Joan Rivers may be gone, but her spirit lives on in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—a remarkable pilot that premieres on Amazon Friday. The show charts the improbable journey of one Miriam “Midge” Maisel (House of Cards alum Rachel Brosnahan), a perfect 50s housewife who seems to have everything—until her life implodes in a spectacular way. After the fall, though, Midge discovers a secret talent she never dreamed she might have: a knack for stand-up comedy.
The potential series comes from the mind of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the writer and producer best known as the engine behind Gilmore Girls. It’s an ideal marriage of creator and subject. Sherman-Palladino and her husband/creative partner Dan Palladino’s signature rat-a-tat dialogue is a natural fit for the screwball 50s, as are their frequent collaborators Alex Borstein and Bailey De Young, both of whom appear in supporting roles—De Young as another housewife, Borstein as a hard-charging, Sue Mengers–esque talent spotter. (Also, now that they’re on a streaming network, the Sherman-Palladinos can swear—which their characters do, occasionally with relish.)
Though a different Amazon period piece about striving women, Good Girls Revolt, recently died on the vine, Mrs. Maisel will hopefully meet another fate: not only a full season pickup, but a lasting run that charts Midge’s journey from grimy Greenwich Village clubs to television and beyond. (Maybe she’ll even be blacklisted by Johnny Carson someday!)
Below, we dive into the series with Sherman-Palladino and Palladino, who reveal the real-life events that inspired this unique TV show—but don’t, alas, have much to say about those new Gilmore Girls rumors.
Vanity Fair: Where did this show come from?
Amy Sherman-Palladino: Weirdly, my dad was a stand-up comic. So I grew up with a bunch of Jews sitting around trying to make each other laugh. 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. I was having a meeting with the guys over at Amazon, and we were just kind of shooting the shit, and it was a little idea I had standing in the back of my head. They’re like, “Great. Go do that and bring it back.”
And then of course, the opportunity to do any sort of show where I don’t have to think about Snapchat—I’m thrilled, delighted, because I don’t understand technology. I just want to go back to a time where there wasn’t any.
Considering all that background, how much research did you have to do to build this world?
Sherman-Palladino: We’re in deep research mode hoping that there’s going to be a series. But for the pilot, I knew who this girl was. I didn’t want someone who was looking out the window thinking, What if there’s something over the bend? I wanted to deal with somebody who actually really loved her life, really thinks she won. And then it fell apart. 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.
Right—so often in current TV shows and movies set in this time period, you get these proto-feminists who are fighting the system. But this character, for example, really is obsessed with appearances. She measures her baby’s face because she’s worried it’s not proportional enough!
Sherman-Palladino: I wanted her to be proud of her life. Because at the time that she was living, she had carved out a very nice existence. She was an educated woman, she was having great fun, she’s deeply in love. And by the way, in my mind, there’s nothing wrong with being married and having children and being happy and content with that life. It’s just an interesting thing—a woman who never thought outside the box, and suddenly that top is off the box.
What made Rachel Brosnahan right for this part?
Dan Palladino: It’s a really complex role. On top of all the stuff an actor normally has to play, they also have to play a convincing budding stand-up comedian. Rachel came in, and was the one who did everything well—sort of understood innately that she’s not secretly unhappy, which is the core of the character.
Sherman-Palladino: Rachel’s a very fascinating creature. She’s young as shit, and she’s so poised. There’s like, no fear in her whatsoever. She approached the comedy from an intellectual standpoint, which is the way a non-comic would have to approach it. Comedy is kind of the worst job on the face of the earth. When I worked at the Comedy Store, I would see just horrific cracks in the human psyche on a nightly basis. [Laughs] It’s very lonely. You’re up there and everyone’s staring at you. The words are yours; the feelings are yours; the face is yours. There’s no script or other actors or support system. It’s a brutal life, and you need somebody very fearless to attack that without any sort of trepidation.
She’s a very rare girl, especially at her age, that she has such confidence. I don’t know where the hell she gets that confidence. I’d like to know who her therapist is if she has one. Rachel just has that kind of glow. Maybe she’s a warlock, I don’t know.
Tell me about how you wrote her big stand-up scene, which synthesizes all of her anger into this big explosion of comedy.
