Comedy may still be a male-dominated industry, but stand-up as we know it wasn’t solely pioneered by men. Women like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers helped define the stand-up scene in the 1950s and ’60s, and played a pivotal role in the medium’s evolution. In Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set in New York circa 1958, we see the evolution of one such groundbreaking, although fictional, comic: Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a young, Jewish Upper West Side housewife and mother who is happy to help her husband, Joel, get open-mic spots with brisket bribes until she finds out he’s doing Bob Newhart’s act — and that he’s sleeping with his secretary. Midge suddenly finds herself alone, drunkenly stumbling onstage at the Gaslight Café in a fit of anger, where she discovers that she’s the brave new comedic voice that her joke-stealing husband could never be.
Midge’s journey throughout Mrs. Maisel’s first season can be described as an amalgam of Diller’s and Rivers’ experiences, as well as other real-life comedians who helped make stand-up what it is today, framed by the hindsight of modern feminism. (Series co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino told Refinery29, “The story I really wanted to do was the story of a woman in the ’50s who didn’t hate her life,” citing the repression and unhappiness that plagued most women at the time.) Throughout season one, Mrs. Maisel weaves Midge’s origin story with scenarios and tropes from the era, borrowing from some of comedy’s real-life female trailblazers like Diller and Rivers, while mixing in details that might come years later (a topless comedy act), and others that happened to male comics (Lenny Bruce’s famous obscenity trial), resulting in an imaginative tableau of comedy history. Below, we take a close look at the people and places that informed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The Early Pioneers
While Diller was one of the first female stand-ups to hit it big, the women who proceeded her were typically Vaudeville acts or singing “comediennes” with more of a Broadway style. Some early female comedians found success with a male partner, like Gracie Allen and George Burns or Mike Nichols and Elaine May. (Nichols and May get name-checked in Mrs. Maisel, when another aspiring stand-up tries to rope Midge into joining his act.) Even Jean Carroll, a stand-up pioneer who, like Midge, was a well-dressed, fast-talking, husband-mocking wit, started out as a duo with her husband and incorporated singing into her act.
On Mrs. Maisel, Midge stays on her own and leans into racier material, so much so that she’s arrested for violating obscenity laws, something Bruce became famous for, but wasn’t heard of among real-life female comics at the time. She talks about sex a lot in her act — the first bit she perfects is about her parents pushing their twin beds together — and she explores the sort of taboo topics that comedians like Totie Fields or Moms Mabley would master decades later. Of course, it would be many decades later that a female comic would take her top off onstage, like Tig Notaro did in her 2015 HBO special.
That kind of edgy, confessional act hasn’t been done by a woman yet in the world of Mrs. Maisel, but the show does introduce an established female comic named Sophie Lennon (played by Jane Lynch). In some ways, Lennon resembles Phyllis Diller: She puts on a frumpy getup and does self-deprecating jokes about her looks and her husband. However, Midge finds out that Lennon is actually an elegant aristocrat who dons a fat suit and fake backstory for her act. “Men don’t want to laugh at you, they want to fuck you,” Lennon tells Midge. “You can’t go up there and be a woman. You’ve got to be a thing.”
What was shocking to Midge was something of a norm in those days. Diller was by no means an aristocrat — she was a poor housewife with five children, who had to get a copywriting job to support her family until her husband suggested she try stand-up — but in Yael Kohen’s oral history We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, Diller explains how adopting a less attractive persona launched her career: “It helps a stand-up to have something wrong. The reason I developed things like wearing a bag dress was because I had such a great figure. I had to dress so that they couldn’t see any figure because I wanted to make jokes.”
Diller’s bag dresses, jokes about domestic horrors, and her husband “Fang” paved the way for Joan Rivers to do sets that more closely resemble what Midge does in Mrs. Maisel. Rivers was more charming, likable, and relatable than Diller — although still self-deprecating and aware of her status as a single, young Jewish woman. (“I was talking about having an affair with a married professor and that wasn’t a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about,” Rivers said in We Killed. “And I was talking about my mother, desperate to get my sister and me married. It sounds so tame and silly now but my act spoke to some who weren’t able to talk about things.”) She kept detailed notes on her jokes, recording every set and studying it, as Midge does. Given their similarities, it makes sense that the season’s final scene shows Midge wearing a sleek little black dress and pearls, a look often worn by Rivers in her early years.
“Joan and Phyllis were close together but generationally very different,” said Kohen, the author of We Killed. “Joan came up in the counterculture. Phyllis did too, in the sense that she was in those clubs, but her style was very mainstream. Joan was very personal, like, ‘I’m going to tell you what my life is like,’ which was much more the ethos of the time.”
Even Midge’s encounters with Lenny Bruce seem to draw a real-life equivalent with Rivers. It might seem odd that the fictional Bruce would give Midge any leg-up in the comedy world, which he does in the season finale. But the actual Bruce supposedly gave Rivers her early inspiration to pursue comedy. “When I heard Lenny Bruce, I suddenly realized I’m absolutely on the right track here,” Rivers wrote in We Killed.
Of course, the historical setting adds a lot of authenticity itself. The Gaslight Café, which opened in Greenwich Village in 1958, was an incubator for all sorts of artists, including beat poets, folk musicians, and comedians, so it makes sense that it becomes Midge’s home room after her impromptu drunken first set. Later in the season, she sneaks into the Copacabana with her tenacious manager, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) to watch Red Skelton perform and learn how to better time for her act. And Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), one of the few real-life comedians who is also a character on the show, opens an act for a jazz trio at the Village Vanguard, as he did in real life for Thelonious Monk and other musicians throughout the era.
However, the room that’s maybe the closest to Midge’s nights at the Gaslight was a different Village club called Upstairs at the Duplex. “It was all about a place in Greenwich Village called the Duplex. That’s where I started, and Woody started, and Dick Cavett started and Linda Lavin and Bill Cosby,” Joan Rivers explained in We Killed. “It was a little dumpy place, upstairs on Bleecker Street. It had a little bar along the left-hand side of the room. And there was no dressing room.” Sound familiar?
Another reason why Mrs. Maisel manages to be true to the look and feel of the era is because Sherman-Palladino was able to draw inspiration from a primary source: her father. Sherman-Palladino, who created the show with her husband Daniel Palladino, is the daughter of the late comedian Don Sherman, who died in 2012. Sherman was a comic in the same era as the show is set, opening for jazz singer Dinah Washington in the late 1950s and working as head writer on Joey Bishop’s late-night show in the ’60s. Sherman-Palladino even dedicated the last episode of season one to her father, whom she dubbed “the first of the sit-down comics.”
The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Phyllis Diller was the first female stand-up. In fact, comedians such as Jean Carroll and Moms Mably predated Diller.