loved the non sequitir, surreal quality of stuff like that.

I also listened to Jean Shepard on the radio as I fell asleep at night. Shepard was the storyteller who wrote, among other things, “A Christmas Story” which eventually became the Christmas movie classic. Shepard had no guests, no particular format that I can remember. He would just come on the air and start telling stories in that wonderful, slightly sandpapery voice that also had in it a little smoke and a smile. I’m sure he improvised every word and the stories were funny and sweet and always seemed to be about a great deal more than their plots. I guess, to a degree, that’s what Garrison Keillor does, so you see there’s nothing new under the sun. (I’ll be having a contest to see who can find the most clich├ęs in this month’s postings.) And Shepard seemed a good deal more genuine than Keillor does, at least to me.

And of course there was “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx, whose use of the English language, coupled with that sly delivery and the animated eyebrows, was as much of an influence on me as anything I was taught in school.

The point, I guess, is that what I found funny most of my peers probably didn’t. This was humor based on words, wordplay, puns, using the language in ways that no one else had thought of. That’s all poetry is, really: someone writing about all our lives in a very personal way. And I loved it and began to think like Steve Allen and Jack Douglas, and to hone my delivery to match Jack Benny’s.

Nichols and May by Richard Avedon
There was also, about this time, a comedy duo named Nichols and May – for Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Yes, Mike Nichols, movie director and husband to Diane Sawyer, was once an actor and a comic. He and his partner, the very dry, deadpan Elaine May, wrote and performed routines about disaffected, neurotic, usually urban oddballs. He was always very well-groomed, his short blond hair slicked back, in a dark suit and narrow tie. She was always decked out in a simple shirtwaist dress, had the 60's bouffant hair and was really sexy, in that Manhattan-in-the-60's, offbeat way I can't quite put my finger on. (Occasionally during their routines they smoked cigarettes!) They appeared in clubs in the Village and on TV shows like the Tonight Show and on Jack Paar, and gained their greatest fame on Broadway in “An Evening with Nichols and May” and I loved them. (Check out "The $65 Funeral here.)

Their humor was subtle, sophisticated, and they didn’t speak down to their audience.  They called it quits as a duo in 1961 and Nichols, as noted, went on to a major career as a director on Broadway, helping to make Neil Simon a household name; and in Hollywood. His freshman effort was “The Graduate” and his resume also includes “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Postcards from the Edge”, “Silkwood” and “The Birdcage” among many others.

Likewise, Elaine May began writing and directing, and established herself as a major player in the theater and in films. As a scenarist she’s continued to work with Nichols on many of his movies -- including the aforementioned “Birdcage” – (which I consider an unfunny, heavyhanded mess, filled with stereotypes of all kinds and watchable only for the understated performance of the inestimable Diane Wiest, and for glimpses of Hank Azaria’s inestimable upper body). May often serves as one of those uncredited “doctors” who steps in to save floundering film scripts, which leads one to wonder why she couldn’t doctor her own script for “Ishtar”, reputedly one of the worst movies ever made.

But I was in the shower the other night and for some reason a line from one of her movies popped into my head: “I just hate you so much…” She utters it in a film she made in 1990 with Marlo Thomas called “In the Spirit”. It tells the story of a woman (May) whose husband is transferred from Beverly Hills to New York and who hires Thomas, a flaky New Age type (is there any other kind?) to redecorate her apartment. Soon enough they’re on the run from a crazed killer and there’s a prostitute involved, played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin; another prostitute played by Melanie Griffith (long before she started with the collagen in the lips thing); as well as Olympia Dukakis and Peter Falk. There’s something just so oddball and fun about it... you can imagine May and Thomas sitting around having a nosh from Zabar’s, saying “Oh, we should make a movie... about this crazy woman and this other crazy New Age woman who are total opposites...and there's a murder and prostitutes!” It’s just another one of those wonderful movies you’ve probably never seen. Or, in this case, never even heard of.

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