This story begins when I was about 8 years old, as most of my stories do. This is the age when I became captivated by comedy.
My parents’ record cabinet is where it really all began for me. I listened to everything they had, mostly Broadway cast albums of “Funny Girl,” “Mame,” “Cabaret;” Rosemary Clooney; Danny Kaye; and more. I loved those albums, but the comedy albums were what really spoke to me, and the best of the bunch was, “Nichols and May Examine Doctors.” This was the one that put it over the top for me.
If you don’t know, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were an improvisational comedy team, in the ‘60’s, that used to perform in the Village, at coffeehouses, on the radio, and other venues I’m sure I didn’t know because I was 8. Nichols and May did improvisational sketches, and they were smart and hilarious, and I know this because I was 8. This particular album of theirs was all about different kinds doctors and the relationships between physicians and patients.
A word about our record player: And that’s what it was - a record player - not a turntable or a stereo. A record player. It was housed in the big corner cabinet piece in our living room. You’d pull the center knob, and the compartment would pull out and down on hinges, and there it was. You would put the record on the spindle, the needle on the record, and then very carefully close the cabinet so as not to cause the needle to skip. (I’m sure that my father went over this, ad nauseum, and, as in almost every instance in our house, we were frightened into complying). The front facing of the compartment was woven rattan, and there was a circle where the sound came out.
I would sit in front of that rattan circle and listen and listen to that album until I became one with it. I knew every part of it. There was one bit called, “A Little More Gauze,” about an operation. In it, Mike Nichols is the surgeon operating, and Elaine May, the nurse, is assisting him.
Here’s a little taste of it. I’ll play both parts. Mike Nichols, as the surgeon, begin:
MN: More gauze.
EM: More gauze.
MN: More gauze.
EM: More gauze.
MN: More gauze.
EM: More gauze.
MN: A little more gauze.
EM: We don’t have any more gauze.
MN: That’s all the gauze?
EM: Yeah, I don’t know what happened, we had a small roll of gauze –
MN: All right, give me a sponge.
EM: You have the clamp.
EM: You have the suture.
MN: I love you.
EM: Please, PLEASE.
EM: You have the sponge!
MN: Well, give me another sponge!
And on and on, as they begin to argue about the sponge and then about their relationship while performing surgery onto the very funny resolution. And I loved this more than I understood why. I don’t remember ever laughing out loud. Maybe I did. I don’t know. It’s not important. I was so completely at home with it. It formed me more than anything else I can think of. I memorized the entire album. I could do all of the voices. I had a good ear. And coming from someone who doesn’t articulate her good points easily, that says a lot. And every night back then, my mom would come into my room at bedtime, sit on the edge of my bed, and I would say my prayers and do a selection off the album for her. I don’t think she knew what to make of it one way or another. I don’t recall praise or admonishment, just a neutral response. “Okay, then.”
“Examine Doctors” remained a part of me as I grew up. I didn’t use it often, publicly, but it quietly helped me navigate through life. It brought me to acting in plays, and it brought me to starting a career as a stand-up comic, something that I intentionally chose for myself when I was 13.
More than twenty years later, when I was getting ready at my apartment to do my first Tonight Show, I was about to start putting on my make-up, and I wondered what music would be appropriate for the occasion. I always listened to music while I was putting on make-up for a show. It was my pre-show ritual.
So, I looked through my albums – yes, albums – and I stopped at “Nichols and May Examine Doctors.” Ah. This is just perfect, I thought. There I was, about to do my very first Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a dream of any young comic, and I was listening to the first artists who brought me into this whole adventure. It was a very sweet moment.
A few years after that, I heard that Mike Nichols was going to be honored at the American Comedy Awards, an event that I attended every year. So, I brought the album and a Sharpie, and I went over to Mike Nichols’ table and asked him if he would please sign it for me. I told him that he and Elaine May were my first influences, and Diane Sawyer, his wife, seemed to get a big kick out of it.
The following year, The Museum of Television and Radio was putting out a big, coffee table book called, “Comedians,” which featured photos and text about the world of comedy. I was featured in the book, and they asked me to write a blurb, something about comedy and me. So, I wrote about that time when I listened to “Examine Doctors” before my first Tonight Show and what it meant to me.
A few years later, I got a call from my agent that I had an audition for a Mike Nichols film. Oh my God. This was amazing. She said I’d be auditioning with my friend, Bil. So, we did the audition, and it seemed to go really well. You never can tell with these.
Apparently it had gone well because we got a callback. My agent told me that Mike Nichols was going to be at the callback. Oh my god. How do I look? I’m not even there, but I want to know how I look. I was so excited. Even though I’d met Mike Nichols at the Comedy Awards, this was different. He was going to be there watching US perform.
So right then I made a decision. I didn’t know when or if I’d ever have this opportunity again, and I decided to bring the album that Mike Nichols had signed, along with a copy of the page out of the “Comedians” book. Yes, I was going to risk looking like an idiot to make a connection with this man, this icon.
So I did just that, and, when we entered the audition room, I showed Mike the album and the page from “Comedians,” and it was lovely. I think he was charmed. We did our audition, it went well, and that was it.
And that was it. I didn’t hear anything from my agent about it. It was a small part, and I figured that, if we’d gotten the parts, we would have known very quickly.
Well, I wrong, because a few weeks later, my agent called to tell me that we got the parts. We got the parts! How do I look?
I drove to the location for the shoot, a private home north of L.A. It was really hot and sunny, which was fine because I was working on a Mike Nichols film! I went through make-up and wardrobe, and I reported to the set where we were going to shoot. They were getting ready to set up the next shot outdoors on the patio.
Mike Nichols had hurt his foot, and he was wearing some sort of a soft boot on it. He wasn’t moving around too much as a result of the injury. At some point, I found myself standing right next to him, shoulder to shoulder. It just sort of randomly occurred, a configuration of the people working there.
Then something came over me. This wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t evenly cursorily considered. I just started to do a selection off the album.
I said, “Gauze.” Mike said, “Gauze.” I said, “More gauze.” Mike said, “More gauze.” I said, “More gauze.” Mike said, “More gauze.” I said, “More gauze.” Mike said, “More gauze.” I said, “A little more gauze.”
And then I got mixed up. I think I was because I was doing his part, and he was doing Elaine May’s part, since I was the one who had started out. But it didn’t matter. I just turned to him, and I said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be doing this with Mike Nichols!” And he said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be Mike Nichols!”
I ran over to where my husband and my stepdaughter were - they were visiting me on the set - and I told them what had just happened. And as I told them, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Every time I tell this story, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I think it’s the most exciting, most grounding thing that has happened for me in my entire career. And no matter where my career takes me, I will always have this, this moment of pure crystallization that links my childhood with my grown-up and tells me why I came here and that it was worth it.
I think that through the course of one’s life, there are goals along the way. And sometimes, when we meet our goals, they don’t seem as wonderful as they did when they were just twinkles in our eyes.
But, this one…this one held up, and still does.