A Stand-up Woman

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino on the personal origins behind their Emmy-winning series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and how women’s roles make it difficult for female comedians to be perceived as funny.

©2018 Amazon Studios
Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
March 23, 2018 Written by Matt Hoey
Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman Palladino Getty Images

It’s difficult to be an attractive woman and go out onstage and have people think you’re funny, especially men…it’s not about your material or what you’re voicing or your attitude, it’s really about the roles that women are.

— Amy Sherman-Palladino

Married writers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) have explored numerous versions of contemporary female dynamics and relationships in previous projects. For the first time, they have looked to the past in their Emmy-winning series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The eight-episode first season is now streaming on Amazon Prime, while the couple is currently in pre-production on the 10-episode second season.

The titular Mrs. Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) is Miriam, or Midge, married twentysomething with two young children, living on the Upper West Side of New York in the late 1950s. Her husband Joel (Michael Zegers) has dreams of being a comedian—but he also has a mistress and mountains of hidden disappointment at how his life has turned out. Furious after discovering his infidelity (and also realizing that he’s not really a comedian, just someone who copied Bob Newhart’s act), Midge storms the stage of the Gaslight Cafe—his preferred haunt—and lets loose on her philandering, wannabe-comedian husband and the injustice of her situation. She goes so far as to drop her top in the process and is promptly arrested.

And thus, a star is born. Kind of.

Along the way on her newfound journey into life as a single woman and fledgling stand-up comic, she forms an unlikely friendship with Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby)—complete with interludes of getting high in alleyways behind jazz clubs. She also enters into a new partnership with Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), the disgruntled manager of the Gaslight, who immediately sees the potential in Midge for a unique comedic artist, and takes on the uptown Mrs. Maisel as her very first management client, even if the two women are worlds apart.

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about their latest strong, independent woman, the major shifts in comedy in the middle of the century, and their euphoric feelings about the freedom of writing for a streaming service.

Amy, I read that your dad, Don Sherman, was a comedian in this era, but I don’t know that much about him. Was his experience an inspiration for the show?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It was more just the fact that it was a world I grew up hearing about on the fringes, and it always sounded glamorous to me. I’m sure for the people who were struggling in Greenwich Village in 1958 it wasn’t so glamorous, but to me, it sounded like this magical world of smart people making each other laugh in a town full of witty, urbane...It just sounded great. I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley so anything would’ve been great at that point. And my dad’s friends would come over, and they’d hang out in in the backyard and joke around and make each other laugh. That world was in me, but I didn’t actually live it. When I went to think of where to place my next female protagonist, it just felt like a very interesting place, to put a woman who needs to redo her life in 1958.

So, it wasn’t just the comedy scene, but also this particular time and place that you wanted to write about?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, that world was the world I grew up in. My dad was a stand-up so that, to me, was humor. That 2000 Year Old Man, Mel Brooks. That’s what set my rhythms and patter. That’s just the backdrop, but the idea of 1958 was women had very, very structured roles and were really expected to go one way and do one thing and my girl was going to take a very sharp left turn. It just seemed like a very interesting, very beautiful, very vibrant platform. That just felt like the kind of setting we wanted to use.

As Midge develops her act, her material is very personal, about her husband, her family, her children, which seems a strong juxtaposition against other comedians of that time.

Daniel Palladino: Comedy at that point was kind of in a transition. People doing comedy in the 1950s were the old-school guys like Henny Youngman, the “Take-my-wife-please” guys who were basically doing jokes written by other people. They didn’t really write their own material. It was set up, knock ‘em down, set up, knock ‘em down. But another interesting thing about the period in the ‘50s is that the transition was just starting to a more personalized comedy that ultimately would lead to George Carlin and eventually the comics that we have today.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Right, and Lenny Bruce led that parade in a sense, the tradition of talking about politics and religion, relationships, and racism, and the situation in the world around you.

Daniel Palladino: And Amy’s dad was, he had an act, but his delivery was very stream-of-consciousness. Going out to dinner with him was like an hour and a half of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and he was exactly of that era. We always said that Midge’s comedy comes from her character, comes from her impulsiveness, it comes from her anger at the world, and we always said if she had a tight 10 ready to do, she’d still get up onstage and not be able to resist talking about something that happened to her five minutes before that. We’re also portraying her as impulsive, spontaneous, because that’s what her character is, as well.

When did you decide to include Lenny Bruce and make him a character, not simply a cameo? You see him in the pilot, and it almost feels like you may not ever see him again.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, I think that when you get a guy like Luke Kirby on the set, all you think about is how to get him in more shows. Literally, as he’s talking, you’re like, Why doesn’t he come back? While Lenny Bruce was always supposed to be her muse, when you get that person to personify him and you get an actor as good as Luke is, suddenly you want to see more of them because the chemistry works. And it’s an interesting man to have in her life. He’s not looking at her as a piece of meat, he’s looking at her as an intelligent, sentient being who actually has some spark and talent and vibrancy and that’s kind of exactly what she needs at this point where she’s making this very big transition.

