Mike Nichols died today, having lived a life of almost parodic American fulfilment. He fled Nazi Germany as a child, (his birth name: Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky), and arrived in New York with hardly any knowledge of English. But that didn’t stop him developing an impeccable East Coast accent, enrolling in and then dropping out of medical school, and becoming an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy-winning luminary.
Before he won acclaim directing caustic comedies like The Graduate and Catch-22, Nichols made comedy sketches with his long-time collaborate Elaine May. After graduating from Chicago’s prestigious Second City improv school, ‘Nichols and May’ gained nationwide fame, performing on primetime chat shows between 1959 and 1962.
Most comedy doesn’t age well, especially sketch comedy that’s so often steeped in a particular social and performative moment. So it’s remarkable to see how funny their sketches still are. They give such finely wrought comic performances, it’s like you’re watching a scene from a film rather than a TV sketch. Anyone who’s sat through an episode of Saturday Night Live recently will notice the depressingly wide chasm. “$65 Funeral” was performed on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, it features May and Nichols in their trademark comic positions: May's nonchalant and deadpan, and Nichols' trembling and outrageously affronted.