Call#: Van Pelt Library PN2285 .N25 2003
In his novel Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Gerald Nachman provides a thorough review and assessment of some of the greatest comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. The book is divided into chapters dedicated solely to a specific comedian or team of comedians. These notable figures range from Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer in the 1950s to Bob Newhart and Woody Allen in the 1960s. Nachman gives intimate accounts of how these comedians came to fame and the events and people that inspired them. Each chapter goes into painstaking detail about the comedians’ childhoods, families, and educations. The book is filled not only with evocative quotes from the comedians themselves, but also from those who had close relations with these individuals.
In the chapter entitled “Double Jeopardy,” Nachman contemplates the careers and lives of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, arguably one of the greatest comedic teams of all time. Nichols and May were a product of the Compass Players in Chicago, which has produced many of the world’s most prominent writers and comedians. They dominated the American comedic stage for four years until their sudden breakup in 1961. Despite the brevity of their four year stint, the plays that they wrote, directed, and acted in transformed American comedy. Nachman states that they are “perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era” (319). According to Nichols’ ex-agent, the breakup with May drove him into a “state of depression… he really wasn’t functioning” (351). Despite the profound psychological effects of the breakup, the two recovered and went on to develop their individual careers. While May continued to write comedies, Nichols focused on directing. Nichols’ first two films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) were major hits and secured him a role as one of Hollywood’s leading directors. The Graduate won Nichols an Academy Award for Best Director and a nomination for Best Picture. Though May’s career has not been as celebrated as Nichols’, the two reunited in 1996 when Nichols directed The Birdcage, which May adapted from the play La Cage aux Folles. Nachman provides a deeply personal and thorough account of the stunning and influential comedic duo of Nichols and May.