This story begins when I was about 8 years old, as most of my stories do. That is the year that 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. I loved those albums, but the comedy albums were what really spoke to me, and the best of them was, “Nichols and May Examine Doctors.” This was the one that put it over the top for me.
I want to assume that everyone knows Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but just in case: They were an improvisational comedy team, in the ’60’s. They performed 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 somehow I knew this when I was 8. “Examine Doctors” was all about different kinds of doctors, the relationships between physicians and patients, etc.
Our record player was housed in the huge corner cabinet, a floor-to-ceiling monster in our living room. The record player was behind a drop-down door. I’d pull the center knob, and the compartment would pull out and down on hinges. I would put the record on the spindle, lift the needle onto 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, constantly, and, as in almost every instance in our house, we were terrified into complying).
The front facing of the compartment was covered in woven rattan, and there was a circle where the sound came out. I would sit, cross-legged, in front of that circle and listen to that album, over and over, 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 piece of it. Mike Nichols, as the surgeon, begins:
And on and on, as they continue to argue about the sponge and their relationship while performing surgery onto the hilarious resolution.
And I loved this more than I understood why. I don’t even 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 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 then 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 pointedly 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 right for the occasion. I always listened to music while I was putting on make-up for a show. It was my 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 recording that had 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, a bit like a breathless fan, asked him if he would please sign it for me. I told him that he and Elaine May were my first influences. (His wife, Diane Sawyer, 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 thought I’d write about that time when I listened to “Examine Doctors” before my first Tonight Show and what the moment had meant to me.
Then, 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! I went in the next day, did the audition, and it seemed to go really well. But, you never can tell with these.
Apparently it had gone well because I 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 me work!
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. 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 he seemed charmed. I did the scene, 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 I’d gotten it, I would have known very quickly.
I was wrong, because a few weeks later, my agent called to tell me that I got the part. I got the part! Oh my god! I’m going to work with Mike Nichols! How do I look?!
The day of the shoot, I drove to the location, a private home north of L.A. 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 occurred, a random configuration of people.
Then, something came over me. This wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t evenly slightly 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 it was because I was doing the doctor’s part, Mike’s 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, and, simultaneously, the most grounding thing that has happened for me in my entire career. Maybe in my entire life. And no matter where my life takes me, I will always have this, this moment of pure crystallization that links the child I was with the grown-up I’d become, and it tells me why I came here and that it was worth it.
Through the course of one’s life, there are many goals along the way. And sometimes, when we meet our goals, they don’t seem as wonderful as they did when they were just tiny sparks of a fantasy.
But, this one. This one held up. And it still does.
Cathy Ladman appeared in supporting roles in two films directed by Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson’s War and What Planet Are You From? This essay originally appeared on her website and is reprinted with her permission.