In 1962, Joan Rivers was in the audience at the Village Vanguard in New York City when Lenny Bruce got onstage. Bruce, the prototypical “sick comedian,” made his name with routines that annihilated the distinction between private and public thought. He was fresh off an arrest a year earlier in San Francisco (for uttering the word cocksucker during a set) and fast barreling toward further run-ins with the law—disputes that would make him by the end of his brief life essentially unbookable. Rivers, in her late 20s, had already been married and divorced, and was still three years away from the landmark appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show that would launch her career. For years she had been bombing, delivering reheated jokes borrowed from better-known comedians, and searching for a comic identity of her own in an industry not just dominated by men, but almost entirely male. (For some sense of how far off course things got, consider that Rivers, whose real last name was Molinsky and who hailed from a family of middle-class, status-obsessed Westchester Jews, told jokes for a brief spell at a Boston strip club under the moniker “Pepper January.”)
As Leslie Bennetts explained it in her wonderful 2016 biography of Rivers, Last Girl Before Freeway, observing Bruce’s brand of freewheeling, politically tinged, personally unhinged, overtly debauched social satire made an indelible impression. Bennetts quotes from Rivers’s 1986 memoir, Enter Talking: “I was seeing myself through his eyes, confronting my own hypocrisy, the way I had lived the Molinsky lie of phony riches, and while hating it, used it myself as a facade and a refuge,” the comedian wrote. “The revelation that personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy, went off inside me like an enormous flash. It is still central to my performance.”
Thus Rivers as we knew her—the unfiltered, spiky, tell-it-like-it-is chronicler of the indignities of the female experience—was born. Bruce, who died four years later from a drug overdose after becoming a test case for the limits of the First Amendment (posthumously, he’s still a lightning rod for free speech issues), stayed with her. Per Bennetts’s book, the young comedian was known to keep a note Bruce once slipped her after a disastrous set tucked inside her bra as a reminder of his solidarity; many decades later she mounted a Broadway show, Sally Marr and Her Escorts, based on the life of his mother, an exotic dancer and performer who claimed some credit for her son’s comedic chops (Rivers, when she died in 2014, was reportedly buried with the Sally Marr script).
Midge Maisel, the fictional aspiring comedian (played by Rachel Brosnahan) at the heart of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the new Amazon series from married Gilmore Girls cocreators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, isn’t explicitly based on Rivers, though the pair frequently drop her name in interviews as partial inspiration. There are differences: Where Rivers could be painfully self-skewering and deeply insecure, Midge is brash, endowed with an unsinkable self-confidence and joie de vivre; where Rivers feared she was homely, Midge knows she’s a looker. She’s Rivers with the edges filed down. But the two also have plenty in common: failed first marriages; parental disapproval (Midge’s folks are played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle); a delightful vulgarian streak (among the first words Midge utters on-screen: “holy fucking Christballs”); keen attention to society’s obsession with policing women’s behavior (this despite a mutual obsession with policing women’s appearances); a performance style that’s equal parts shtick and unvarnished self-exposure; a compulsive need for the spotlight (“Who gives a toast at her own wedding?” Midge asks at the outset of the pilot, before launching into a saucy rant that ultimately causes the rabbi to flee the premises); and, last but not least, a major thing for Lenny Bruce. Within three minutes of the start of the first episode, Bruce makes his first appearance: Midge, in her toast, remembers an early date, when her future husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), took her to a burlesque hall to see a “fresh out of the Merchant Marines” young comic (guess who?), telling jokes about a kid who accidentally gets high off of model airplane glue.
It’s a minor detail that proves significant. In the present tense of the show, it’s 1958, and Midge and Joel are four years married, with two children under age 3 and a gracious apartment on Riverside Drive. Joel is a paper-pusher at a company owned by his uncle; Midge is a notch below Stepford in her type A commitment to housewifery (a rather jarring sign of the times has her leaping from bed to remove her makeup and put her hair in rollers after her husband falls asleep, then rising at dawn to make herself back up before he stirs). At night, they dump the kids at Midge’s parents’ place (they live just upstairs) and zoom downtown in a cab to the Gaslight, a faithfully re-created Greenwich Village coffeehouse where Joel dons a black turtleneck and moonlights as an amateur comedian, telling jokes cribbed from Bob Newhart at an open mic. Midge, who believes the material is original, acts as his humor helpmate: She makes brisket for the Gaslight staff in exchange for preferential time slots, takes notes on Joel’s delivery, and gently critiques his performance on the cab ride home.
Happy husband, happy wife, happy-seeming life, until one night, at Midge’s suggestion, Joel tries out some original material, bombs, and his fragile ego deflates and so crumbles the facade of shared marital bliss. Joel, it turns out, is having an affair with his secretary, Penny Pan (a dimwit surely named for the way she brings out his Peter Pan complex), and can’t live a moment longer in the “Upper West Side, classic six, best seats in temple” life he has chosen. This revelation, combined with Midge’s parents’ refusal to take her side (her mother, hysterical: “Joel left you? Why? What did you do?”) drives her over the edge. She guzzles a bottle of Manischewitz, lurches down to the Village under the guise of retrieving her Pyrex, and, drunk, wanders onto the Gaslight stage. She then takes the fortuitously unattended microphone and launches into a rambling, uninhibited, Tig Notaro–style monologue about the raw hand life has just dealt her. Among her subjects: bowel movements, testicle-handling techniques, Penny Pan’s cankles, and her own naturally perky breasts, complete with visuals. When the police raid the joint, Midge is hauled off to the back of a squad car that’s already occupied by another just-apprehended degenerate: none other than Lenny Bruce.
