AFF Panel: A Conversation with Elaine May
Thursday at 2:45 p.m., Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel Ballroom
A discussion with Elaine May, moderated by Phil Rosenthal
Moderator Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) tried to guide an aging but extremely quick-witted May through her career, which includes work on films including “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Tootsie,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” “A New Leaf,” “Mike and Nicky,” “Ishtar” and “Heaven Can Wait.” It was clear from the outset that the interview was going to go wherever May wanted to take it.
Rosenthal began by asking her about her supposed theatrical childhood, using information from previous interviews May had given.
“When I started out, I so resented being asked questions in interviews that I made up everything,” she admitted, including that she and her parents had an ice skating act with horses. “They just didn’t listen,” she said.
Her mother, May explained, was really funny. “I would hear her talk to other people so entertainingly, and when they left I would say to her, ‘Gee, I wish you were my mom.’ “
She discussed various stages of her career, beginning with her attendance the University of Chicago and improvisation performances with her future comedy team partner Mike Nichols and others. They used to play in a bar called Jimmy’s Tavern, May said, and they would fail so miserably that they would sneak out of the back and escape down Michigan Avenue.
Rosenthal kept things moving along. At one point, May was recounting a routine that involved making a phone call from a phone booth — dropping a dime in the slot and hearing the machine take it and realizing it’s your last dime. Rosenthal turned to the audience, many of them holding smart phones, and asked, “Kids, do you know what she’s talking about?”
May continued to hilariously shut the moderator down on facts and assertions, such as the amount of improvisational room she gave her actors while directing 1976’s “Mikey and Nicky.” When Rosenthal insisted he’d seen director’s commentary that gave him the impression that she allowed the actors to work very loosely, she disagreed.
“You didn’t let them improvise?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well, would you agree that you were influenced by the John Cassavetas stye?” he asked.
“No!” she insisted, to lots of laughter.
The conversation concluded with questions from the audience, during which May addressed the challenges facing women writers.
“It’s easier to be a woman writer if you have a few successes,” she said. “If you fail, you don’t get another shot because they think that being a woman is the reason you failed.”
May: It’s very hard to write funny.
Rosenthal: Writing stinks. If we give anything to these people, it should be that.
May: I polish my e-mails. It’s very hard to be a writer and just dash it off.
May: (On meeting President Obama) I’ve got a lot against him, but he is just the most charming person. He’s adorable. He’s the guy you wish you had dated in high school. And he was genuinely charming; not “Bill Clinton charming.”
Rosenthal: Did you shake his hand?
May: He kisses.
Rosenthal: Not me.
May: Well, what were you wearing?
May: (On “Breaking Bad,” which she has yet to watch) I heard it was about this teacher who has cancer and he starts cooking meth. That’s what we should all do. It seems to me like a great argument for health care. What did he do that was so bad?
Rosenthal: He killed people.
May: Oh, “he killed people.” What did he do that was really so bad?
Rosenthal: Worse than killing people and providing meth to the general poulation? He didn’t open Auschwitz, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Rosenthal: Have you seen “12 Years a Slave?”
May: Is it really good?
Rosenthal: Well, do you enjoy two hours of torture?
May: (Paused, raised her eyebrows and smiled coyly) Well …