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Making light of the gloom
by Meredith Blake December 08, 2017
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Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein, stars of the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, are posing for photos on a window sill overlooking Midtown Manhattan as a swarm of stone-faced handlers looks on.

In an effort to lighten the mood, Brosnahan, who plays a housewife-turned-comedian in the series, tells a joke — but, as she warns pre-emptively, it’s a British joke.

“Why did the lobster blush?” she asks. “Because the sea weed.”

The punch line is met with silence, then a few delayed groans of realisation. But Borstein is baffled: “I don’t get it at all.”

Luckily, the jokes land more successfully in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premiered last week, and hails from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the husband-and-wife team behind the hit Gilmore Girls and its recent Netflix revival. To fans of Sherman-Palladino’s screwball banter, the fast-talking ladies of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will be happily familiar, even if the period setting is new.

Brosnahan plays Miriam “Midge” Maisel, an immaculately coiffed mother of two living in a rambling Upper West Side apartment in 1958. She is, as Sherman-Palladino puts it, “the queen of her six blocks.”

Then, Midge’s idyllic domestic bubble is suddenly burst when her husband leaves her for his secretary, and she discovers an untapped gift for stand-up comedy. Susie Myerson (Borstein), a gruff bartender at the fabled Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, spots her potential and becomes her mentor and manager.

The series follows the quick-witted Midge’s unlikely journey as a trailblazing female comedian and her even more unlikely friendship with Susie, a potty-mouthed bohemian who eats baked beans for dinner and dresses like Marlon Brando from The Wild One. Sherman-Palladino wanted the comedy to have a strong, female-buddy element. With her stars, she’s clearly found her Mary and Rhoda.

The writer/director also feels liberated by her move to streaming platforms — first Netflix and now Amazon, which has already ordered a second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “I’m always going to write certain kinds of women,” she says by phone from her Brooklyn home, “and those are just impossible shows on a broadcast network.”

During their interview, the actresses — who both grew up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park — demonstrate a sisterly camaraderie. One a comedy veteran, the other an ingénue on the rise, they gush ecstatically about their Shake Shack burgers in between more substantive exchanges about feminism.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the 26-year-old Brosnahan’s first major comedic role. Even committed House of Cards fans might not recognise her from her Emmy-nominated performance as the ill-fated prostitute Rachel Posner.

“On paper, she was not necessarily the go-to gal,” Sherman-Palladino says. “I only knew her from getting kidnapped and thrown in the back of a van and eventually buried in a ditch. Comedy genius! — what?”

But the actress blew Sherman-Palladino away in her audition — despite being so sick and sweating so profusely that she had to change her socks halfway through the session (“I was, like, starting a new ecosystem in the room,” jokes Brosnahan.)

“What she really understood more than anybody else was that the comedy had to be fuelled from a place of anger,” says Sherman-Palladino, who praises her leading lady as “90 per cent elf.”

In contrast, Borstein, 46, (MADtv, Family Guy) has decades of comedy experience, and she is returning to the Sherman-Palladino universe, having starred as chef Sookie St. James in the original pilot for Gilmore Girls.

“I’ve been trying to suck Alex back into my evil vortex for many, many years,” says Sherman-Palladino. “I feel like there’s kind of nothing she can’t do. Anybody who tuned into (HBO’s dark comedy Getting On) saw what a remarkably understated actress she is.”

While Susie and Midge are entirely fictional, they cross paths with historical figures from the era, including comedian Lenny Bruce and activist Jane Jacobs. Both actresses drew from real life in creating their characters. Brosnahan looked to female comics like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Jean Carroll and Moms Mabley, and she checked out sets at comedy clubs in New York.

Borstein, meanwhile, took inspiration from legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers as well as her own mother and grandmother, tough Hungarian immigrants who made their way in New York. “She’s a pit bull,” Borstein says of Susie.

The series arrives as a tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations circle a number of men in comedy, including Louis C.K. and Al Franken, a senator from Minnesota and a former star of Saturday Night Live.

As a celebration of pioneering, albeit fictional, women in show business, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel feels surprisingly relevant.

“History is told through the eyes of men about men,” Brosnahan says. “It’s nice to be a part of something that in all these ways should no longer be radical but is.”

Still, Midge makes for a surprising feminist heroine. Until her husband announces that he’s leaving her for his secretary, Midge performs the roles of wife and mother with cheerful perfectionism, taking her measurements daily and waking up early every morning to put on her face — lest her husband sees her looking less than perfect.

“Midge is not a feminist. She is winning the Model Woman of This Time award, and that makes her happy,” says Brosnahan. Borstein disagrees: “For 1958, you would say she was absolutely an empowered woman who spoke her mind and ran the show at home.”

The lively debate continues until Borstein sums it up in a way no one could dispute: Midge is plucky, and Susie has moxie.

“That’s what Season 2 is called: Plucky and Moxie,” Brosnahan quips.

TNS

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