Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Nichols improvisation

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Elaine May and Mike Nichols

It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a year or so in the early sixties when the hottest ticket in show business consisted of a man and a woman simply talking on stage. An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May premiered on Broadway on October 8, 1960, and over the course of three hundred performances, it gave mainstream audiences their first real taste of improvisation as a comedic art, with sketches that encouraged a kind of collusion—or collaboration—between the audience and the performers themselves. It wasn’t purely improvised: for most of the night, Nichols and May ran through established routines, with only one scene opened up to suggestions from the crowd, but the impression of a theatrical tightrope act persisted even in bits that had been thoroughly refined. The young, attractive duo had emerged from a hugely talented circle of improvisational actors and comedians in Chicago, the precursor to the Second City, and it’s not a stretch to say that much of what comedy became in the ensuing fifty years originated right here. But after the year was up, they simply walked away, like Jordan at his prime, except that they never returned.

Nichols, of course, went on to become one of the most acclaimed film, theater, and television directors of his generation, while May quietly burrowed into much odder places. And at first, the contrast between Nichols the master improviser and his later directorial career can seem rather stark. David Thomson’s assessment is typical:

Mike Nichols is an unquestioned figure in our culture, a smart man, a funny man, a proven success in cabaret, on records, as a stage director, and as a deliverer of talking-point movies—movies that are smart, funny, “adult,” “on the pulse,” and “of their moment.” Yet I find it hard to grasp a him in there, a movie director: after fifteen or so films, is there anything more substantial than a high reputation and a producer’s instinct for what smart people might want to see?”

For many of us, even if we love film, Nichols never quite emerged as a personality in the same way that his most revered contemporaries did, even if he was unquestionably more adept at holding a stage than the rest of them combined. And in the days since his death, which put a full stop on one of the most accomplished—and curiously impersonal—of all careers in movies and the stage, that paradox has seemed even harder to resolve. I’ll miss Nichols, but I never really knew him.

Mike Nichols

When you dig a little deeper, though, you find a possible answer that casts a surprising light on the nature of improvisation. Improv comedy is often seen as a kind of controlled chaos, but it owes its survival, like jazz, to the continuous imposition of rigorous rules and discipline. The best improvisers are excruciatingly aware of where they stand from one moment to the next, and the ongoing management of the comedic situation demands a peculiar sort of watchfulness. It’s the overarching superego that allows the id to take hold, and you can see it clearly in the original clips of Nichols and May at work. Nichols plays the straight man, which is only another way of saying that he unobtrusively directs the sketch as it unfolds, feeding May the necessary setup for each payoff and gently creating the conditions that she needs to arrive at the punchline. It’s the same set of skills—as enabler, facilitator, and willing conspirator—that served him so well later on. You get a glimpse of his bag of tricks in a late interview he did with May in Vanity Fair:

The greatest rule was yours, Elaine: when in doubt, seduce. That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there were only three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.

That sense of what works and what doesn’t, developed in real time under unforgiving conditions, lasted throughout Nichols’s career, even if the subjects he chose felt less wild and more like those of a shrewd packager of talent. Nichols frequently took risks with weird, original material, but his most successful films—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, even The Birdcage—were all adaptations, as if he instinctively sought proven vessels that could then be crammed with life and ideas. It’s the résumé of a man who valued structure, even as he tested it, and it’s an example that many of his stated admirers, like Judd Apatow, could stand to follow. And if Nichols never quite received the popular adulation of some of his peers, even as he continued to rack up awards, it may have been because it made it look too easy. You could make a case that his real impact on our culture has been greater than that of Coppola or Scorsese, and just a bit below Spielberg and Lucas, but it’s an influence that feels almost subliminal, a way of regarding the process of acting and comedy itself. Perhaps because he was so famous so early, he always seemed content to disappear. But he never forgot how to seduce.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2014 at 10:22 am

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