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Nichols and May--Take Two

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The current feature-film success of The Birdcage, directed by Mike Nichols, with a screenplay by Elaine May, gives this week’s American Masters, Nichols and May — Take Two, a canny timeliness. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Nichols and May were a comedy team whose frequently improvised routines were small marvels of wit, timing, subtlety, and erudition — qualities that, with the exception of timing, are largely missing from stand-up comedy today. As Steve Martin observes in this documentary, ”There was something in the tone that was very, very new; [it had] irony and sarcasm and satire.”

And silence. Watching some of the performances Nichols and May gave in nightclubs, on television, and on Broadway, you’re struck by the way the pair used long, eloquent pauses to extract laughs from situations involving awkward moments in life: a phone call between a cranky mother and her grown son; a trip to the dentist; a first date. Nichols’ quick, birdlike movements and May’s languidly sexy voice were only the most obvious trademarks of their austere yet gut-busting comedy. The airing of Take Two also coincides with the recent CD release of the duo’s best-known recordings. Comedy ages notoriously badly, but Nichols and May’s adroit work remains fresh and juicy.