January 24, 2019

‘Mrs. Maisel’ Scores Again at PGA Awards

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

The Producers Guild of America added two trophies to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” growing award collection on Saturday in Beverly Hills. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning series won the Danny Thomas Award for outstanding producer of episodic television for the second year in a row, and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino nabbed the Norman Lear Achievement Award.

“Dinner and a prize—a Jewish girl’s favorite Saturday night,” Sherman-Palladino exclaimed after accepting her award from Lauren Graham, her “Gilmore Girls” lead actress. Paying tribute to the award’s namesake, she said she hopes “that I took away from Mr. Lear the ability to take care of my troupe, make the women feel empowered, and not make the men feel like schmucks, to make sure that whatever we do, we do it in great love.”

Production on the third season of “Mrs. Maisel” begins in New York in mid-March.

The Two Worlds of ‘Mrs. Maisel’

Photo provided by Amazon Prime Video

What is so intriguing about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the acclaimed television series now in its second season on Amazon Video that features a young, wealthy Jewish woman from New York City’s Upper West Side in 1958 who decides to pursue a career in underground stand-up comedy?

Essentially, two things.

First, the time in which the show is set — near the end of post-World War II conformism and the Eisenhower era — is when the underpinnings of the countercultural 1960s were taking hold in small nightclubs and among clandestine political groups in urban centers such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. Amid Americans’ fascination with suburbia, big cars and TV dinners, came the birth of the civil rights movement, the testing of free-speech laws and the stirrings of the sexual revolution. Mrs. Maisel, also known as Midge, is so interesting because while she is a product of society’s emphasis on conformity, she uses the privilege gained as the daughter of the Weissmans — a Columbia University math professor and a tightly wound, European-educated mother — to test the limits of that conformity. At a time when male comedians were changing their names to seem less Jewish, she does the opposite, using her married name, “Mrs. Maisel,” as her stage name while crafting a slightly blue comedy routine. 

Second, “Mrs. Maisel” gives us a slightly twisted slice of urban American Jewry that is not about new immigrants learning to assimilate and differentiate ­— such as the characters from authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer — but rather about assimilated Jews who live almost exclusively in a Jewish orbit yet are beginning to see the limitations of that experience. Midge is not rebelling against being Jewish; in fact, she seems quite proud of it when she chides her husband, Joel, about his gentile secretary/mistress (“She’s just a Methodist version of me!”). By the 1950s, Jewish men had been taking their Jewishness on the non-Jewish road for decades, but not many Jewish women had the ability to do so.  

The show depicts the nexus and the division between the affluent Jews on Riverside Drive and the gritty magnetism of the Greenwich Village scene that was fostering the growth of the folk-music revival, bebop jazz and stand-up comedy. In addition to the Village’s counterculture bringing forth folk artists such as Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs, and jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Nina Simone, its comedic component was led by performers such as Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Red Foxx and, of course, Lenny Bruce. In fact, comedy pushed the limits of free speech the way jazz pushed the boundaries of the 12-note musical scale (Bruce famously claimed his comedy was inspired by jazz). Enter Midge, the Uptown assimilated Jew, fully acclimated to American culture yet still inhabiting an almost exclusively Jewish orbit. The only recurring, non-Jewish characters seem to be Zelda, the Weissman’s maid; and Joel’s love interest, Penny Pan, who is nothing more than a Jewish fantasy of a gentile woman. 

Although genteel anti-Semitism is very much a normative part of 1950s New York culture, Midge seems oblivious to it. She comfortably moves from Uptown to Downtown (mostly in taxis) without much noticing it. But even when she ventures out of her Jewish cocoon, she seems to end up among Jews. For example, The Music Inn (whose founder, Jerry Halpern, is Jewish), which became the Mecca of the folk revival, is depicted in various episodes as it existed then (and still exists today). Another notable Jewish figure who inhabited that Village scene was Israel “Izzy” Young, founder of The Folklore Center. 

The Gaslight Café, where Midge performs, became a folk-music magnet but was also a popular venue for comedy. Profanity became an essential element of the comedic enterprise (Midge listens to albums of the young Red Foxx on her phonograph). And, of course, gender stands at the center here. Women weren’t comedians, just “vocalists” (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, et al). How many times do booking agents ask Midge, “Are you a singer?” In the last episode of Season 1, Midge gets heckled by a man who says, “Go clean your kitchen!” — to which Midge responds, “I’m Jewish. I pay people to do that.” She seems oblivious to the world around her. She’s already rich and thus has nothing to lose.