How did the process with Amazon work? Did you write and produce a pilot initially? Or did you work on all eight episodes as one piece?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We did a pilot and then we waited for months, sadly, in pilot waiting hell. Then Amazon did whatever it is that Amazon does with pilots. They have a closed chatroom where people can give thumbs up or thumbs down or whatever. Then we got back to work and shot the other seven.

So, from the beginning, did you have an arc mapped out for her journey or her career? Did you have a big picture about where you wanted to see the show end up?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: One thing Dan and I have always done, we’ve always made sure that anything we pitch, we can see at least five years in our heads. If you can’t, there’s nothing worse in life than, We have a great pilot and then it’s like, now what do we do? It’s very torturous. So we thought what we wanted her first season to be, her second season, third season, fourth season. So we have a broad picture of how we want her career to escalate, and it’s not just about her career, because we don’t actually think this is just a show about stand-up comedy. We think this is a show about this particular woman and maneuvering through a time where she’s changing a little faster than the time is.

Because of that, we have to take into account not just what her career trajectory is, but what her emotional trajectory is. Her loves, and her family, her personal relationship with Susie. The Susie-Midge element, that buddy-comedy thing, two women helping each other at a time when normally these two women would have nothing to speak about for five minutes. That’s a very big part of the show. We kind of have general guidelines so we know where we’re going, so we’re not just stumbling over furniture.

Then when it came time to write the episodes of the first season, what was that process like? How did you go about turning the big story into individual episodes?

Daniel Palladino: We did it basically the way we did it on Gilmore. Amy and I work together with a very, very small group of writers to break down all the stories. We spend a long time on the structure and the story. People have always written about the dialogue, say on Gilmore, but we actually put a lot of effort, most of our effort, into the spine of the story to make sure everything is absolutely right, that there’s plot, but not too much plot, but not too little plot. Once we get that story beaten out, Amy and I wrote most of the first season by ourselves. We go off to separate corners and just start typing. At that point, we’re kind of in charge of our own episodes. We mostly directed the episodes that we wrote, so it turned out to be like mini-movies we were making, alternately, last season. It’s similar this season, although we have more episodes.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, I like that. I like the complete megalomaniac approach to television. I think it works for us.

With Amazon, the whole season of your show is available for someone to watch all at once. Does that impact your approach or your writing process or how you think about how episodes are structured?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: No, not really. A small grandma part of me hopes that people won’t watch them all at once because they’re very dense. They have a lot in them, and it might be a little bit of sensory overload to watch them all at once.

Even on Gilmore, they never wanted us to break stories that were open-ended, they only wanted self-contained stories with a real solid end and that was not the way Gilmore was, so they were never happy with our Gilmore structure. So we’re so used to just disappointing the world that we really just set out to do stories the way we like them and the way we feel is the most impactful, so that there’s a satisfying journey and you never leave one without feeling like you’ve been through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Daniel Palladino: It’s interesting, we’ve actually heard from a lot of people saying that they’ve watched the entire series two or even three times. We were on a plane coming back from L.A. and the attendant recognized our name and said, “Oh, my husband and I watched it three times.” Part of what’s happening is people are hungry for more, which we’re really happy about.

There seems to be a freedom with structure, but also length. All the episodes are roughly the same running time, but it does vary by episode. What is it like not having to fit your story into a one-hour network time slot?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Oh my god, it’s Xanadu. It’s fucking Xanadu! It’s so amazing to not have to think about—to not have the argument about—act breaks. Because on Gilmore, the act breaks were all about selling soap. You know, You’ve got to meet that act break so you can sell some tampons. It just felt like the marketing department runs network television, so we are finally in the place where the creative rules all. They don’t even want to see a title sequence. They just want the story to start and keep going. As far as end time, whatever time works for the story. Some are a little longer, some are a little shorter. All were under 60 minutes, which we think is a nice pace for a show like ours, although we have so much material this year. I don’t know. So much material.

Daniel Palladino: We’re also really aware of overstaying our welcome on any individual episode. We do cut. When we get in the editing room, we’re not keeping things in just because we have the time. We still slash, slash, slash. It’s just nice to have the freedom. On network TV, there’s a set 42 minutes, 16 seconds time, and you’re having to conform to that. It’s nice not having to do that for sure.

You keep saying you have a lot of material for your second season. What’s driving that?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, we have 10 episodes, so we have a skosh more room this season. We got on fast last year to make the air date they wanted, so we could only literally do seven episodes, plus the pilot. So this year, we get 10, which is great, but we have so many characters that we’re madly in love with here, that we want to service, it just seems that there’s a lot of ways we want to go and we have to make some hard decisions sometimes. Otherwise, every season would be like 35 episodes. And we’d be dead.

