During the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the titular character stumbles onto stage at an open mic drunk and in a nightie, and tells the audience the story of her husband leaving her earlier that evening. At the end of her set, she flashes her breasts as part of a joke and is ushered off stage, but the audience loves every second—and she is immediately discovered by a woman working behind the bar who has never before seen such raw talent.
I watched this scene with a big swirling mix of emotions. First and foremost, I was ecstatic to be watching a show centered on a female comedian—and a show that is doing wonderfully with critics and audiences. Secondly, I was impressed with almost everything about the show’s execution, from the set pieces to the writing to the acting. Thirdly, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling: This is so not real for, like, a million reasons.
For the last few weeks, almost every day, someone asks me whether I’ve seen the show and what I think. It makes a lot of sense and I don’t really mind: The show is about housewife with young kids who breaks into the stand-up comedy world, and I’m a work-at-home mom with young kids who moonlights as a stand-up comic for fun. Everyone wanted to know: Is it good? Is it funny? Is it true?
I was curious, too. The series, which takes place in late 1950s New York City, is the newest project of Amy Sherman-Palladino, who is best known for creating and producing Gilmore Girls, with its cast of smart and fast-talking women. Her newest show continues on that path, following Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a deeply likeable Upper West Side 20-something who is always half a second away from a witty aside.
What happened when I watched the series was probably a lot like what would happen if you watched Law & Order with your friend who’s a detective. I had trouble escaping into the world of Mrs. Maisel because I knew too much about the real world of comedy, and too much about the much less bright and bubbly story of female comedians trying to make it in 1950s America.
For example, to return to the scene of her first stand-up act: I’ve seen a lot of comics go up for the first time, and I’ve never seen it go remotely well when someone’s drunk and ill-prepared. I’ve even seen someone flash their boobs, and that also didn’t go over super well, either. The myth of the stand-up who is great from day one and discovered on day one is a wonderful story, but one that trivializes the extremely hard work (and years of it) that goes into creating every minute of solid stand-up.
That, of course, can be easily forgiven, just as we suspend our disbelief that Dirty Dancing’s Baby can learn the mambo in a matter of days (and a single montage) well enough to look professional. What I had a bit more trouble forgiving was the rewriting of a very hard history for female comics. The show’s creators say that Midge is inspired by the token lady comediennes of the time, most notably Joan Rivers and Totie Fields. But Rivers and Fields (and I’ll add Phyllis Diller and Elaine May to the list) had very different paths to fame than a bottle of wine and a robed stage crash—both committed their lives, from a young age, to comedy writing and performance, and fought tooth and nail to do what they loved. Unlike Midge, who spends Season 1 waffling about what she wants out of life, the real women of 1950s stand-up put every ounce of effort into breaking the glass ceiling of comedy, and also put up with amazing piles of sexism that attacked everything from their appearance to their comedy bits to their personal lives. They were called too strong, too weak, too ugly, too sexy, too weird, too forward, too quiet, too loud—all while they performed at clubs night after night with everyone against them. All of them gave up huge segments of their lives—families, children, their reputation, their health—just for a chance to make it in the funny business doing what they love.
Even trying to read about the trailblazers of Rivers, Fields, Diller and May today is difficult. For example, Kliph Nesteroff’s book The Comedians, which has been called the definitive history of American stand-ups, dedicates an astonishingly small amount of space to female comedians—and the space it does give to these women is extremely ill-used. Fields is indexed only once in the book, in the context of being jealous of Rivers. May, who was a trailblazer not just for women, but for improvisational comedy, gets a few cursory mentions, but rarely about her successes: “She was a very strong fascinating, brilliant woman,” playwright Ted Flicker is quoted as saying in the book, “but I would just as soon stick my dick in a garbage disposal.” Not only do we solely get to hear about May through men’s voices (both Nesteroff’s and Flicker’s), but we hear about her fuckability instead of her comedy.
Of course, we can’t forget that Mrs. Maisel is obviously fictional. And the colorful sets and costumes and tone of the series (and even that signature rapid-fire dialogue) make it clear that we are in a fantastical version of 1950s New York. No one has ever claimed that Midge’s rise was true or realistic, but I fear that many viewers might not think about the real struggles of the female comedian, both then and now. Even if Midge faces more challenges and sexism in seasons to come, I doubt that the story could possibly be as tragic or ugly or unfair as, say, Totie Fields’—which might be why it largely remains untold.
On the same night that I binged the first few episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I also watched an HBO comedy special, Michelle Wolf’s Nice Lady. Wolf came up on the backs of comedians like Rivers and Fields—and in many ways we are in a whole new wonderful world of comedy by and for women. At the same time, though, many of Wolf’s jokes are about how far we have to go when it comes to feminism, sexism, equal pay and women struggling to “have it all.” After watching the two back-to-back, I think we might learn much more from watching Wolf, a real woman who is still fighting the good fight to be taken seriously as a woman in comedy, than we are watching Mrs. Maisel, who is a fun but fantastical vision of what we wished it were like to be a trailblazing female comedian. And to top it off: Wolf is much, much funnier to boot. The truth—even when it’s painful—always is.