LAUGH­ING MAT­TERS

Neil Fisher talks to the cre­ators of an un­likely hit se­ries about a 1950s house­wife turned co­me­dian

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel

The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel sounds like a su­per­hero and, in a way, she is. It’s just that Midge Maisel’s great act of der­ring-do comes as the per­fect 1950s New York house­wife is putting the fi­nal touches to her Yom Kip­pur break­fast (the rabbi has ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion — se­ri­ous ku­dos), when she finds out her hus­band is leav­ing her for his sec­re­tary.

Midge gets drunk on kosher wine, puts her coat over her nightie, gets on the sub­way, stum­bles into a seedy club in down­town Man­hat­tan — and finds her new metier as a ballsy, brassy stand-up. Mrs Maisel doesn’t fly, she doesn’t have su­per-strength and she can’t be­come in­vis­i­ble but, oh my, does she kick com­edy ass.

When Ama­zon Prime put out the pi­lot of The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel in March last year — one of a raft of try­outs by the stream­ing ser­vice — it was pretty clear that the one with the Yom Kip­pur melt­down was the keeper. The show duly had its first full sea­son late last year. The Times TV critic Carol Mid­g­ley called it “the op­po­site of gloomy” and in wet Novem­ber it felt like com­edy manna from heaven. It is, say the show’s mar­ried cre­ators, Amy Sher­man-Pal­ladino and Dan Pal­ladino, “our big­gest labour of love”.

They have been re­warded for it. Mrs. Maisel won big at the Em­mys this year, tak­ing five awards, in­clud­ing gongs for the for­mer House of Cards ac­tress Rachel Bros­na­han, who plays Midge Maisel, and for Alex Borstein, who plays her tough-cookie agent, Susie My­er­son. The big­gest win­ner, how­ever, was Sher­man-Pal­ladino, who be­came the first woman to win Em­mys for both com­edy writ­ing and di­rect­ing. The show re­turned for its sec­ond sea­son last week and a third se­ries has been com­mis­sioned.

Speak­ing from New York, Sher­man-Pal­ladino is par­tic­u­larly pleased a show that is un­apolo­get­i­cally feel-good is be­ing cel­e­brated at this level. “There’s a lot of very dark, very sly hu­mour around. We like those shows. But we were drawn to a lead char­ac­ter who is full of joy for the world. And I would like to see more shows on the air that have that tone.”

Of course, it helps with the laughs that this is, in part, a show about com­edy. Sher­man-Pal­ladino’s fa­ther, Don, who died in 2012, was a stand-up.

“So I grew up with comics in my back yard con­stantly talk­ing about the old days. They made that world seem prob­a­bly much more won­der­ful than stand-up com­edy re­ally is — ex­cit­ing and ad­ven­tur­ous, with mad­capped nights out in Las Ve­gas. I grew up in the San Fer­nando Val­ley [in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia] and ev­ery­thing was the same shade of beige. So this felt like a mag­i­cal time and place and world. I long to be liv­ing there now.”

Although it’s tempt­ing to be­lieve that Midge Maisel the un­der­ground comic is based on a real char­ac­ter, the cou­ple say it isn’t so. “She’s re­ally an amal­ga­ma­tion of lots of peo­ple,” says Pal­ladino. “One is my fa­ther-in-law, an­other is Joan Rivers.” His wife, as she does rather fre­quently, in­ter­rupts. “It’s a tip of a hat to Joan Rivers and the women do­ing com­edy at that time, although Joan Rivers was re­ally 10 years later. And, frankly, her own story is so in­cred­i­ble that you just can’t tread there — some­one should just do ‘the Joan Rivers story’.”

Rivers was, how­ever, one of the first fe­male co­me­di­ans who, like Midge Maisel, took on her male coun­ter­parts by dar­ing sim­ply to be her­self — not play a larger-than-life char­ac­ter or dumb per­sona. “So then peo­ple could look at them and laugh,” Sher­man-Pal­ladino ex­plains, “be­cause they weren’t look­ing at them like they would at their wife or their daugh­ter.”

The cou­ple also were in­spired to in­clude a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of Lenny Bruce (played by an ex­cel­lently sat­ur­nine Luke Kirby) be­cause he was an early sup­porter of Rivers as she fought chau­vin­ist prej­u­dice. “They were on the same bill and she bombed. He sup­pos­edly wrote her a note that said, ‘You’re right, they’re wrong.’ ”

Mrs. Maisel is set in 1959, but its cre­ators say funny women still strug­gle for equal­ity to­day. “We’re still suit­ing up,” quips Sher­man-Pal­ladino. “Try­ing to find ar­mour that fits.”

Her hus­band elab­o­rates: “It’s still a re­ally tough world. You still hear of fe­male stand-ups be­ing called ‘shrill’ if they’re an­gry — some­how it comes off as dis­taste­ful, even though most The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel male comics have anger as part of their act. It’s a tough world and women have al­ways had to work a lot harder than men in or­der to achieve the same sta­tus. I bet if you sat down with Sarah Sil­ver­man she’d tell you all sorts of ter­ri­ble sto­ries about how dif­fi­cult it was to over­come odds that men at her level did not have to over­come.”

In the age of Mrs. Maisel, New York com­edy also was dom­i­nated by Jewish artists (ar­guably it still is). “Jews made com­edy what it is to­day,” says Sher­man-Pal­ladino. The writer-di­rec­tor “grew up on Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, that Jewish in­flec­tion. That voice drove a lot of my com­edy: it’s how my rhythms were formed.”

