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Girl, You Better Work!: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Gets Serious About Comedy

Image via Rolling Stone

As I was watching season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I kept thinking of an episode of Louie (Louis C.K’s show) where he meets Joan Rivers. The two are playing stages in the same venue; she’s on the “big” headliner stage and Louie is in a much smaller, far less prestigious theatre. He ends up complaining to her about how punishing it all is — that art and business of comedy. “Look,” she says. “I’d like to tell you it gets better. It doesn’t. You get better.” After three seasons of charting a dogged path in stand-up comedy, Midge Maisel must reckon with exactly this tenet. Can she do it? I’m not convinced. And it’s not because Midge isn’t funny or brave, but because there is something more to comedy than the privileged Mrs. Maisel bargained for: serious work.

Created by Amy Sherman-Paladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (TMMM) follows the exploits of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a young Jewish wife and mother, as she cuts her teeth in stand-up comedy in New York City in the late-1950s and early 1960s. Yes. Please. Anything that amplifies women making strides in an art form that is as kind to them as a chainsaw facial has my vote.

And there is plenty to appreciate about this show. Namely several of the lethally funny performers rounding out the cast: Alex Borstein as Susie Meyers, Midge’s hilariously caustic, working-class manager, stealing every scene she’s in and should probably have a series of her own at this point; Jane Lynch reminding us why she’s a black diamond level comic as the self-absorbed diva/comedian, Sophie Lennon; Tony Shaloub playing Midge’s father, Abe, a tightly-wound mathematics professor at Columbia University whose delivery is a masterclass in wryness. Not to mention that the period set and costume designs make Mad Men look like something out of an Ikea catalogue. All of this forms the scaffolding for the show’s thru-line: Midge’s largely accidental comedy career.

I am one of those insufferable jerks that believes when it comes to comedy there’s a lot more going on under the hood; a cigar is not just Groucho’s prop, if you know what I mean. Comedy is a vital element of our political, artistic, and social fabric that comes with high stakes. I know. You’re probably thinking, Wow! That sounds like the opposite of funny or goofy or Weird Al wacky; you know, stuff that just makes us laugh! I get it, but a quick survey of comics like Kathy Griffin, Richard Pryor, Hannah Gadsby, Moms Mabley, and so many more whose comedy disrupted conventions and spoke truth to power underscores the fact that with great humor comes great responsibility. For the most part, TMMM seems irritatingly tone deaf to this point.

The show presents Midge as a comic genius whose lack of discipline and self-awareness are rewarded. Her first time in front of a mic takes place after she finds out her husband, Joel, is leaving her for his secretary. Ginned up on, well, gin, and anger, Midge stumbles down to The Gaslight, a skeezy nightclub where she used to go see Joel make his own disastrous attempts at stand-up. Midge barges on stage and unleashes a sardonic, obscenity-laced rant about her destroyed marriage that kills and voila! A comic is born. Pass the champagne. Because it’s absolutely that easy!

It’s worth noting that the late-1950s world of Maisel was also a turning point for American comedy. The classic set-up-punch-line comics like Bob Hope and George Burns were receding in the glare of supernovas like Lenny Bruce (who also figures into the show) and the duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May. These comics crafted humor from observations about life, religion, politics. They were the vanguard of conversational humorists who took the quotidian happenings of relationships and family dynamics out of the private and into the public, where they skewed and repackaged them for maximum comedic impact. Midge is aligned with this cohort. She feels like she’s at her strongest when she can “say whatever it is [she] wants to say,” because it’s absolutely that easy!

Midge gigs, but she doesn’t work. There is a distinction. It’s the difference between the tedious, very unsexy process of creating, failing, refining, and repeating that cycle ad nauseam and the desire (delusion, truthfully) to arrive in your creative arena fully formed. I am not discounting that siren-like lure of sticking the landing after one go on the parallel bars, nor am I suggesting giving an inordinate amount of attention in the show to what amounts to as pretty boring labor. If Andy Warhol had his own TV network, you can bet it would be shows of people cutting up magazines and literally watching paint dry. But we are expected to keep cheering for Midge as she lurches from opportunity to opportunity with predictably mixed results. Her ignorance goes unchecked while her appetite for big stages and huge crowds grows. Despite people all around her hustling — her ex-husband launches his new nightclub; Susie works on growing her agency; Midge’s own mother pounds the proverbial pavement to start a Jewish match-making venture — Midge remains oblivious to the fact that maybe there’s something in that kind of work ethic that applies to her, too.

