Mike Nichols, father of American improv

iu-2Mike Nichols died yesterday.  As my contribution to the memorial, here is the essay wrote about him in a book called Transformations. It describes his role in the creation of American improv.

Mike Nichols

(from McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transfomations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Mike Nichols is an American director of plays and movies, the latter including The Graduate (1967), Silkwood (1983), and The Birdcage (1996). He is married to Diane Sawyer, a journalist. He was feted at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where his “lifetime achievement” in film was celebrated by 3000 people, including Richard Avedon, Itzhak Perlman and Barbara Walters. If popular culture in America has an aristocracy, Mike Nichols belongs to its titular class.   Three thousand people came to celebrate, but most were there in homage.

Nichols came to America as Igor Peschkowsky. He arrived from Berlin in 1939. He was 7, his brother was 3. They made the journey by sea alone. His father preceded him to New York City, his mother would follow 18 months later. In New York City, Mr. Peschkowsky turned the boys over to the uneven kindness of an English family. Nichols was now bereft of his native country, his native language, the company of his mother and father, and his family’s standing in Europe. “I was a zero. […] In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”1

Nichols endured the pains of adjustment, though he had fallen farther than most. His advantage, an eye for detail and ear for nuance, was itself a torment.

“The refugee ear is a sort of seismograph for how one is doing. […] A thousand tiny victories and defeats in an ordinary conversation.”

To make matters worse, a medical intervention in childhood had left him hairless so that he was obliged to wear a hat, or a wig, everywhere. Buck Henry, a childhood friend, remembers him “as far outside as an outsider can get.”2

Nichols was obliged to engage in immigrant improv, that essential shield with which newcomers protect themselves from the endless embarrassments of a new world. Any native knucklehead could needle and vex at whim. ‘Saratoga,’ says the knucklehead with that “but of course you must know this” air. Judging from the speaker, the conversation, and the tone of the challenge, Saratoga is a literary journal, a cherished brand of American root beer, or the train that travels between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It is probably not an Aboriginal place name. That would be too easy.)

The family established itself. His father was a doctor. In time, prosperity and standing were modestly restored. Then more tragedy. His father died, his mother suffered chronic emotional difficulty, and the family descended into poverty and sometimes squalor. Nichols fashioned his own system of education (chiefly, popular theatre and classical literature) and found his way to the University of Chicago where he arrived, at 17, to a happy discovery. “Oh my God, look, there are others like me. There are other weirdoes.”

Nichols took to the theatre. The University of Chicago was loaded with talent: Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. He directed his first play and performed in several more. In one of them, his disguise was pierced. He was Jean the valet in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His role called for a working-class man, one of the few adaptations this Russian-German Jewish aristocratic American weirdo could not manage. He was found out by a woman in the audience, an “evil, hostile girl” staring at him from the front row. “[S]he knew it was shit.”3

What happened next is one of the “origin myths” of American culture. One day, Nichols saw his inquisitor waiting for a train in a railway station in Chicago. He approached her and asked, in a German accent, “May I sit down?” Elaine May replied, in accent, “if you wish.” The rest is, as they say, history. Nichols and May made a spy scenario out of thin air. Without benefit of introduction or social ceremony, and in spite of disastrous first impressions, they were now friends. It felt to them both, Nichols said later, that “we were safe from everyone else when we were with each other.”4

Certainly, it has the compactness, the telescopic redundancy, of an origin myth. The origin of American improv is an act of improv, first of the moment, then of the stage, then of popular culture. What Nichols and May did in the train station, they repeated at the University of Chicago, and then on the Dupont Show of the Month to an astonished America. The captive of Miss Julie and fixed theatre was released into the sheer creativity that was in any case his immigrant experience. And with improv, America finds its way into opportunities for new dynamism. The path to assimilation proves to be the steep upward ascent to wealth, glory and fame. Two people give themselves over to this single act of spontaneity and everything changes: the interaction, their relationship, their careers, and an important part of the career of contemporary culture.

In the middle moment, the world is charmed. Nichols and May are perfect, blinding. Touched by this creature, Nichols discovers new talent and the possibility of fame staggeringly beyond the acceptance he courted, a boy in a wig, a couple of years before. Elaine May is adored, pursued, protean in her creativity, charismatic on stage and off, larger than every occasion and every other companion, impatient with mortals, and terrible in her anger when this is provoked. (Pursued by two men making kissing sounds, May says, “tired of one another?” and when one of them responds, “Fuck you!” she turns on him and asks, “With what?” (Ovid would surely have wanted this for his compendium of transformations.)

And then, in the manner of some myths, it ended. Improv became formula. May wanted to keep inventing but, as Nichols tells us (in an act of greatness) he could not keep up with her and he began to lose his courage for risk-taking on stage. The improv, the act, and the relationship, die in succession. The actors are estranged. Nichols returns to the theatre, not to act, but, the ultimate retreat from improv, to direct. He has a period of madness in which he seeks to destroy the art that reflects his wealth and taste. He resurrects himself to make one or two good films but keeps his distance from sheer, untrammeled creativity, falling back on fixed and commercial theatre. Elaine May suffers a more spectacular destruction. She falls under the influence of a man manifestly her lesser, and directs him in a disastrously unsuccessful film: Ishtar (1987). This is shit: over-scripted, under-directed, wooden, Beatty-ish, and just not funny. The first creatures to enter Chicago improv had fallen back to earth.5

1 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 198.

2 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, pp. 202.

3 Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. 73.

4 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 204. There is some confusion in the record about precisely what was said in the train station. In the Sweet interview, Nichols says that he used a German accent. Lahr says nothing of this but suggests that May replied with a Russian accent. This may have been the two sides of the improv, but it seems to me more likely that Nichols spoke, and May replied, in a German accent. This was after all their first date.

5 My account of the beginning of improv indulges itself in a mythic language and a fuller account can be found in the opening essay “History” in Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. xv-xxxiii

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