In remembering the great Mike Nichols, we're most likely to celebrate cinematic achievements like The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Birdcage, and his legion of other pictures. But Nichols' genius was hardly limited to big screen efforts. Although his 1967 Dustin Hoffman drama pressed an insuperable benchmark on the "coming-of-age" genre, and his 2004 romance Closer proved a lasting understanding of cinematic modernity that would ring impressive even for a much younger director, Nichols' greatest genius might not be in the realm of cinema at all. Instead, I think Mike Nichols' best works were his comedy sketches.
Nicols' sketch comedy might not have transcended generational repute the way his movies did; his string of humorous segments with stage and screen partner Elaine May stand today as historical gems rather than persistent go-to viewings. But Nichols and May together created some of the funniest and strangest pieces of entertainment in show business history. Together, they satirized relationships (both romantic and familial) and parodied social norms. They often drew humor from rather dark crevices, mining laughs from maternal manipulation and, in some instances, death itself. But their stuff was never broad, consistently clever, remarkably tasteful, and always hilarious.
A personal favorite, the classic Nichols and May "Mother and Son" sketch, in which Nichols plays the harried adult son of a probing and prying mother played by May. It's a simple premise that doesn't flex too much from its margins, but still finds so many unique instances of highly relatable, highly ridiculous humor:
Another fantastic entry: May, playing again the "in control" role, interviews a grieving Nichols about the details of a funeral package he has ordered for a recently deceased loved one:
To round out the lot, the two kick up the absurdity a few notches in a romanticization of your average dental exam:
Though Nichols will justly be remembered by his great movies, we should never forget the fantastic sketch comedy that he and Elaine May gave to the world.
Image: Getty Images