Season four begins with Midge picking through the aftermath of being unceremoniously fired from going on a European tour as an opening act for Shy Baldwin, a Sam Cooke-like popstar crooner. Her solution is to refuse any job that isn’t a headline gig. “That’s not how this business works,” warns Susie. Midge is unfazed. She thinks that it’s mostly about getting on stage anyway, and she’s determined to do it on her terms. Midge takes a gig as an emcee at a burlesque (strip tease) theatre. Susie is, rightly, exasperated. As Susie reminds her client, she can’t even send bookers to those clubs because they are super illegal. Still unmoved, Midge forges ahead anyway. I suppose there is an argument to be made that Midge is using her time at the no-tell-nudie club to work out material, if it weren’t for the fact that she doesn’t seem to be taking the material anywhere else, at least not any other substantial or, legal, venue. And then Lenny Bruce gets involved.

Very briefly: Lenny and Midge fall into each other’s lives in the first episode. After her boozy take-down of her annihilated marriage at The Gaslight, which includes Midge flashing her breasts, she’s dragged off stage and arrested for obscenity. Lenny Bruce, infamous for the exact same thing (minus the cleavage-showing), happens to be in the same police car. They form a quasi-mentorship-friendship-flirtation and he sort of swans in and out of her life and, sometimes, her gigs, dropping bits of insight or encouragement — comic to comic.

In the final episode of season four, Lenny has scored a career-altering gig at the gold standard of stages: Carnegie Hall. His performance conflicts with a job he had opening for Tony Bennett. Instead, he puts Midge up for the job, which would also be a career game-changer. BUT NO! She turns it down. NOT AN OPENER, PAL! Read the memo! She catches Lenny’s set at Carnegie Hall and tracks him down backstage to congratulate him on a stunning show. Together they walk out onto the apron of the stage and have a little chat.

In short, Lenny is understandably pissed. It’s not just that he put his name and reputation on the line for her with the Bennet gig, that he negotiated a good rate for her, but that she does not seem to grasp the real concept of what it means to do the job of being funny. Hint: it’s not just about making people laugh:

Lenny Bruce: Getting arrested is not a badge of honor. Getting arrested means I can’t work where I want to work. People are afraid of booking me. It’s exactly the opposite of what I want. (He gestures to the empty auditorium) This is what I want. This is what I’ve worked for. Don’t you want to be here? That should be the goal!

Midge: How do you know it’s not?

Lenny: Because you’re not going to get here hiding yourself away in a club that technically doesn’t exist!

Midge: I’m not hiding!

Lenny: So what you got fired by Baldwin! Go get yourself another gig and another and another.

Midge: So I’m just supposed to get fired from one job after another?

Lenny: Yes! If that’s what it takes.

Midge: I’m not hiding. I have a plan.

Lenny: Don’t plan! Work! And keep working.

Full disclosure: I spooned up this scene with gusto, as if it were a bottomless vat of the most decadent chocolate gelato churned on this side of the Milky Way. Because if you’ve read this far it’s not a mystery that I am frustrated by and disappointed with the less-than-marvelous Midge Maisel! Here is Lenny giving Midge the key to the comedy kingdom: like Joan said, you get better. Meaning you focus on the craft relentlessly, obsessively; you create new material constantly; you take everything you learn from gig to gig and apply it over and over again. Lenny tells Midge that whether or not she can see it, her window of opportunity is closing. He warns her not to screw it up as he leaves a stunned Midge alone on stage in the dim hall (*this is me: Scoop! Scoop! Scoop!) Standing “O,” Mr. Bruce. Chef’s kiss! You are a service to this fictional world!

The episode ends with Midge exiting the theatre into the middle of a blizzard. No cabs or bustes, she walks and, turning a corner, happens to glance up at a sign with what appears to be the phrase “Go forward” on it. The snow swirls and clears a bit to reveal that it’s actually a giant theatre marquis for The Gordon Ford Show, a popular late-night TV show. Midge is drawn to the sign. The shot perspective switches so the viewer sees Midge from behind, a diminutive figure against the larger-than-life marquis. The final moments tease what’s possibly ahead for Midge in season five. Is it her version of success, of “making it big?” Maybe Midge will turn out to be the star she’s convinced that she’s meant to be and forget about attempting to be the artist Lenny believes she could become. We’ll find out. One this is for certain: Midge might actually get good enough for the small screen, but if she doesn’t do the work, she’ll never be great enough for Carnegie Hall.

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Sheila M.

Sheila M.

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Author: League of Extraordinarily Funny Women (Running Press); writer & photographer & enthusiastic New Englandaaahhh