The Making of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ (Exclusive)
By Joel Keller
On a sunny late August day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, extras on Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino’s Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, are dressed in tweed and wool winter suits, overcoats and dresses, suitable for going holiday shopping in late ‘50s Midtown Manhattan.
It’s the next-to-last day of shooting on the series about a housewife who turns to standup comedy following an unexpected upheaval in her home life. The show has leased out an old bank and transformed it into the opulent cosmetics section of the B. Altman department store from that era. A downpour scuttled an outdoor scene from the night before, so there's a lot of scrambling to get the schedule back on track. But since the business of New York can't be disrupted, the extras mingle with the diners at the pizzeria next door, making for an odd mix of Manhattan's elegant past and Brooklyn's gentrified present.
This certainly isn't the back lot of the Warner Bros. studios in Los Angeles, where Sherman-Palladino shot Gilmore Girls, which ran for seven seasons on the WB and The CW and was later revived for a limited four-episode season on Netflix. No, Mrs. Maisel is a new experience for her and her husband. "[Amazon has] given us a lot more money. So, we get to go outside now. We get to go to New York and shut down traffic," she tells ET. "They've allowed us to do a show with a lot of creative scope. It's been kind of a weird dream."
While the show has all of the earmarks of a Sherman-Palladino production -- rapid-fire dialogue, a female-centric story and lots of great music -- the homey, small-town feel of shows like Gilmore and the short-lived Bunheads has been replaced by two faces of the big city in the era between the Korean and Vietnam wars: the old-fashioned, status-seeking uptown and a bohemian, creative downtown. And Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is living her life in both.
An Upper West Side housewife who seems to have it all, Midge went to Bryn Mawr, is smart as a whip, loves her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and is a mother. Their family life is comfortably set up, living downstairs from her parents, Rose and Abe Weissman (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub). She even helps Joel pursue his passion as a standup comedian, tracking his laughs in a notebook and making brisket for the Gaslight Café owner to get him a better timeslot. But after bombing one night, Joel, who’s also having an affair with his secretary Penny (Holly Curran), decides to leave Midge.
Sent on a spiral, she ends up at the Gaslight, spewing a drunken monologue so honest and funny that the venue’s manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), decides Midge will be the female version of Lenny Bruce (played on the show by Luke Kirby). Soon Midge is on her own journey, exploring life as a female comedian in the male world of standup. "That's one of the things that we're exploring in this season: Who is Midge the comic? Who does she become? Who does she want to be?" says Brosnahan.
Sherman-Palladino came from a comedy background -- her father was a California-based standup comedian for 55 years -- so she was really comfortable in that world, according to her husband. "She grew up around his friends, who were all mostly fellow comedians and entertainers, coming over talking about working the Village, opening for Dinah Washington and opening for Johnny Mathis and people like that. Comedy was going through a Big Bang period [where] people like Mort Sahl and then, of course, Lenny Bruce started truth telling as opposed to just telling jokes on stage. For this woman to enter that scene unexpectedly for her, at that time, just seemed like a really, really, ripe setup."
While it may seem that Midge is patterned after the female comics of that era, like Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Jean Carroll and others, she really represents something else. "A lot of the women in the ‘50s put on a character to be accepted as a comic, so that men didn't look at them as their wife," says Sherman-Palladino. "Midge dives into this world without really any thought process behind it. Because of that she doesn't know what the rules are for comedy. She just figures, I look cute and my hair's cute and my clothes are cute and I'm going to go up there and I'm going to talk about the things that are interesting to me and the things that are going on in my life."
In the scene being shot in Williamsburg, Midge is working at the B. Altman cosmetics counter, which is artfully arranged with period-accurate recreations of cosmetics from Almay and other companies that dominated the space at the time. Midge is working there because, well, comedy doesn't put food in her kids' mouths, when Penny storms in complaining that she's gone to from store to store looking for her. Brosnahan and Curran nail the banter, especially Curran, who flawlessly delivers a patented Sherman-Palladino spiel.
It takes a certain kind of actor, however, to do justice to the creator’s style. Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) and Sutton Foster (Bunheads) previously demonstrated the precision timing required to pull off Sherman-Palladino’s dense dialogue. Brosnahan, however, only had a history of being on dramas like House of Cards and Manhattan when she signed onto the pilot. (She joined Crisis in Six Scenes, Woody Allen’s brief foray into TV on Amazon, before returning full-time to the series.)
"We were excited to see what the hell she was going to do, because there wasn't a lot of comedy tape on her. There was a lot of tape of her being dragged into containers and thrown into a ditch and all that stuff,” says Palladino. But when she came in for an audition, she won it. “She has a confidence about her that the character has to have, and that’s hard to pretend to have it.”
For her part, Brosnahan felt she was up to the task. “Maybe I'm broken or maybe I'm a super-fast talker and I just wasn't always aware, because watching Gilmore Girls, [it] was not honestly something that I had really noticed. I never felt like the pacing of that show was so crazy or different.”
Brosnahan's confidence with the dialogue -- and that hawkish New York accent, especially when delivering Midge’s monologues on the standup stage -- is contrasted by her mother Rose, who speaks deliberately most of the time. “She wears these, almost like ball gowns when she's just sitting, reading the newspaper and having her tea. In a way, I think she treats her language as if she's in a performance,” says Hinkle.
Rose and Abe reflect a worldview that young women of the era faced all the time: It didn't matter whether their man left them or not, it was their responsibility to "fix your face," as Abe tells his daughter, and win the man back. "I think the idea is continually shocking, that it's all on the woman," says Brosnahan. "I've been very fortunate in my life to have not been raised that way. But it was also unsurprising. That was something, an idea that I was familiar with, certainly.”
And while it may not seem evident in the pilot, the friendship between Midge and Susie will be front and center in the first season. "She's counterculture, she's had to kind of scrape and fight her way to survive," says Borstein, who finally gets a starring role in a Sherman-Palladino series after missing out on the role of Sookie on Gilmore Girls, instead briefly recurring as a local harpist. "She is a very different kind of woman than Midge is, which is what makes their friendship so interesting."
Fans of Gilmore Girls are going to feel at home watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But it’s different enough -- a new time period and locale, along with a freedom to swear Sherman-Palladino has never before had -- to make things fresh. And even though the Palladinos are committed to two seasons, there's an opening in case there's an urge to reunite the gang from Stars Hollow again.
“We have a Gilmore clause in our contract, meaning if we wake up one day and we've got a great inspiration for it and the right format and we call up Lauren [Graham] and Kelly [Bishop] and Alexis [Bledel] and it's like, How do you feel about getting back in the barn and putting on a show?, then we'll do it,” Sherman-Palladino reveals. But in the meantime, we’re quite content binging Midge, Susie and the Palladinos’ newest TV creations on Amazon.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is available to stream Nov. 29 on Amazon.