As the self-appointed president of the “Maniacs for Mad Men” club, I’m always on the lookout for a worthy successor.
I don’t want to get too excited yet, but I must say that one (not-yet picked-up) Amazon pilot, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” looks awfully promising.
Also a seductively designed love letter to late 1950s/1960s New York City, TMMM is so far receiving gushing approval, especially from standup comedians.
Season 1, episode 1 is available to watch free here.
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
Though the overly alliterative title suggests a cartoon or a child’s book, TMMM is about a grown woman, one 27-year-old Miriam “Midge” Maisel, an attractive, quirky, brainy, embattled, fashionable, fast-talker type (and would-be stand-up comic.)
She’s exactly the kind of character its much-worshipped creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, knows best.
As the pop-cultural savant behind “Gilmore Girls” (more alliteration) Sherman-Palladino writes, hands down, the most enchanting, dead-on clever, rat-tat-tat-tat dialogue for women. She tends to flawlessly deliver on tone, mood, and the interaction between the sexes, too.
Of course, "Gilmore Girls" featured Lorelei Gilmore (played by Lauren Graham) as a WASPY one-time-teenaged single mother in Stars Hollow, Conn., who defied her privileged family upbringing to make her own way with baby Rory (the fantastic Alexis Bledel, who also appeared on “Mad Men” as the station-wagon-driving housewife who had an affair with Pete).
Go back to 1958, and substitute rich Jewish family for a WASPY one, and the “Classic 6” pre-war apartments of New York City’s Upper West Side for Connecticut, and you get the Maisel milieu.
This time, the searingly smart Mrs. M., played by the beaming Rachel Brosnahan, is a quirky perfectionist and screwball (but closet) comedienne who, although she performs a long, funny toast at her own wedding, intends to live the life her appearance-obsessed Jewish parents demand of her.
As was the norm at the time, she gets her “Mrs.” degree directly after graduating from Bryn Mawr (allowing her mother to brag at the wedding that she “lived in Katharine Hepburn’s room!”).
Five years later, she now resides in a perfectly decorated apartment (in her parent’s building) and has two perfect children. But the baby girl’s large “Yalta forehead” is a concern to Midge’s mom, and therefore, Midge too, who often measures it. But that’s OK, since having been brought up by a neurotic, Midge keeps herself in tiptop military shape, often measuring her own calves and thighs, and rising before dawn to put on her “face” before her husband awakens.
Above all, she’s supposed to show absolute wifely devotion to her husband, Joel Maisel. He makes money in his dad’s business, but dreams of being a comedian. So Midge supplies everything he needs, trading her brisket for a better time slot. (The Jewish stuff gets a little stereotyped.) But she also boosts his ego and edits his work so he can occasionally step onstage late nights in the Village at the Gaslight Café, a real place that opened in 1958, also known as the Village Gaslight (a name that, in light of contemporary politics, has a new double meaning). Always a notable spot for introducing new stars of comedy and folk music, it was referenced in “Mad Men (in “Babylon,” the first season’s sixth episode) and was also featured in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Midge’s hubby, who turns out to be a loser, starts his routine by talking about “The Hidden Persuaders” (a much-alluded-to book on MM) as a segue into his act, about how a press agent would spin Lincoln’s act on the eve of the Gettysburg Address. It turns out that he stole the whole thing from Bob Newhart. And it also turns out that despite all the perfection at home, he’s been schtupping his secretary, not the sharpest tool in the shed, who has trouble sharpening a pencil. (Joel defends his girlfriend’s weakness by shouting “It’s electric!” )
After a particularly bad set, Joel fills up Midge’s suitcase, and decides to leave. Thus Mrs. Maisel’s whole future is unpacked.
A divorced woman defying the cultural and family challenges of 1958 is a delicious and painfully rich set-up. That’s five years before the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” which set off the women’s movement. Its author, Betty Friedan, said that she had to keep her writing a secret from her suburban neighbors, who at the time felt that for a respectable wife/mother, being an alcoholic was more acceptable than being a writer.
Though being a female comedian then was extremely rare, Phyllis Diller was one pioneer in the field. She started at age 37, after having five children and a husband who was often unemployed. Her comedy was about how ugly she was.
TMMM seems more loosely based on Joan Rivers, who, after trying to be an actress, also started with an act that was very self-denigrating about her looks.
These days, there seems to be a mini-boom in TV shows about stand-up. On HBO, there’s Pete Holmes’ “Crashing,” and “I’m Dying Up Here,” Showtime’s upcoming series.
I found TMMM a much more inspiring story than “Crashing,” which is about another white guy struggling to find his voice. Interestingly, both feature divorces in the first episodes that lead to stand-up acts — and husbands who make it all about themselves.
TMMM really lights up close to the end, when, as a bookend to her wedding toast, Midge ends up drunk and starving and on stage at the Gaslight, delivering her own material with the comic timing of a master.
The bartender character at the club, Suzie, who had Joel’s number, tells Midge she has something — and that the only other talent Suzie said that to was Mort Sahl.
Joel kept calling Suzie, dressed down in a hat and T-shirt and pants, “him.” And if Suzie is a lesbian, because of the gay-unfriendly ‘50s, her philosophy is "I don't mind being alone. I just do not wanna be insignificant.” So Suzie decides to help Midge develop her stand-up act.
I have a couple of cavils: I don’t think Midge’s kitchen would sport a wall oven (that’s for the Petries to install in Westchester five years later.) Nor would she buy lamb for a break-the-fast at a place that sold pork chops. And some of the New York accents are off. But the attention to period detail is divine, and overall it’s wicked smart.
So go vote for the pilot on Amazon. Personally, I’m feeling some irrational exuberance.