‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ a Loud Refresher on Jewish Comedy and Feminism

Screenshot of Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon.

Miriam “Midge” Maisel was clearly a woman who knew what she wanted: “At 13 I announced I was going to Bryn Mawr College,” said the lead character in the intro of the new Amazon pilot.

“In Katharine Hepburn’s old room,” her mother added.

For a woman who gets everything she wants, the fall from high society of the Upper West Side is certainly a long one, but falling alongside her is worth the journey.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel debuted its pilot episode on March 17 on Amazon.

The show follows a 1950s Jewish housewife in Manhattan, Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who suddenly decides it’s time to break into comedy.

Midge lives a life of luxury — her Upper West Side apartment is “perfect for hosting Yom Kippur dinner” — but her foray into stand-up ultimately leads her to Johnny Carson’s couch.

The dramedy is the brainchild of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and stars Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Michael Zegen (Boardwalk Empire), Marin Hinkle (Two and a Half Men) and Alex Borstein (Family Guy and Gilmore Girls cameos). Sherman-Palladino’s husband, Daniel Palladino, creator of Family Guy and Gilmore contributor, is Maisel’s executive producer.

Maisel is one of five Amazon Original pilots that viewers can rate and review on amazon.com to determine if they get a full series production.

The hour-long Maisel pilot opens with Midge giving a speech at her wedding. She turns to her now-husband, Joel, and says, “Yes, I love this man. And yes, there is shrimp in the eggrolls.” (Gasps ensue. The rabbi leaves.)

Fast-forward four years. Joel dreams of being a stand-up comic, and Midge helps him at every turn, bringing brisket to club owners to get him a better open-mic slot. They have two children, are well off, and Midge thinks she has it all. Then — no spoilers — things change.

“I wanted to deal with somebody who actually really loved her life, really thinks she won. And then it fell apart,” Sherman-Palladino told Vanity Fair. “The story that interests me is the pull between the safe, comfortable life, which sounds pretty wonderful to her still, and this sudden[ly] awakened sort of superpower in her.

“It’s just an interesting thing — a woman who never thought outside the box, and suddenly that top is off the box.”

As the funny and strong Midge, Rachel Brosnahan employs quick, seemingly uncalculated delivery. She also serves as a powerful lead for a very Jewish show. Along with strong New York accents, there are repeated mentions of High Holiday guilt and brisket and latkes. Musical selections include Barbra Streisand singing about Peking duck; Gilbert Gottfried makes a cameo.

In one scene, Midge’s mother, played by Marin Hinkle, is crying hysterically.

“Mama, for the love of God, please stop crying in that bedroom!” Midge shouts.

Her mother runs to another room across the hall, shuts the doors and continues crying.

The grumbly, whiny humor is Jewish humor at its best, inspired by everyone from Joan Rivers to Sherman-Palladino’s father, a stand-up comic.

“I grew up with a bunch of Jews sitting around trying to make each other laugh,” Sherman-Palladino told Vanity Fair. “And I knew Lenny Bruce’s mother when I was a kid, because she was sort of the godmother to all the comics. And I worked at the Comedy Store. So the show was not so much a conscious homage to any particular comic as it was something that was in my zeitgeist.”

Her mixed background also served to inspire comedy, she told Vulture in 2013: “My father was a 6-foot-2 Bronx Jew. My mother was a 5-foot Mississippi Baptist. Let the hilarity ensue.”

Her Jewish comedy upbringing included the discovery of the 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks record in her garage.

“It wasn’t just the words,” she later recalled. “It was the way he said everything. And then it dawned on me—that was Jewish. That’s how it’s supposed to sound and feel. It’s fast and furious and human and exhausted and hilarious. To this day, whenever a discussion of God comes into play, the first thing that pops into my head is Mel saying, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil,’” she said.

But the Jewish comedy in her new show, even with its Woody Allen and Catskills influences, is far from stereotypical or one-dimensional.

“If my mother would not convert,” she told Vulture, “if I could not have a Bat Mitzvah, if I could never truly learn the rituals, the words, the point of leaving a chair open at Passover, at least I had them. I had Mel. I had Carl. I had found my inner Jew.”

To watch and review The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, go to amazon.com/pilotseason.

Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here