That pilot episode was made available this past March. Three more went out to journalists ahead of today’s premiere. They pick up where we left off, as Midge comes to the realization that the energy and instinct she long channeled into Joel’s comedic ambitions would be better leveraged in service of her own. She is egged on in her quest by the Gaslight’s cranky female proprietor, Susie (Alex Borstein), an aspiring talent manager with a thing for suspenders who thinks in Midge she may have found the next big thing. And just like that, Midge learns the lesson that it took Joan Rivers the better part of a decade to absorb: Good comedy is the lemonade you make from your own lemons. No one else’s lemons will do.
The pleasures of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel lie less in the stand-up—what passed for outrageous in the postwar period seems downright quaint in the age of Ali Wong and Amy Schumer—than in the mise-en-scène of Midge’s life. Gilmore Girls was both about the mother-daughter pair at its center and the snow globe universe of the town of Stars Hollow, a cozy, insular world for their cozy insular world. (It is why the New York bits in last year’s Netflix reboot felt, at times, histrionic and baggy; take the girls out of Connecticut and the whole thing doesn’t so easily hang together.) Midge Maisel is audacious, theatrical, and stylish, and so is the Manhattan where she lives, a sparkling, whistle-clean musical stage set, notably, given the era, devoid of much racism or anti-Semitism (except, of course, the comically self-loathing kind). As in Gilmore Girls, the conflict is generational: How can Midge go from dutiful, content daughter-wife-mother to a life less scripted? What is lost and what is gained? And, furthermore, what happens when the 1950s bump into the 1960s, when the normative existence she was bred to want—that “Upper West Side, classic six, best seats in temple” thing—becomes suddenly not only out of reach but unfashionable, too? In the four episodes I’ve seen so far, Midge smokes pot, has her eyes opened to the injustice of black voter suppression, questions the wisdom of having had children, protests alongside community organizer Jane Jacobs, and comes to the realization that Joel Maisel—and perhaps mankind more generally—is kind of full of shit. The times, they are a-changing, though Bob Dylan wouldn’t write the song for several years.
But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is not entirely about the forward march of progress. It lavishes as much attention on the uptown milieu Midge is suddenly at odds with as it does on the downtown one that beckons. There’s a wistfulness, even, for a way of life that in 1958 is already beginning to feel antique, a nostalgia for a path that was not, for Midge, undesirable (Betty Draper comparisons are tempting, but there’s a happy-go-luckiness here that’s totally distinct). Like Rivers, she’s what Gloria Steinem might call (and did call, in an interview for Bennetts’s book) a “transitional woman,” less Betty Friedan than Helen Gurley Brown, occupying some middle ground between craving affirmation from the patriarchy and wanting to topple it. She is, in other words, as much a product of her time as she is a pioneer. It’s this “normalcy” that writer Rachel Syme, in a profile of Rachel Brosnahan for The New York Times Magazine, cites as proof that Midge is “a radical character for television right now.”
“Her comedy,” Syme writes, “doesn’t come from a deep well of insecurity; it comes from a brazen moxie that she cannot explain and never realized had a viable outlet until she stepped onstage. At this turbulent moment in show business, when many men—especially comics—who were praised and protected as icons are being revealed as harassers, creeps, and criminals, what we thought of as a linear narrative of progress is being rewritten. We are seeing how many talented women were forced to diminish themselves or give up in the face of misogyny, particularly in comedy, where being a successful woman is so often tied to making the boys in power laugh.”
It was Johnny Carson and his Tonight Show bookers, the power brokers who would eventually anoint Joan Rivers, who served as the most influential arbiters of funny. The promotional material that came along with my screeners hints that Midge may eventually find herself thrown in their path. But it’s Lenny Bruce who haunts these first four episodes. At one point, Midge bails him out of jail. Later he returns the favor. Later still he invites her to a jazz club, gets her stoned for the first time, and gives her a third shot at doing her thing onstage. He lurks around the edges of the story, a drifter who glides in and out of the action, omnipresent yet slippery, noncommittal, played by Luke Kirby as a walking, talking shrug emoji.
On the one hand it’s obvious: Lenny Bruce, patron saint of neurotic funny people, spieler par excellence, innovator of, as his New York Times obituary put it, a “biting, sardonic, introspective, free-form patter that was a form of shock therapy for his listeners.” As Sherman-Palladino noted in an interview with Vanity Fair in March: “The way he looked at the world—the way he goes off on tangents, kind of gets distracted by something—that free-form feel is very enticing.” So enticing that one could argue the whole Sherman-Palladino shtick—the authority-adverse, self-mythologizing, endlessly discursive, rapid-fire soliloquizing that makes, for example, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore either utterly charming or utterly annoying depending on your disposition (I’m in the first camp)—takes a page from his book.
He’s there, too, as a reminder: If what Lenny Bruce did was radical and brave—and it was, so much so that it proved his undoing; so much so that more than five decades after his death his radicalness is the one thing that we reliably remember—imagine the courage it would have taken in the dark ages of 1958 (or 1962, for that matter) to be the woman intent on following in his footsteps.