December 14, 2018

‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Is Back in Time for Hanukkah

Hanukkah is going to be especially sweet this year, and sufganiyot have nothing to do with it. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the show that Steven Spielberg recently called “the best Jewish musical since ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” is returning to Amazon Prime for its second season Dec. 5. 

The series, which won eight Emmy Awards in September, is about a well-to-do New York Jewish family in the late 1950s, with Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) in the spotlight as a young mother who inadvertently becomes a stand-up comic — and kills at it. Her relationships with her parents, Abe and Rose (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle), her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), who cheated on her but is remorseful and wants her back, and her manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), are at the core of the story. 

It’s the brainchild of Emmy Award-winning writer-producer-director Amy Sherman-Palladino and her director husband, Dan Palladino, and a top-notch creative team that brings the “Maisel” world to life. Judging from a sneak peek at the first two episodes at a private screening, there will be no sophomore slump.

Kevin Pollak, who plays Joel’s father, Moishe, acknowledged the pressure in following up a stellar debut, but he attended the screening and was relieved by the wildly enthusiastic response. “Expectations are usually the root of disappointment, regardless of the quality,” he said. “But that audience was hanging on every word. They were laughing in all the right places but also felt all the emotion at the same time. Yes, the pressure is ridiculous, but Amy and Dan have exceeded expectations.”

Pollak gives props to the Palladinos for the show’s success. “It has a broad appeal based on the extraordinary writing and directing, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences echoed that. But those of us who work on the show have known that all along,” he said. “It starts with great writing and you hope that the alchemy happens. And then you have this amazing set design and production design and music and cinematography and wardrobe. It’s the best quality across the board in all departments than anything I’ve done in 20 years. In that regard, we may have lightning in a bottle.”

plays a woman who embarks on a career in stand-up comedy in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Photo by Nicole Rivelle/Amazon Prime Video

Pollak, 61, also attributes the popularity of the show to the relatable characters and its multigenerational appeal. “My niece and her friends, 20-year-olds, are obsessed with the show, which couldn’t possibly be for the same reasons as older people who know or lived in this world,” he said. “I think they’re captivated by the character of Midge Maisel and her strength of character, and that she is reinventing herself in the most unusual way.”

He feels “tremendous pride” to be part of a show that reflects the Jewish experience, especially “one that reaches such a universal audience regardless of race, creed, religion or color,” he said. “For something this Jewish on paper, it astonishes me how it reaches every sort of demographic. I’m told the show is huge in China.”  

“The show is the best quality across the board in all departments than anything I’ve done in 20 years. In that regard, we may have lightning in a bottle.”

 — Kevin Pollak

Although Pollak has played Jewish characters before, Moishe is a departure from others on his resumé. “The challenge was to portray a very loud, older Jewish man,” he said. “My career has not been based on being the boisterous one. I’m not used to playing the guy who doesn’t listen and just talks. That was a challenge.”

Another was getting used to long scenes with no breaks and lots of fast dialogue — a Sherman-Palladino signature. “I came from stand-up comedy, not theater,” Pollak said. “This is a specific style of acting that I was not familiar with, but the challenge was part of the attraction.” 

This season, Pollak has been promoted from a recurring guest star to series regular. “You’re going to see a lot of me, whether you want to or not,” he said, describing the second installment of the show as “full of surprises. It’s an ever-expanding universe. It’s bigger and bolder in a number of ways. That’s how you deal with the expectations. You broaden the universe that the show is set in.” 

He’s referring to journeys outside the Maisels’ Manhattan milieu that take them to places including Paris and the Catskill Mountains.  

Will we see Jewish themes and celebrations? “Without getting into specifics, of course,” Pollak said. Those aspects of the show seem quite familiar to him. “We’re California Jews from San Francisco,” he said, “but there was a great sense of family and celebration in very similar ways for the holidays and in that regard it rings true.”

