I first got onstage to perform standup comedy at 18. I stood in front of a packed campus bar in Halifax, mostly filled with people I knew, and told jokes about western philosophers, my awkward Jewish upbringing and the English language.
It was a friendly, drunk audience, and I killed it. I lay awake in bed for hours that night, adrenalin pumping, replaying the moments in my head. It’s true what they say – your first onstage laugh is like your first high.
But after one long summer of doing amateur nights weekly around Toronto, during which time I had a few solid sets but mostly bombed, that initial high fizzled into a memory. By September, I realized standup was causing me more anxiety than happiness, and I quit.
So it was with excitement and trauma that I dove into Amazon’s much-lauded new show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a 1950s Jewish housewife who transforms from meek and mannered into one of America’s most provocative comics.
Created by Gilmore Girls powerhouse couple Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino, the show offers a glimpse into the world of comedy: that great first set propelling your ego, the subsequent crushing bombs that make you want to quit, listening to classic comics alone in your room, resenting the confidence of peers you know are mediocre. I can confirm from personal experience that it is all painfully accurate.
However, Mrs. Maisel is more important than my dumb comedy journey, or probably anyone’s today, because for Miriam (Midge) Maisel, the stakes are high. The show takes place during a time when Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl had just begun challenging American morals and stereotypes. In the show’s pilot, Maisel catches a set by Bruce – just one of many examples of her story mirroring the real-life bio of Joan Rivers.
“He was an epiphany,” Rivers once told a reporter. “Lenny told the truth. It was a total affirmation for me that I was on the right track long before anyone said it to me.”
People complain a lot about freedom of speech these days, but those comedians working in Greenwich Village faced serious legal threats. Comics like Bruce got jailed and fined for obscene language, religious critiques and anything vaguely pro-communist. Shunned to the shadows, these comics started out at venues like the Gaslight Cafe, reincarnated in Mrs. Maisel.
Performing for black, gay and artsy audiences, these comics spoke from the outskirts of society – one big reason so many foundational comics were Jews. They were outsiders, sure, but more palatable once they broke into the mainstream, because they were at least white men – mostly.
Into this world walks Maisel, an upscale Jewish housewife, venting, stream-of-consciousness style, about women’s issues in a way nobody had done before. She works the stage naturally, confiding in the audience in a self-deprecating but lighthearted way. These things hurt her, but they don’t destroy her.
With brazen optimism we’re thankfully seeing more of in TV comedy (I’m looking at you, Kimmy Schmidt), Maisel confronts blatant sexism, learns about racial prejudice and meets journalist Jane Jacobs at a rally.
It’s perhaps coincidental that Mrs. Maisel, a show about the power of both women and free speech, has debuted at the end of a tumultuous year marked by cries of sexism and censorship across the political board. Sherman-Palladino says she’s had this idea for years, even before Gilmore Girls (her dad was a comic from the Bronx, and she grew up admiring him and his friends).
And if it is a coincidence, it’s a pleasant one. The show’s first episode was one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen, gleefully combining the wit of Gilmore Girls with a colourful 1950s Manhattan esthetic, a rich Jewish pastiche, a cameo by Bruce, ruminations on the social value of comedy, a jazzy period soundtrack and the buoyant flow of a Broadway musical.
In short, it’s the best holiday present I could have asked for.