As has been noted by others, Midge seems loosely modeled after the young Joan Rivers (who, unlike Midge, made her unattractiveness part of her act), and her nemesis in the first season, Sophie Lennon, seems like a kind of Phyllis Diller or Moms Mabley (“You have to play a character; you can’t just be yourself.”). The show does a wonderful job juxtaposing the wealth of Jewish assimilation (Midge studied Russian literature at the very goyish Bryn Mawr College) and the rough-and-tumble life of the “outer borough” Jew (i.e., Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx) depicted by the savvy and hilarious agent Susie Myerson (who hails from the gritty streets of the Rockaways). 

And there is the scene in Riverside Park about the noted pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock that is especially incisive. Spock’s book on parenting was a bible for an entire generation. Of course, Midge doesn’t seem very interested in her children at all. Interestingly, she often doesn’t even know where her kids are, which seems normal and, in some way, not far from Spock’s view.

Astrid, the wife of Midge’s brother, Noah, is a great character, a convert to Judaism who endlessly and unsuccessfully tries to win favor from her Jewish in-laws by being way too Jewish. “I can’t get enough of the Holy Land,” she says. What assimilated Jew referred to Israel as the Holy Land? In any case, in one scene, she gives Midge’s 4-year-old son, Ethan, “Rabbi Cards” as a gift. As she gives him one card, she says, “This is Rabbi Hirschenson from Hoboken,” which is actually a crazy reference. Haim Hirschenson was indeed a famous rabbi from Safed and a colleague of Rav Kook, who was “exiled” to Hoboken because he wrote the teshuvah in favor of women’s suffrage in Israel. Could the show’s writers have added Hirschenson because of his position on women’s suffrage? If so, it’s a fabulous reference.

Before Bob Dylan arrived in the Village in 1961 and while Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles were making Jews laugh in the Catskills, there must have been people like Midge, Jewish refugees from Riverside Drive, who left their kids with gentile baby-sitters because they saw something brewing in the smoky, smelly and noisy jazz and folk clubs of the Village and, after listening to Charles Mingus, had a late-night snack at Schmulka Bernstein’s delicatessen. They couldn’t abandon their Jewishness. Instead, they made it into a commodity. Izzy Young did it. Bob Dylan did it. Joan Rivers did it. But why does Midge do it? That may be part of what keeps our interest. 

Midge isn’t in it for the money or the sex or even the fame (at the beginning). She does it because she is bored of her Riverside Drive “Classic Six,” six-room apartment. There is a scene where she and Lenny Bruce and some black jazz musicians are sharing a joint between sets (Midge’s privilege enables her to try anything!). The musicians ask Bruce to introduce the second set, but Bruce demurs because he’s too stoned. Midge interrupts by saying, “An activity! Yes, I’ll do it. It’s an activity!” She then goes onstage and nails it. When she returns to Bruce offstage, he looks at her quizzically, as if to say, “Who are you? No one does this for an activity!” Maybe that’s what is so interesting about Midge. She’s not doing it for the reasons everybody else does. She doesn’t have the self-esteem problem Joan Rivers had. She just wants an activity. And it is that banality that makes her so interesting and often quite funny, because she seems as confused as we are.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute in Manhattan, rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue and author of “American Post-Judaism.” 

Jan. 18, 2019

‘Mrs. Maisel’ Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to Receive PGA Honor

70th ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS -- Pictured: Amy Sherman-Palladino "Directing - Comedy Series for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"during the 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Microsoft Theater on September 17th, 2018 -- (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Amy Sherman-Palladino, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning creator of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” will soon add another award to her collection next month. The Producers Guild of America will honor her with the 2019 Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television at the 30th Annual Producers Guild Awards on Jan. 19 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

“Amy Sherman-Palladino is everything you want a TV producer to be. She’s smart, she’s tenacious, she knows the story she wants to tell and how to put together the right team to tell it,” said PGA Presidents Gail Berman and Lucy Fisher. “Her characters and stories may span different eras, but her sensibility is unique and unmistakable.  Watch any episode from one of her series for just five minutes, and you’ll instantly understand why she’s built such a wide and passionate following.”

