Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been a big hit for the streaming service since it premiered in 2017. Now with three seasons under its belt, the series continues to rake in awards, including, most recently, a SAG Award for Alex Borstein, who plays Susie Meyerson.
The period comedy-drama is set in the ‘60s and tells the story of a young Jewish housewife, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who aspires to become a successful stand-up comedian. Maisel comes across many other comedians on her road to success, some of whom are based on real people, while others are inspired by major comedians. Here’s a run-down of characters from the series and the inspirations behind them. (Note: Some spoilers ahead for season 3.)
The most obvious real-life character is Lenny Bruce. In the series, Lenny’s (Luke Kirby) successful and controversial career overlaps with Midge’s start on the scene, and he becomes something of a mentor and champion for her career. In real life, Leonard Alfred Schneider, aka Lenny Bruce, was indeed known for his sharp tongue and controversial comedy that discussed taboo topics like politics, sex, and religion at a time when contemporaries were largely playing it safe. He was, as happened on the series, even arrested for obscenity. Kirby not only bears a striking resemblance to Bruce, but also mimics his voice and mannerisms to a tee. Sadly, Bruce passed away from an overdose in 1966 at the age of 40. It’s unknown whether the series will address his death in an upcoming season.
Shy is a handsome and famous crooner Midge meets during a telethon. After seeing her perform, he hires her to open for him on tour. While Brosnahan has said that Shy is an amalgamation of many different singers from that era, she has also specifically pointed to Johnny Mathis as the one she feels has the strongest ties with the character. In season 3, Shy reveals to Midge that he’s gay which could be inspired by the life of Mathis who only came out publicly in recent years. But Shy is also likely inspired by Harry Belafonte, who always had comedians open for him. Belafonte also had a successful Christmas album the year prior to the conversation Midge has with Shy about how her mother loves his own Christmas album. In addition, like Belafonte, Shy makes comments that suggest a rivalry with Elvis Presley.
Susie, Midge’s poor, crass, and tomboyish agent, is played beautifully by Alex Borstein. And while the character is fictional, Borstein has taken inspiration from another famous Sue to help guide the character: Sue Mengers. Mengers was a female talent agent during the ‘50s who continued her successful career through to the ‘80s. Starting off as a secretary, she eventually got a job working for a boutique agency and went on to rep A-listers like Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Cher, Joan Collins, Bob Fosse, and more. Like Susie, Mengers could be considered a trailblazer of her time with a knack for spotting talent and a no-nonsense approach.
In the final episode of season three, Wanda Sykes appears at the Apollo as an elderly and famous comedian known as Moms Mabley. In real life, Loretta Mary Aiken, stage name Jackie “Moms” Mabley, appeared on series like the Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Nicknamed “Mom” because she was considered to be a motherly figure to other comedians, she was also one of the first openly gay comedians. Edgy and satirical in her style, often joking about seeking romances with attractive, young men (as Sykes did during her set on the series), she has been called one of the funniest women in the world. While Mabley only appeared briefly in the episode, it was a moment that sparked a turning point on the show.
Lennon, played by Jane Lynch, is Midge’s archrival. A slapstick comedian, she resorts to cheesy jokes and catchphrases to get laughs, a far cry from her real uppity self, as Midge eventually discovers. But she’s a superstar and people love her. While she’s not a real person, Sophie was likely inspired by a few top female comedians of that time. Specifically, there has been speculation that she is loosely based on Phyliss Diller, a famous comedian who also purposely tried to make herself less attractive so the audience would find her funnier. On the series, Lennon wears a fat suit and clownish make-up while Diller was known to wear baggy dresses to hide her slim physique.
While Midge Maisel herself is totally fictional, some have noted that she too is drawn from a number of up-and-coming female comedians of the time. Names that have been thrown around include Jean Carroll, Joan Rivers, and again, Phyllis Diller. Brosnahan has said that “Midge is just Midge” and is inspired by a number of people. Rivers is closest in likeness and has been confirmed by show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to be one inspiration for the character. Both are Jewish and native New Yorkers and got their start in the ‘50s. Midge’s debut was an impromptu performance at the Gaslight Café, where Rivers also performed when she was starting out. Interestingly, Rivers often named Lenny Bruce as someone who helped her along the way, just as he does with Midge in the series. Sherman-Palladino has also said that Midge is partly inspired by her own father, Don Sherman, who was a comedian and writer.