There’s an episode later in the season where Midge meets a fictional, successful comedian of the time [Sophie Lennon, played by Jane Lynch]. She has a big stage persona and is totally different off-stage. I know there’s a comment in here about that comedy transition that’s going on, but do you think Midge herself also becomes someone else when she’s onstage? Or does she become more of herself?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: She becomes more of herself. What do you think, Dan?

Daniel Palladino: It’s both. For sure, it’s a side of her. We haven’t had her apologize or regret much of anything she says, including her takedown of Sophie Lennon, which is a snotty young person thing to do. The Midge character is the same age as Rachel, who plays her, which is about 26. And 26-year-olds can be very, very snotty.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Not Rachel. Rachel is not snotty.

Daniel Palladino: No, not Rachel.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: But normal 27-year-olds who aren’t touched by angels can be a pain in the ass.

Daniel Palladino: And we love Jane Lynch’s character because she’s not wrong. She’s not a demon. She’s just set in the old ways. We’re showing the beginning of a transition to a rowdier, more honest, more straightforward style in comedy, and there’s always a little bit of “kill your idols” when that new generation comes along. That was what we were showing with the Sophie Lennon character.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: And quite frankly, she was actually giving her self-preservational advice because women, still, it’s difficult to be an attractive woman and go out onstage and have people think you’re funny, especially men…it’s not about your material or what you’re voicing or your attitude, it’s really about the roles that women are—you know, they’re mothers, they change diapers, they’re nurturers, and it’s different when they come out, and they tell everyone to go fuck themselves. Midge is ahead of her time and luckily for Midge because she grew up in such a cocooned atmosphere—you know, Midge was queen of six blocks. She had no idea that she couldn’t do anything she wanted because, quite frankly, to her, life was perfect and she felt like she ran rampant over anything she wanted. She got up and said there were shrimp in the egg rolls at her wedding, and in the end, there’d be a lot of people calming down and saying, “Oh, that Midge. She’s just adorable.”

She doesn’t know that there are all these rules out there for what women are and are not supposed to do and she learns them as she naively bursts onto the scene. Because she hasn’t grown up with the fear of What will happen if I say that, she doesn’t have any fear. She just says this, and then is surprised when everybody gets totally mad at her about it. In a weird way, her superpower is her naiveté and her utter lack of knowledge about the thing she’s walking into. Which, by the way, is how I’ve run my entire life. My entire life, I’ve chosen to know absolutely nothing about anything that I’m walking into.

Daniel Palladino: I can confirm that.

You said that Midge was the queen of six blocks and had this very particular kind of life. Her first time onstage, she gets arrested. For a lot of people, that would be enough. They’d give it up then. But in her world, is what’s happening with her marriage somehow the worse thing, so going to jail doesn’t really faze her?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, she is going through the biggest heartbreak that Midge has ever gone through. Midge has never lost in life. She’s never been heartbroken. Midge has always been a shining diamond. People have been vying for Midge’s attention. Any bad stuff in the world or any cynicism, or misogyny, she’s been very sheltered from all that. She’s just walking out into the world for the first time, and she has two kids, and she’s just married, which happened a lot back then. Young women put on grown-up shoes and grown-up dresses, and they were pretending. It’s like playing dress-up. And that is tricky, when that is the rest of your life.

So this heartbreak and explosion and utter shock at anything bad happening to her, losing for the first time, has broken her open in a way. She’s discovered an anger. A lot of comedy is anger and Midge has never really been angry a whole lot in her life, but she’s pissed now. That’s also very addictive, once you get up onstage and get some laughs, it’s like crack. It’s a very empowering feeling, so it’s very hard to say that getting arrested is going to turn me off to something that made me feel completely and utterly powerful in a way that I never knew was possible.

Joel stole a comedy act and thinks it will change his life. He puts in minimal effort and expects maximum return. Once Midge starts, she actually puts more effort into it, realizes it’s a craft, but also seems to downplay it sometimes as more of a hobby or something.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Once Midge decides to do it, it’s not a hobby to her anymore. If anything, she’s putting all the consequences of what will happen when her parents find out, how she’s going to manage children, what’s going to happen if Joel finds out, that all falls by the wayside in a kind of blinding ambition and a focus takes over. The thing about Midge is that she has a gift and Joel didn’t have the gift. To be a comic, you need the insight, you need to be funny, but you also need a feeling of take-no-prisoners, I don’t care what’s going to happen, I’m going to say this, I’m going to think about the consequences later. You need that bandit-like attitude to really make it in comedy or you’re never going to be really, really funny. You’re never going to be the one who’s breaking barriers and really making people think.

© 2018 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: Creator-star Andrea Savage explains why her new show is called I’m Sorry, and why, when it comes to comedy, she never apologizes for who she is.