The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has finally arrived.
From wife-husband team Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino (the creators of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads) comes a new TV show about the standup comedy scene of the 1950s. Earlier this year, Amazon aired several pilots in order to determine which they should pick up. Feedback for this show was so positive that they picked up the series for not one season, but two to start. Season One, which is eight episodes long, is available for binge-streaming beginning today.
The show, set in 1958 New York, features Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 26-year-old mother of two, a devoted housewife living in bliss in a gorgeous apartment on the Upper West Side. When her marriage suddenly falls apart, Midge accidentally finds herself drunkenly ranting onstage at a Greenwich Village cafe (on Erev Yom Kippur, no less)—and the audience loves her. Despite her proper upbringing and strict expectations set by her family, Midge finds she loves standup, and becomes determined to make a name for herself, and succeed the same way she has at anything else she sets her mind to (she makes a mean brisket).
“I wanted to see that girl in a comedy club, because a comedy club is such a vile cesspool of disease and sadness and stickiness, and there’s a coating on everything,” Sherman-Palladino told Tablet. “I didn’t want to do a character who’s looking out a window thinking, ‘I think there’s something better out there!’ No, I wanted a woman who just thought she scored. Her life was perfect, it was fabulous, so that she lived in this bubble where nobody told her that life was bad or that she couldn’t do things.”
But Midge learns to love the grime of downtown, and its obstacles (including arrests for performing profane comedy). With Alex Borstein playing her tough comedy guru/manager, she encounters great comedians of the era, from Red Skelton to Lenny Bruce. The show is as much of a crash-course in great comedy of the 1950s for the audience as it is for Midge.
And Sherman-Palladino knows from the vintage comedy scene. Her father, Don Sherman, was a Jew from the Bronx who made his career as a stand-up comedian. She has vivid childhood memories of Don and his comedy friends sitting around smoking cigarettes (possibly joints) and brainstorming new material. She even knew Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, who stayed in the comedy business after her son’s death (Sherman-Palladino even has some of Marr’s jewelry).
Unlike most of these comedians, including her character, Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge (fantastically), isn’t Jewish. Still, practically everyone else in the cast is, from Borstein to Michael Zegen (Another gentile exception is Tony Shalhoub, who plays Midge’s father, a mathematics professor at Columbia).
“You’ve got to start listening to some Jews,” Sherman-Palladino recalls telling Brosnahan to prepare for the role. “You’ve got to start listening to some Mel Brooks, and some Joan Rivers. Because there’s a pattern. If you live in New York, you’re 30 percent Jewish automatically, anyhow.”
“I believe she’ll convert at some point,” joked Daniel Palladino, since Brosnahan has become immersed in research for her role.
“It’s in her contract,” added Amy. “If we get picked up for a third season, she has to convert to Judaism.”
In the traditional of Sherman-Palladino shows, Midge is a dynamic, sharp female protagonist, spitting wit like an Aaron Sorkin character (or perhaps, Sorkin’s creations speak like Sherman-Palladino women). If watching Gilmore Girls makes you want to hang out with Lorelai and Rory, Midge will inspire you to attend an open mic night. You too will surely be a natural, sending you on a path to, like Midge, become friends with Lenny Bruce, get called upon by Jane Jacobs to speak at a protest, and wear simply stunning coats, dresses, and hats (seriously, the show’s costumes are to die for).
Are there a few head-scratchers from a technical, Jewish perspective? Sure, like the fact that Midge’s butcher sells pork, or that the show seems to put Yom Kippur on a different date than it historically was in 1958, or the fact that Midge’s family regularly attends shul, but seems to skip Kol Nidre. But Sherman-Palladino isn’t concerned about such minutiae when the focus is Midge as a character.
“I wasn’t setting out to do a Jewish show,” said Sherman-Palladino. “I was just setting out to do her family, so possibly I should have given it a little more thought? Look, the mezuzahs are right. I can always say that. We had a lot of mezuzah talks, and the people who do our sets are, like, obsessive about every detail.”
(The mezuzahs do look great.)
And there certainly are Jewish details in the script beyond references to Jews like Mort Sahl. There are jokes about the Rosenbergs, kashrut, and rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. There is a Yiddish song in the soundtrack of the second episode. There is talk of Pyrex, Grossinger’s, Sammy Davis Jr. There are overbearing parents who embody Jewish stereotypes, sure, but the cultural cuts are so deep, and the performances are so great that it brings them to new life. With the fate of Transparent hanging in the balance, Amazon seems determined to, one way or another, air the most Jewish show on TV.
Besides, this may be Sherman-Palladino’s first overtly Jewish project, but she insists that Gilmore Girls was coded— writing Jewish dialogue into WASP mouths.
“The family dynamics for both [Lorelai and Rory] have a similar sort of pattern, a rhythm and a verbal one-upmanship that is a Jewish thing that we put in Connecticut.”
But the Maisels (and the Weissmans, Midge’s people) are Jews in New York. They’re brash, and abrasive, and unapologetic, and hilarious. All the discomfort of watching Jews in their full glory onscreen is worth it when you see Midge get onstage and use it all to make people laugh, and Jews have done, and will continue to do.
Sherman-Palladino’s Jewish subtext has become text, and said text is— well, marvelous.