I've been thinking about Elaine May lately, and just I ran into this nice piece on her films in the Times.
As half of Nichols & May, and a founder of the Second City, she helped invent contemporary improv and sketch comedy in the 50s and 60s. It would be easy to diminish her work in that time by calling her a great female comic (as opposed to a great comic), but I think her gender is significant.
Comedy tends to reward women who are either beautiful accesories (like the women in a Frat Pack movie) or disgusting embarassments (think of the female characters on Mad TV). May's characters drove the Nichols & May sketches, and they were never simply outrageous debasements. In fact, they were quite the opposite... and they weren't ditzy or steely bitches either. To do that and be as funny as they were (and even are) takes astonishing talent, and courage besides.
Besides directing four films (most famously "The Heartbreak Kid" and most infamously "Ishtar"), she's stayed pretty quiet since the Nichols & May days. She had what I thought was a hilarious small part in "Small Time Crooks," which was one of Woody Allen's better outings lately. She wrote two films directed by Nichols, "The Birdcage" and "Primary Colors." She's largely been quiet, though.
She's appearing Sunday February 26th in New York. Tickets are a million bucks, but it might just be worth it.