In a sense, all comedians are the same. As The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel co-creator Dan Palladino told Town & Country, “they’re the way [in the 1950s] as they are now. They’re insecure, they’re egotistical, they’re narcissistic, and they’re scared.”
And yet, there was something special about the cadre of women trying to make it in the boys’ club back then. While Midge Maisel wasn’t based a single figure (“Midge is just Midge,” as Rachel Brosnahan, the actress behind her, says), she can be seen as a composite of several boundary-breaking funny women.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of Midge-alikes, each of whom forged a unique niche in the then-fledgling world of stand-up comedy.
When Brosnahan first read the part, she thought Midge “must be inspired by” Jean Carroll, in her words, “a whip-smart, beautiful, hilarious comedian.”
Like Midge, Carroll didn’t hide her attractiveness onstage—something most women comedians felt they needed to do at the time; also like our fictional heroine, she poked fun at her own Jewish culture and midcentury domestic life. But as doctoral candidate Grace Kessler Overbeke notes in The Forward, the similarities stop there. Rather than emerging from the Weissmans’ well-heeled household, Carroll became the family breadwinner at age 12; and despite her husband’s overwhelming support (he was not at all like Joel Maisel), she ultimately decided to sacrifice her stand-up career to care for her children.
That last fact could be why Carroll is little-known in comedic spheres despite her trailblazing work. Even Noah Gardenswartz, stand-up and Maisel writer, admitted this past summer that he had never heard of her.
Still, some continue to celebrate Carroll’s legacy. Breakout 1970s comedian Lily Tomlin recalls Carroll as the first woman stand-up she ever saw, according to Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Tomlin even remembers a joke from that performance:
I’ll never forget the first time I saw my husband—standing on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze, and he too proud to run after it.
Diller herself landed on the stand-up scene with something of a bang. Sporting a fright wig, a feather boa, and a baggy dress (designed to obscure her svelte figure), Diller was unabashedly outlandish. As she declared to Nachman, “I’m a cartoon.”
Her onstage persona was more in line with what was expected of woman comedians in the 1950s: a character, through and through. A mother of five—and like Midge, an ex-full time housewife—Diller joked about life at home, but kept it at a safe distance. Rather than roasting her real husband, she invented a fake one named “Fang” to make fun of in front of her audience.
Per comedian Bette Midler, who described Diller’s act to Yael Kohen in her book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, “It really was like someone who had been chained to an ironing board for years just said, ‘You know what? I’m too smart for this—let me out.'”
As with all of these funny women, Diller is both like and unlike Midge. In her mania and housewifery, she nearly resembles our comic character—but obscured by several well-cultivated layers of absurdity.
It’s probably the inimitable Joan Rivers that best approximates Midge’s onstage appearance. The comedienne embraced the “Jewish American princess” stereotype to its full effect, pairing smart dresses with pearls and well-coiffed hair. As Sherman-Palladino noted in Vanity Fair, Rivers fought to “be accepted on a feminine level.” Her jokes often riffed on that identity, skewering her mother’s disappointment over her lack of a husband not unlike Midge does.
And as with Midge, those jokes came from a place of truth. Rivers was raised in a well-to-do section of Westchester by Jewish parents, with a mother wjp closely resembled Rose in Maisel‘s first season. In her own words (reported through Nachman), “Elegance was my mother’s religion and the home her temple. Everything in her domain had to be absolutely correct. The atmosphere in the house was stiff and formal… etiquette was paramount.” Unsurprisingly, her parents didn’t exactly embrace their daughter’s stand-up aspirations.
Rivers’s act was confessional—it’s often noted that she took shots at her actual husband, Edgar, onstage—with just a dash of the cerebral. A short stint at Second City, a Chicago theater group then dominated by U Chicago grads, would continue to influence her work.
Like Midge, she found inspiration in Lenny Bruce’s comedy. As she told Kohen in We Killed, “When I heard Lenny Bruce I suddenly realized, I’m absolutely on the right track here… He was talking from his life experiences. I thought to myself, ‘My God, he’s doing what I’m doing.'”
Where Rivers departs from Midge is in her taste for blood. Rivers soon discovered she could get laughs by taking down celebrities, and in the 1980s and after, she went all-in on that barbed genre of humor. Many though Rivers crossed a line, however, when she criticized women for their weight.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley
In Maisel, Moms Mabley is the comic that Shy Baldwin name-drops to Midge when they cross paths in the bathroom. Midge has yet to hear of her, and given the historical timeline, that makes sense—Mabley was big on the Chitlin’ Circuit for decades before finally becoming a star for white audiences in the 1960s.
“She was finally discovered by whites in the 1960s, and did a crossover,” actress Clarice Taylor, who portrayed Mabley in a 1987 play, told the New York Times. “But most of her jokes at the beginning were ‘in’ jokes. She talked about things black people understood. She talked about white people, and she told us things we wanted to hear about them.”
Like Diller, she played a housewife onstage, though her material was far more risqué. Mabley is known for her edgy cultural commentary, made all the funnier in that it was delivered through her consciously cultivated “dowdy grandma” persona. (Offstage, similar to Sophie Lennon in Maisel, Mabley lived a far more glamorous life.)
Though Midge isn’t modeled after Mabley per se, her importance in comedic history can’t be ignored—both for breaking boundaries as an African American and out lesbian in the 1920s, and for her influence on later comedians. As Slate notes, Mabley was the first true woman stand-up, and Eddie Murphy’s grandma character in The Nutty Professor is a tribute to Moms. Maisel creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino surely agree, given the way they wedged her name into their dialogue.
Elaine May rose to fame alongside her comedic partner Mike Nichols, though their dual act only lasted a few years. The pair came out of the University of Chicago and Compass Players/Second City scene, and their humor continued to have an intellectual bent, namechecking Nietzsche and Bartók in the same breath as a Hollywood celebrity. Their breakthrough act made waves on the comedy scene—earning them a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention from Maisel‘s Susie Myerson: “I walked in on them once in the bathroom here. Even their fucking was hilarious.”
While not a stand-up comedian—she did characters in skits—May’s attitude, intelligence, beauty, and Jewish sensibility are all reminiscent of Midge. “Elaine was hysterically funny and brilliant, and besides that, a real beauty,” writer Treva Silverman told Kohen. “That was a revelation to me. She didn’t put herself down, she didn’t do self-deprecating humor like Phyllis Diller and the others. She didn’t strain to make a lack of self-esteem seem funny—she was light-years away from anything like that.”
Unlike Midge, however, May was a creature of the underground, rather than a visitor to it. When Nichols first met her on the University campus, he described her as “Extremely rude, a very dark bohemian girl in a trench coat,” per Nauchman. And despite May’s natural beauty, director Ted Flicker described May as an “archetypal slob”—a far cry from Midge’s flawless make-up and fashion choices.
May would go on to find a home in film and television as an actress, director, and writer. As Midge begins to conquer the stand-up world, one wonders if Hollywood will be the next jewel in her comedic crown.