Sherman-Palladino: I don’t know—a lot of Red Vines and wine, perhaps? I just followed this girl’s journey, the first time she stepped back to look at her life, at this man that she put everything into, and the fact that she couldn’t see this coming. Everyone’s been blindsided at one time in their lives—except for Sutton Foster. Sutton Foster’s never been blindsided. I love Sutton. I talk about Sutton in everything I do. [Foster starred in Sherman-Palladino’s late, lamented ABC Family series Bunheads.]
I’m a massive Joan Rivers fan; the world is sadder without her, and will always be sadder without her. And she had that wonderful mix, that battle of wanting to be accepted on a feminine level—[but] you can’t have that many balls and be accepted on a feminine level. It just doesn’t work that way. It was such a wonderful dichotomy, and she crafted those monster jokes. And because we knew we were going to get an actress to do [this part], we felt like it needed to be more of a rant, of a monologue. Going forward, that’s how we’re looking at Midge’s humor. She’s going to learn how to control that and craft it a little more.
You mentioned Lenny Bruce earlier; he also appears as a character in the pilot. Why did you decide to include him? Do you think he’s going to be more of a character going forward, if the show gets picked up?
Sherman-Palladino: Nobody is Lenny Bruce. I would never in a million years say that we could write something that Lenny Bruce could write. But the way he looked at the world—the way he goes off on tangents, kind of gets distracted by something—that freeform feel is very enticing, and it’s also representative of 1958. The comedy of “baddum bum, take my wife, please” was falling back. You had Mort Sahl, you had Lenny Bruce, you had more political and observational humor. He was peaking around then, and by the early-mid 60s, he was gone.
My dad—his humor was very observational also. I mean, he wasn’t arrested every five seconds—but that sort of tangent sort of humor is what I grew up with. And [Lenny Bruce is] so iconic to the comedy world that to have him be sort of a sage, or a muse, or a weird freaky guardian angel that comes in and out of her life, it just felt like a fun thing to do.
Palladino: We are going to do a mix of some real people, some fictional people if it goes forward. But it’s not really a history of the period.
Because of when the show is set, you’re walking a bit of a tightrope by referencing things that were huge at the time, but people now might not know as well.
Palladino: But you know what? When we first started writing, we had a term. It was called a “one-percenter.” Like, one percent of the audience will get that. But now, with the more interactive way that people—meaning that they’re completely distracted by all their electronic devices—if you’re interested, then you just Google Mort Sahl. You Google Bob Newhart.
Sherman-Palladino: In a different way, when we were on Gilmore, people called us the pop-culture show—but our pop-culture references were, like, Kafka and Oscar Levant. Old references! I think that as long as the story is clean and you understand emotionally what people are going through, if you want to understand the references, you can do it in three seconds. If it works on two levels, that’s even better.
So the show is called The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But it doesn’t seem like she’s going to be Mrs. Maisel for much longer.
Sherman-Palladino: I mean, if it’s a series. . . but if there’s no series, you’re correct. Ehhh, you never know.
Palladino: You can quote us saying “ehhhhh.”
Sherman-Palladino: I don’t know how you spell that. Hey, you’re a professional journalist. How do you spell “zhuzh”?
That is a really hard one. I think a “Z-H” at the beginning?
Sherman-Palladino: A “Z”!
Palladino: Oh my God!
Sherman-Palladino: Ohhh! You may have solved one of my great life mysteries, like, how do you spell zhuzh. Anyhow. Thank you!
I know that you worked with Amazon on this show from the very beginning—do you think it would have worked on network TV, or basic cable?
Sherman-Palladino: No. I don’t think the networks would buy it. I think the networks are still looking for a very specific kind of woman, and when you want to do a woman character like this, you gotta go outside the box. Although I gotta say, FX [laughing]—we were watching Feud, and they said cunt! And I’m like, really!? Can you say that on FX now? But I guess you can! The world has changed!
Even a tamer world of comedy wouldn’t work on a network. Even if you didn’t have her show her boobs, you shot her from the back or whatever, you didn’t say fuck—it’s not a world that is meant for a network.
Word broke last week that Netflix is in preliminary talks with you two for another possible season of Gilmore Girls. Do you have any comment on that?
Palladino: Not really! [Laughter]
Sherman-Palladino: If we have something to say, we’ll say it.
Can you say whether you’re interested in another potential season?
Palladino: We’re really focused on this right now. We’re really just focusing on this, and our mutual love of Sutton Foster.
Sherman-Palladino: That’s all we can talk about at any given time.