Kevin Pollak’s role has expanded in the second season of “Maisel.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Pollak said he belonged to a Reform temple while growing up. “It was very much a social gathering,” he said. “I attended religious school every weekend. I went to Hebrew school for three years and was confirmed and bar mitzvah’d. There was a strong sense of a Jewish household. [Judaism has] been a great influence my whole life. There’s always been a tremendous sense of pride about being Jewish. As I got older, I put a little less focus and interest on all organized religion, the result of having come from such a lax religious upbringing and being suspicious of organized anything, not just religion. But I have a tremendous sense of pride in being Jewish and the heritage.”

Pollak got into comedy early on, entertaining at school. “I started lip-syncing to comedy albums, performing to Danny Kaye when I was 10 years old in 1967,” he said. “I’m pretty much a natural-born ham, which translates to a life devoted. I’ve always had my eyes and heart and thoughts in all things comedy. I’d already started performing in nightclubs when I was just out of high school. I went to college but I felt this was what I was supposed to do. There was no turning back.”

Following in the footsteps of Jewish comic legends Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen “and Albert Brooks, who became a comedy hero and mentor,” Pollak established himself in stand-up. Then in 1989, his career took an unexpected turn, thanks to “a wonderful Jewish saga by Barry Levinson called ‘Avalon.’ I suddenly went from comedian to dramatic actor,” he said. “Although that wasn’t my career trajectory of choice, it made me a respected actor, along with ‘A Few Good Men’ in ’92 and ‘Casino’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’ in ’94, and it was off to the races.”

Rachel Brosnahan (far left) and Marin Hinkle in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Photo by Nicole Rivelle/ Amazon Prime Video

Pollak has toggled back and forth between dramas and comedies, and counts “studying at the feet of [Jack] Lemmon and [Walter] Matthau in the ‘Grumpy Old Men’ movies” as a career highlight. “I’m always in search of material that lifts my alleged abilities and challenges me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged as much as I have been on ‘Maisel,’ and it makes it that much more rewarding, just to be a part of such a magical show but also to be challenged to work at a higher level. I would have been happy to carry a spear, as they say, on this one. To be in the mix as much as I have is a complete honor.”

Currently, Pollak is appearing as The Miami Herald’s publisher in “The Front Runner,” about the scandal that torpedoed Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. He’s also in the comedy “Lez Bomb,” about a lesbian woman who goes home for Thanksgiving and tries to come out to her family. He has six other films in various stages of completion.

Pollack directed the 2015 documentary “Misery Loves Comedy,” “based on the thesis that you have to be miserable to be funny,” and he plans to continue directing. In January, he is set to direct a film he describes as “an interesting whodunit in a noir style, set in modern times. We’re casting now,” he said.

“I created a mantra about 10 years ago, ‘If you’re not creating, you’re waiting.’ I’m very involved in creating new content and opportunities for myself,” Pollak said. “There’s a new improvised comedy podcast that I created called ‘Alchemy This.’ I’ve gathered five of the best improvisers I’ve ever met and I throw out unusual and unique humorous situations and we improvise those scenes. My other podcast, “Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show,” will be 10 years old in March. It’s long-form interviews with everyone from Elon Musk to Tom Hanks to Larry David,” he said. “It’s all over the internet, including KevinPollak.TV.”

Pollak acknowledges that he has always been self-motivated. “As a stand-up comedian, my life was that of a gypsy, a traveling performer, making my own schedule,” he said. “But unlike a lot of people I started out with, I was self-generating and refused to just wait for the phone to ring, even when it was ringing off the hook. I turned 60 last year and I’ve never been so busy. It really has been magical.”

Given his full slate, Pollak has set stand-up comedy appearances aside for the time being, but he still finds time to play poker. The former host of “Celebrity Poker Showdown” will participate in the “Friday Night Poker Live” tournament in December. “It streams on Facebook and shows up on PokerGO a week later,” he said. “It will be on about a week after ‘Mrs. Maisel’ premieres.”

Pollak, who didn’t have to audition to play Moishe, is thankful to the Palladinos for the invitation “to come and play,” he said. “In terms of my acting life, I’d say it’s the most challenging and rewarding at the same time, more so than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s magically exciting.”


“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 5.

Read more from the 2018 Holiday Arts & Entertainment Edition here.