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TCMFF 2021: Nichols and May: Take Two (1996)

I’m a classic movie fan as much as the next Old Hollywood blogger here; however, I’m more than that. I’m a classic entertainment fan. So TV, comedy, the nightclub circuit, I love it all. So, when I saw TCM scheduled a documentary on the famed comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May, I was set. Here’s everything you need to know about Nichols and May: Take Two.

Nichols and May: Take Two presents a profile of the career of the groundbreaking comedy team Mike Nichols and Elaine May during the peak of their work throughout late 1950s and early 1960s. The program initially aired as a part of the PBS series American Masters in 1996. The show features a who’s who of guest stars and is directed by Phillip Schopper. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’m an embarrassingly late comer to Nichols and May. I knew both as writers and filmmakers, but somehow missed their work until (funnily enough) I watched The Marvelous Miss. Maisel— where they are referenced repeatedly.

As I said, I found myself tremendously excited when I heard TCM programmed this documentary to run during the the film festival. Despite Nichols and May’s absolutely legendary reputation, precious little exists of their comedy for viewers to see today. Believe me,  I know! It wasn’t that long ago, I first started my search for their work on YouTube and Spotify.

With that being said, I was anxious to learn more! There has to be more! I mean, a big part of the problem as I see it, Nichols and May primarily worked in nightclubs and on the Broadway stage during the middle of the twentieth century. As such, there won’t be much surviving footage of their work at its most organic. The little which does exist comes from often grainy television appearances done during the same time. However, as we know, those can be quite rare as well. 

As I sat down to watch Nichols and May: Take Two, I found myself left wanting more. I suppose it makes sense. After all, this is a 45 minute PBS special. It does a great job covering the basics and spends most of its time analyzing the duo’s impact on culture. Due to the lack of interviews with the comedians themselves, this is depicted through the perspective of the many they influenced. The special captures some great interviews with people like: Tom Brokaw, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams and Steve Martin. There are also interviews with Nichols and May contemporaries like Steve Allen and Arthur Penn.

While there’s a lot to be said about Nichols and May from a cultural perspective, there’s an equal amount still to be said about these two ultra talented people as a team. Nichols in particular has received alot of attention, due to his legendary work as a director. May continued in the industry as well, working as a writer and director (to slightly different results). With all of these works, though, the focus is on Mike Nichols or Elaine May and how this time led to their memorable solo work. However, the work spotlighting “Nichols and May” is surprisingly rare.

This sounds harsh, but it isn’t. Nichols and May: Take Two is a great little documentary for those looking to get their feet wet. It’s a perfect little morsel to tell audiences what Nichols and May did and why they were important. If you already know Nichols and May though, this film doesn’t add anything new to the conversation. While the special has been hard to find over the last twenty years, the Nichols and May clips it contains haven’t. You can find the same comedy clips all over YouTube. Ultimately, I found myself left wanting more of an appreciation of the comedians as people during the time. Culture has taught me about Mike Nichols and Elaine May, while this documentary looks at Nichols and May through the eyes of the comedians of the late 20th century. I wanted to learn about Nichols and May through their own words and this didn’t do that.

Nichols and May: Take Two is currently available on the Watch TCM app.

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