The Jewish so­cial com­edy of Midge Maisel is a big part of its de­li­cious­ness, par­tic­u­larly the clev­erly drawn con­trast be­tween Midge’s mon­eyed par­ents (her em­pa­thy-free fa­ther is a pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at Columbia Univer­sity) who live in a pala­tial apart­ment on the Up­per West Side, and her faith­less hus­band’s par­ents: hard-graft­ing, lower-mid­dle-class im­mi­grants who run a Mid­town gar­ment fac­tory.

It’s the Jewish ma­te­rial that also has pro­duced some of the real zingers in the script. “Go home and clean the kitchen!” shouts a boor­ish heck­ler at the club at Midge. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m Jewish — we pay peo­ple to do that,” she fires back. Or there is the hissed ar­gu­ment be­tween Midge and her par­ents that takes place in the mid­dle of a syn­a­gogue ser­vice: “Are you go­ing to an­swer my ques­tion with a ques­tion?” “If not here, where?”

Back in the real world, when Sher­man-Pal­ladino was start­ing in TV, her for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence was work­ing with an­other pow­er­ful, mould-break­ing, funny, acer­bic (and Jewish) woman. She was Roseanne Barr, with whom Sher­man-Pal­ladino worked as a story ed­i­tor dur­ing the last few sea­sons of the orig­i­nal se­ries of Roseanne. “By the time I came in, she had re­ally wres­tled the power of the show to her­self. There was a lot of cre­ative free­dom — but it wasn’t a true les­son for what was to come.”

By the time Sher­man-Pal­ladino was pitch­ing her own shows, she came up against fo­cus groups, in­ter­fer­ing net­work bosses and “a lot of peo­ple in suits with pen­cils go­ing through the scripts. I didn’t un­der­stand why we were lis­ten­ing to them.”

She and her hus­band’s first hit was Gil­more Girls, a smart com­edy-drama hing­ing on a sur­pris­ingly frank re­la­tion­ship be­tween a mother and daugh­ter in a fic­tional town in Con­necti­cut, and stacked full of wry pop-cul­tural ref­er­ences. It ran from 2000 to 2007, but the cou­ple sug­gests un­fin­ished busi­ness.

“One of the many prob­lems of Gil­more Girls was that they didn’t know how to cat­e­gorise it — it was pri­mar­ily a com­edy with dra­matic ele- ments.” It ran­kles that the show didn’t win any big awards. “It was con­sid­ered teeny-bop­per TV,” says Sher­man-Pal­ladino.

Be­tween Gil­more Girls and Mrs. Maisel, the cou­ple also de­vised Bun­heads, a com­edy about as­pir­ing bal­let stars (Sher­man-Pal­ladino’s mother is a re­tired dancer) that was can­celled after one sea­son.

The cou­ple cer­tainly has no com­plaint about cre­ative free­dom, nor Ama­zon’s spend­ing on Mrs. Maisel. The 1950s coats, hats and frocks must cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars alone, and the new sea­son be­gins with a jaunt to Paris, where Midge’s mother has de­cided to re­dis­cover her in­ner Bo­hemi­enne. And there will be a so­journ in the so-called Borscht Belt, the hol­i­day re­sorts in the Catskills in up­state New York to which Jewish fam­i­lies would flock to spend the sum­mer.

They were also prime ground for job­bing co­me­di­ans to ply their craft. The re­sorts are now in ru­ins — once for­eign travel be­came af­ford­able in the 1970s, no one wanted to spend their hol­i­days learn­ing ball­room danc­ing or play­ing crazy golf. “But we found an old ho­tel in the area that we spruced up,” says Pal­ladino. “So we were able to re-cre­ate that world.”

One of the hall­marks of a Sher­man-Pal­ladino pro­duc­tion is the in­tel­li­gent ban­ter be­tween women. It was there in the mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship of Gil­more Girls and it’s there in Mrs. Maisel, pri­mar­ily be­tween Midge and the tough-as-nails Susie, a dou­ble act Bros­na­han has called a “wom­ance” rather than a bro­mance. Sher­man-Pal­ladino says the im­por­tant thing is that men and women can warm to this re­la­tion­ship.

“It’s so im­por­tant not to alien­ate peo­ple, so guys don’t think that the show is just a bunch of chicks all sit­ting around pick­ing out hats. Susie and Midge are like two dudes when they’re to­gether. They don’t talk to each other like ‘girls’, they never talk about men, or their weight, or their clothes. Their con­ver­sa­tions are all about am­bi­tion, about get­ting some­where and mak­ing money.”

Like the best Amer­i­can tales, Mrs. Maisel is about a go-get­ter pre­pared to get her hands dirty — even if those hands are clad in Dior gloves. And if we know, in the end, that the adorable and truly marvel­lous Midge Maisel is go­ing to tri­umph with a smile on her face — and a per­fect dead­pan quip to match it — then who would com­plain? “In the old days come­dies were sup­posed to make you laugh,” says Sher­man-Pal­ladino. “So it’s a weird world we live in when you’re sup­posed to be em­bar­rassed when some­thing makes you feel good.”

She warms to her theme. “Yes, it’s a com­edy. Yes, there’s women, there are skirts.” She pauses. “But it’s def­i­nitely a balls-out com­edy.” Ama­zon Prime Video. is stream­ing on

Rachel Bros­na­han in

Daniel Pal­ladino and Amy Sher­manPal­ladino, cre­ators of The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel

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