(b. 21 May 1932 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), comedian, writer, director, performer, and a founding member of the Chicago improvisational comedy theater group Second City, who achieved recognition in the early 1960s for her dry, witty technique in the comedy duo Nichols and May, and went on to write, direct, and perform on Broadway and in motion pictures.
May is the daughter of Jack Berlin, who directed, wrote, and performed for a Yiddish traveling theatrical group, and actress Jeannie Berlin. She married Marvin May in 1949 and divorced young, giving birth to a daughter while still in her teens. In 1950 May attended the University of Chicago, where she first met her later comedy partner Mike Nichols. In 1955 she joined the Compass Theatre, where she and Nichols, along with a number of notable comedians, performed improvisational comedy. The group of talented young performers, which included Shelly Berman, Alan Arkin, and Barbara Harris, formed the Second City improvisational comedy group. It was while in Second City that May and Nichols decided to form a comedy duo and take their act on the road.
They eventually took their act to Greenwich Village in the lower part of Manhattan, where they performed at Village Vanguard and Blue Angel. The improvisational comedy of Nichols and May was a perfect fit for the intellectual, counter-culture attitudes of the Village in the 1960s. Their success was almost immediate. In contrast to the Catskills humor of Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, and other popular comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Nichols and May did not tell traditional jokes. Their humor was based on an exchange of dialogue that brilliantly employed understatement and acerbic wit. The targets of their humor were previously sacrosanct institutions, such as political bureaucracies, and they calmly broached formerly off-limits topics such as adultery, which contributed to their popularity with a generation in the process of recreating itself. Like the Beat poets, modern artists, and new musicians who also frequented the village, Nichols and May's original, satiric examination of the human condition helped forge a new type of comedy.
Shortly after arriving in New York City, Nichols and May appeared on the Steve Allen Show. By 1960 they had their own show on Broadway—An Evening with Nichols and May, which ran for 306 performances from 8 October 1960 to 1 July 1961. Howard Taubman, in his New York Times review of the show, observed, "Miss May and Mr. Nichols combine perception with an air of genial relaxation." May wrote other plays for the stage in the 1960s, including A Matter of Position and Not Enough Rope (both produced in 1962) as well as Adaptation and Next, which debuted off-Broadway in 1969. The duo released several successful record albums of their comedy; the first, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), won a 1961 Grammy Award for best comedy performance.
After the duo broke up in 1961, May focused on writing for theater, but she still found time to perform. In 1962 she married the lyricist Sheldon Harnick; the couple divorced in 1963. From 1964 to 1965 May appeared on the satiric news program That Was the Week that Was. In 1966 she was cast in The Office, a Broadway comedy that closed in previews after only ten performances. In 1967 she appeared with Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in the Clive Donner film Luv and with José Ferrer and Shelley Winters in Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing.
In 1971 May became one of the first women to write, direct, and star in her own motion picture, A New Leaf, in which May plays a naive heiress pursued by an egocentric bachelor (played by Walter Matthau) who has depleted his trust fund. Although the film was not a financial success and the final edit was completed without May's input, it is still a well-crafted comedy, and May's unique comedy style is prevalent throughout the film. In 1972 she found success on the big screen directing The Heartbreak Kid, based on a Neil Simon script.
May continued to work in film, earning two Academy Award nominations for her screenwriting: the first in 1978 when she and Warren Beatty updated Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) into Heaven Can Wait, and the second when she adapted the Joe Klein novel Primary Colors for the screen in 1998. In 1987 May wrote and directed Ishtar. The film was widely panned and considered one of the biggest Hollywood bombs of all time, but most criticism of the film was unjustified. Ishtar stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as two untalented, would-be songwriters who inadvertently become entangled in international intrigue. The film is a brilliant exercise in understatement and dry wit. Unfortunately for May early publicity on the film prior to its release started a snowball of bad press that ultimately sank the film. In 1996 May adapted La Cage Aux Folles into The Birdcage for her old partner Mike Nichols. Throughout her work in movies, May has continued to write for and perform on Broadway, and in the 1990s she combined her talents with fellow writers David Mamet and Woody Allen to produce the long-running hit play Death Defying Acts.
May's comedy work as half of Nichols and May in the early 1960s set the tone for many who followed, particularly those concerned with satire. May and Nichols redefined the comedy duo and were instrumental in bringing quirky, off-beat, and intelligent wit to a new generation of comedians.
No full-length biography of May exists, but articles about her appear in numerous publications; of particular relevance to May in the 1960s are articles in the New York Times (10 Oct. 1960), Village Voice (20 Feb. 1969), New Yorker (22 Feb. 1969), and Saturday Review (1 Mar. 1969).
Kevin Alexander Boon