The trickiest thing about making “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was not writing stand-up sets for characters like the titular Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), her estranged husband Joel (Michael Zegen) or guest stars like Luke Kirby as the famed Lenny Bruce — nor was it casting those parts. Instead, the biggest challenge might just have been finding a way to capture a vibrancy in the pace and tone of the show to match its heroine.
“We didn’t want it to be precious or sepia-tone or have it feel like ‘This is your grandmother’s show,” co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino said at Amazon’s For Your Consideration event for the Golden Globe winning comedy Saturday. “We wanted this journey, even though it was 1958, to feel energized and vibrant and for an 18-year-old to look at it and go, ‘I get that. And that is my story, too.’”
Sherman-Palladino is known for quick-witted dialogue that also asks its actors to be quick-tongued. But beyond her main cast (which also consists of Alex Borstein, Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub) everyone on set — down to the background extras — had to be able to move quickly. This is why they often hired dancers to flesh out those background roles. Sherman-Palladino herself grew up dancing and says “they can do anything!” Specifically for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” they were brought in for the wide, long one-shot takes the show did so often in its first season.
The team behind the show also took great pains to ensure that the world — from sets to props to costumes — was period-accurate while allowing the actors to just focus on creating real, human characters.
“People living in 1959 thought they were living in the modern world. They didn’t know they were living in our past,” co-creator Dan Palladino pointed out.
The inspiration for the show came to Sherman-Palladino as memories from her youth sitting around the backyard with her comedian father and his colleagues talking about their own experiences playing various clubs. But she also specifically wanted to follow another woman around — “a heroine to go up against things.” And, she noted, “We thought, ‘We’d like to live in 1958 right now!’ I like Ike! So we thought, ‘Let’s do something where a woman who has a really specific place and a specific role to play decides to break out of that role and go against the tide.’”
The idea of putting her in comedy came because of how many conflict areas that would create for the character.
“Being a woman in stand-up comedy today, it’s still ‘Hey baby, show me your tits,’” Sherman-Palladino said. “But to do it in 1958 when a woman was really not supposed to talk too loud or have thoughts that weren’t clean and pure, and Bambi dresses you in the morning when that wasn’t your life and suddenly you’re up there and you’re taking about betrayal and heartache and your husband f—ing somebody else, that could be funny — that could be a way of dramatizing ‘Your way was supposed to go this way and now it’s going this way.’”
The producers noted that putting Midge into the comedy world acted as a “tidal wave that really f—ed up a lot of people around her,” which added to the intrigue in the story as well. Characters including her husband and her parents all became fishes out of water as they tried to navigate what life would be like with Midge embarking upon this new career.
“Everything was a big bang in the pilot, and everybody’s kind of shooting out into space,” Palladino said, adding that they are continuing that in the second season.
No one may have had a tougher time of it than Joel, though, a character Sherman-Palladino lovingly compared to “the hunter that shot Bambi.”
“These were two people who were so deeply in love, and I keep saying, ‘For a man in 1958 to look at that broad to get up at her own wedding and steal the spotlight and say, “That’s the woman for me,” that took more balls than anything else in the world,’” she said.
The pilot episode saw Joel at his lowest, noted Zegel. He left his wife and kids because he wasn’t happy with the life he was living and had a mini crisis over realizing he would never become a professional comedian. But he also saw his wife’s own genius, which Sherman-Palladino felt was important to point out. “The person who had the most to lose from it was the first to acknowledge it,” she said.
When it came to the stand-up, Brosnahan admitted she was thrown in without any special preparation, as she had never done stand-up before. She credited the writers for helping her get through it. Unlike real stand-up comedians, she doesn’t have to worry about writing material — “Somebody else has written these brilliant jokes for me,” she noted. But she does get to hone her material. Only instead of performing night after night in different clubs, she has multiple takes on set.
“There is an audience that’s paid to laugh at my jokes!” she said.
“We specifically picked a style of comedy that was stream of conscious [for Midge] because we knew we were going to get an actress and an actress needs an emotional through-line to latch onto,” Sherman-Palladino added, “so we picked a style that was going to reflect an emotional something that she was going through.”
Sherman-Palladino half-joked that it is “right in [the] wheelhouse” for her and Palladino to write some of Midge’s standup simply because they are always ranting at each other. But they do rely on two specific writers in their room who are both veteran comics and bring many years of road stories to the table — Jen Kirkman and Noah Gardenschwartz.
As Midge continues to perform and begins to be surrounded by other comics, the show will continue to expand the “types” of comics depicted, the producers shared. (Season 1 saw a take on the aforementioned Lenny Bruce and a representation of persona comics in Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch).) Midge will also continue to hone her craft, take on new topics on stage, and ultimately grow as a person on the forefront of comedy.
“We’ve talked about politics, and we’ve talked about racial relations and divorce and religion and a lot of things that really hadn’t been part of the comedy vernacular before, and that was the path we wanted Midge to take. She can plan her tight 10 all she wanted, but what happens to her five minutes before she walks on stage is what she’s going to talk about — and that can be anything,” Sherman-Palladino said.
But the world of comedy within the actual Amazon comedy is just one part of the storytelling puzzle.
“There’s different aspects to the show — there’s the family aspect to the show; there’s a romantic aspect to the show; there’s the single woman forging a new way [aspect]; and on par and equal with all of them is the female buddy relationship [between Midge and Susie],” Sherman-Palladino acknowledged about Brosnahan and Borstein’s characters. “They have nothing really to talk about, they have nothing really in common, but the need now is so great for both of them. They’re not going to make it apart — they’re only going to make it together.”