American improvisation comedy is typically traced to Chicago’s Compass Theater, formed by David Shepherd and Paul Sills in 1955. The Compass encouraged an interactive and spontaneous relationship between performer and audience akin to European cabaret. The two most famous practitioners of the Compass school of improv were known to the American public in large part though LP records: Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Nichols and May were not the first Compass graduates to find success in the record business. Shelley Berman got his start as an entertainer at the Compass, where he was often teamed up with Nichols and May. Berman set out on his own as a stand-up comedian, and his much-imitated telephone monologues were part of an act that helped to invent what is now called “observational” comedy. Berman’s LPs, which were soon followed up the charts by the albums of Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart, marked the beginning of the comedy LP’s economic and cultural renaissance and helped to tip the industry balance toward the LP market.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May also began at the Compass, and like Berman, set out on their own in the late 1950s. An important break came when they appeared on the television show “Omnibus” in 1958, doing skits that they had developed on stage at the Compass. Though it was a television appearance that rocketed them to celebrity, the duo maintained a low profile on television even at the peak of their success, putting their creative energy instead into stage shows, radio appearances, and the release of chart-topping LPs. Not only did they concentrate on other media forms, but Nichols and May were known for a somewhat critical stance towards TV, and even turned down potentially lucrative network development deals. When they appeared at the Emmy Awards in 1959, May praised the men who “year in, year out,” were “quietly producing garbage.” Nichols played the winner of the “Total Mediocrity” award, and assured viewers that “no matter what suggestions the sponsors make, I take them”. The popular team was scheduled for a return performance at the 1960 Emmy Award show, but the sponsor, Proctor and Gamble, rejected their sketch just hours before the broadcast, and Nichols and May refused to replace the censored bit with old material. The sketch was to have featured Nichols presenting May with the “David Susskind award for contributing to the maturity and dignity of television.” After vigorously denying charges that television was controlled by advertisers, May was to remove a wig and make a plug for a home-permanent application. NBC and Proctor and Gamble found the bit to be “inappropriate,” particularly as it was to be immediately followed by an ad for the sponsor’s Lilt home-permanent.
Similar barbs at TV sponsorship can be found on a “Monitor” sketch called “Doing the Bard,” on which we hear Nichols recite a soliloquy from Hamlet until he is interrupted by May, who plays the representative of a beer company sponsoring the production.
Critiques of network sponsorship like the one found here, and their well-publicized experiences with the Emmy Awards show how comedy LPs could function in the 1960s and ‘70s as a potent medium for television criticism.