Science and studies can be used to prove many things, especially when it’s in the right hands. Like the argument for curing homosexuality, the superiority of the white race, or even the inferiority of female humour. “Women don’t grow up competing for other people’s attention through humour, you see, it’s evolutionary,” some might opine.
Saying a woman can’t be funny is the same as saying an alpha male can’t be funny. Because it presupposes that one type of humans can only compete in one manner, and if you can throw a punch, you can’t throw a punchline.
Bridging the “humour gap” is Amy Sherman-Palladino, the talented powerhouse behind Gilmore Girls, Bunheads and now The Marvelous Mrs Maisel — a recommended, critically acclaimed, Golden Globe-winning binge watch on Amazon Prime, about a female comedian in the Sixties. This feels like the only unofficial biography Joan Rivers will ever get, and I encourage you to go down the YouTube spiral of the legend to kill another weekend.
Despite being shot in the sexist Sixties (a decade that really helps Ms Sherman-Palladino to come into her own with the sweeping Frank Sinatra soundtrack and classic jazz strings) Mrs Maisel presents a very modern-day image of a woman’s life. It helps the men look at this kind of behaviour as “this was 60 years ago”, and therefore communicates outside the echo chamber without rifling egos.
It is a self-aware comedy in that it acknowledges the privileged life of the protagonist even though she is being robbed of it, piecemeal. The upper-class, Jewish newly-wed who did everything by the book should be rewarded with an ideal husband and two cherubic children. She went to Bryn Mawr College, looks after her figure like a fanatic, and her cooking can get you a better performance spot in an artists’ line up. And yet, her husband leaves her, and one of her kids is starting to grow a head like Churchill.
Ms Sherman-Palladino has Mrs “Midge” Maisel live out every artistic cliché: Of exploiting liquid courage, of performing well under the influence, of having the strength to not sell out. This delicious juxtaposition between a lady, brought up with no other skills than hosting a dinner party, now navigating the world of stand-up comedy, swapping arrest stories over a joint, is like a favourite trick of Ms Sherman-Palladino’s.
Gilmore Girls uses the same dichotomy of having upper-class parents but choosing a workingclass life, even if the choice in Mrs Maisel is not voluntary. The dialogue throughout is signature of Ms Sherman-Palladino’s: Biting and quick in the style of His Girl Friday and loaded with pop culture references. And she continues the standard structure of creating an alternative world, where camp seems realistic, be it Stars Hollow or New York in the Sixties. There is the beautiful protagonist and the unattractive side-kick (fat or lesbian), and together they navigate, coming up the ladder, alternating at playing Svengali and Trilby.
Mrs Maisel only comes to bet everything because she had nothing left to lose. We are all Mrs Maisels except most of us have not hit rock bottom. Ironically, what holds us back is the precious little between rock bottom and not rock bottom yet. She gets drunk, takes the metro in her nightgown, walks up on the particular stage (the one she’d been lobbying for, for her husband), and in her stupor takes stock of her life that is falling apart, in front of a live audience, setting in motion her journey towards professional stand-up.
What endears her to us is that she’s the personification of vindication every time l’esprit de l’escalier takes over. She has the perfect response for the joke her life turns out to be: Alcohol, anger and flippancy. After a marriage and two children, she is still becoming herself. From not being able to recognise her comedy skills in favour of her husband’s to performing under her real name, they have sneaked a bildungsroman right under our very noses. Mrs Maisel is a coming of age story for those who have already come of it and are resentful of this having happened.
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Saying a woman can’t be funny is the same as saying an alpha male can’t be funny. Because it presupposes that one type of humans can only compete in one manner, and if you can throw a punch, you can’t throw a punchline