Mike Nichols got a double-page obit and appreciation from the New York Times on Friday, November 21, 2014. (Obituary, starting front page, by Bruce Weber, appreciation by Ben Brantley.) I very much liked Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” I remember him on TV in the late 1950s with Elaine May doing their improvised skits. I liked them a lot. Nichols and May came out of the Chicago 1950s climate of improv along with others who were “Seriously Funny” at that time. Shep came out of that ambiance at the same time–and he claimed to have acted at the Goodman Theatre, although his former wife, Lois Nettleton (also of Chicago and of the Goodman Theatre), indicated in an interview about Shep in 2000 that she had no knowledge of Shep’s connection with that Theatre. I think that, considering their common background and Chicago connections, She would have know if he’d been with the Goodman Theatre. Yet, there is the improv and Chicago connection of Shep and Nichols.
Brantley’s appreciation comments that Nichols was, “like most of that breed of stylish New Yorkers transplanted from elsewhere, a self-invention.” Also sounds a a bit like Shepherd.
Improvisation is the special connecting link between Shepherd and Nichols.
The obit comments that, regarding Nichols’ style, it developed “through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing, a sharp eye….” The obit also comments that “Mr. Nichols said in interviews that though he did not know it at the time, his work with Ms May was his directorial training.
“He said that improvisation was good training because it acclimates the performer to the idea of taking care of the audience. In that regard, Nichols is quoted, “But what I really thought it was useful for was directing,” he said, ” because it also teaches you what a scene is made of–you know what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. there must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
All of the above seems to me that it might also relate to Shep’s sensibilities.
I’d think that improvisation also helps a story-teller like Shep.
The description of the Nichols and May performances also notes that:
“Developed through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing….” This makes the point that their material, coming out of improvisation, was worked over to hone it into the final, precise presentation we’re familiar with from TV, theater, and recordings. Here, I would say, is where their precision differs from Shep’s delivery. I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation–within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.
According to the obit, when Nichols was honored at Lincoln Center for “lifetime achievement,” Elaine May commented, “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared, and he writes.”
Another quote from Elaine May: “But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.” Of course we Shep enthusiasts know that Jean Shepherd has some more serious flaws than that, but he’s still brilliant!
Despite the far-different paths their careers took, I do find that some
aspects of Shepherd and Nichols connect.