Nov 21

Mike Nichols: A Classic Sketch from Way Back When

 “Hello Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?” Mike Nichols and Elaine May, “Mother and Son”

Mike Nichols (1931-2014) passed away this week. (For his New York Times obituary, click on the link.) Although known for an amazing list of accomplishments in the world of entertainment, it’s his earliest work with comedy partner Elaine May that initially made him famous. They performed together from 1957 to 1962, including on Broadway.

One of the best and most classic sketches from their Broadway show is called “Mother and Son,” a bit that’s also on their album, “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.” Lindsey Planer (All Music) describes it: “The poignant ‘Mother and Son’ pits an aerospace engineer named Arthur against his overbearing, nagging, and nervous mother. The guilt that Arthur feels in failing to call his mother on a regular basis turns into a psychological examination as the pair revert back to a relationship they had when Arthur was emotionally dependent on the happiness of his mother.”

Her “nerves” are indeed a problem. She may have to be hospitalized, she laments to her son—they’ll probably need to take some X-rays of them.

Kyle Stevens wrote an article in Critical Quarterly (reprinted on Academia) that provides a more detailed analysis of “Mother and Son”: “Nichols plays a man phoning home to his mother (denoted Jewish by her accent and grammatical inversions). The son, a busy scientist at NASA, cannot offer a satisfactory excuse as to why he has not called earlier. After much back-and-forth, the mother laments: ‘I sat by the phone all day Friday, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. Your father said to me, ‘Phyllis, eat something. You’ll faint.’ I said, ‘No,Harry. No. I don’t want my mouth to be full when my son calls me.'”

Of course, the son feels the need eventually to apologize. “(B)ut the mother responds: ‘Someday,someday, Arthur, you’ll get married, and you’ll have children of your own, and, honey, when you do, I only pray that they make you suffer. That’s a mother’s prayer.’ Repeating how awful he feels, she says, ‘Oh,honey, if I could believe that, I’d be the happiest mother in the world.’”

Enjoy—I think you’ll agree this old black-and-white is still as relevant and funny today.