Elaine May has proven to take on every aspect of the comedy game. She is an award winning screenwriter, director, and actress. As a comedian, she has influenced other greats like Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. Elaine May is a game changer.
May was born in Philadelphia. She grew up travelling with her parents doing Yiddish theatre. When her father died, May and her mother moved to Los Angeles. By seventeen, she had already dropped out of high school and was married with child. She decided she wanted to return to school, and the University of Chicago was one of the few schools at the time which accepted applicants without a high school diploma. With $7 in her pocket, she hitchhiked her way out east. The young actress attended classes through auditing instead of enrolling.
May began writing and performing comedy. It was when she met Mike Nichols that her wit became even more heightened. The two were introduced through mutual friends, but they did not hit it off until they found themselves at a trainstop. As legend goes, Nichols initiated a Russian spy bit, “May I seeet down, plis?” May retaliated, “If you veesh.” Nichols continued, “Do you haff a light?”
May: “Yes, zertainly.”
Nichols: “I had a lighter, but … I lost eet on Fifty-seventh Street.”
May: “Oh, of course, zen you are … Agent X-9?”
They realized a connectedness which would make them one of comedy’s best duos. Together, they joined Chicago’s Compass Players, the precursor to the famed Second City. By 1957, they moved to New York City. They won over Jack Rollins, known for managing some of comedy’s best talent including Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, and David Letterman. They appeared on TV with Jack Paar and had a hit show on Broadway.
With Nichols, May performed skits which were largely improvised. One of their sketches, Water Cooler Talk, features the two talking as coworkers about scandal in the media. Fifty five plus years later, the sketch holds up and appears more satirical. When pointing out whether Presidents are writing their own speeches, May interjects, “You can’t enforce the same rules on politicians. I mean they’re the people who run our country.” The line’s strength could not be any stronger especially after this last US election.
Around 1962, at the height of their success, May broke it off with Nichols. She knew she was capable of more than improvised bits, and she went out to look for it. After some time working on stage, she made her film acting debut in Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing. She co-wrote, starred, and directed A New Leaf. The comic genius has directed three more films, and she has written several screenplays such as Heaven Can Wait and Primary Colors. She had reunited with Nichols’ twice: in a 1980 stage revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and by writing the screenplay for The Birdcage, which Nichols directed. The most recent project she starred in was the Amazon-Woody Allen series creation, A Crisis in 6 Scenes.
Stage or screen, May is always working with her comedic eye. The American Comedy Awards, the Writers Guild of America, and President Obama have all honored her lifetime achievement awards. Only someone really special could garnish such awards, and Elaine May fits the ticket.