Sherman-Palladino, who also created “Gilmore Girls” and “Bunheads,” follows previous recipients Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Mark Gordon, Chuck Lorre, J.J. Abrams, Dick Wolf, Jerry Bruckheimer, Lorne Michaels, David L. Wolper, Aaron Spelling, Carsey/Werner/Mandabach, Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, Mark Burnett, and Lear, himself in receiving the prestigious honor.

‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Creators and Star Talk About Season 2

Photo from Amazon.

Telling the story of a 1950s Jewish housewife who becomes a standup comic, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” instantly became a fan favorite and a critical darling, earning Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Peabody and PGA awards and 14 Emmy nominations in its first season on Amazon. Season 2 won’t premiere for several months, but the cast and creators convened at the Television Critics Association press tour, where creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino and the cast talked about the show’s success and what’s ahead in a Q&A session.

Sherman-Palladino admitted that the pressure was on to keep the bar high.

“When you have a group of actors of this caliber, that means that the stories and the scripts and dialogue have to be of a certain caliber, otherwise we’re not doing them their service,” she said. “The pressure is always going to be higher and higher and higher.”

Star Rachel Brosnahan gave a brief hint about her character. “At the end of Season 1, we left Midge in a pretty triumphant moment.  She’s finally arrived into Mrs. Maisel, the standup comedienne,” she said. “I can’t say a whole lot about where she’ll head in Season 2, but good things can’t last long.”

Although Midge is estranged from her husband Joel, “You’ll definitely see a lot of their attempts to co-parent, because the truth about their relationship is they will never be able to be without one another in some capacity and it creates a wonderful, dramatic tension,” Brosnahan said. “We get to explore a lot of the depths of their love, and all of its different capacities this season.  It’s complicated, and it always will be.”

Daniel Palladino said they’d received “a lot of really excited, positive feedback from the Jewish community from the very, very beginning. There are some inaccuracies, but when they call us out on them, they do it out of love and trying to help us.”

Sherman-Palladino elaborated later, telling the Journal, “It’s tricky because the religion has changed a lot in terms of how ceremonies are done. We get things like, ‘The prayer went like this” or ‘There wouldn’t be a call and response’–real minutiae—and they take it very seriously. Because we want to be true to who [the Maisels] are, we listen as much as we can.”

Jewish perspectives, elements and the link between Jews and comedy would continue to be the foundation of the show, she confirmed. “The thing about this family I wanted to make sure about is they are Jews, and Jews at the time were really shaping American humor. I feel that the hand of Jewish experience and cadence formed comedy and you can’t approach a story like this without that element,” she said.

As for the Emmy recognition, “I was so glad that so many of our wonderful people got noticed because everybody works so hard on this show,” Sherman-Palladino said. “It’s a runaway train and if one piece falls down the whole thing collapses in on itself. It’s a lot of people working at the top of their game and being completely committed to us, so hearing their names was incredible.”

Mrs. Maisel and the Jewish Revolution

Screenshot from Twitter.

I was delighted when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best television series — but not for the reason you think. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewy as it gets. It is witty and humorous and deserves its award. But more than its laughs and giggles, Hollywood — and the rest of us — really need the very serious and timely message hidden in this overtly Jewish show.

We are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Hollywood and Western culture. For decades, abusive behavior and mistreatment, especially toward women, went unchecked. As the most powerful people in Hollywood summarily announced at the Golden Globes, “Time’s up.” The revolution is well underway.

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries. People who upheave society are not just rebels, they are zealots. Average people don’t take on city hall. Hollywood and Western culture desperately needed drastic change, and it took the strength, courage and near-recklessness of incredibly brave revolutionaries to inspire this transformation.

As is often the case with revolutions, initially the #metoo movement brought everyone together. But the subsequent hedging and handwringing by more moderate voices was inevitable. The pushback began. It was then followed by the pushback to the pushback as people quickly retreated from the harmonious center to their partisan corners.

“Mrs. Maisel” embodies the Jewish secret to resolving this vicious cycle.

In the show, 20-somethings Miriam and Joel Maisel are living out their scripted lives along with their two children in 1950s New York City. Everything changes when Joel confesses to an affair and Miriam, or Midge, as her friends call her, kicks him out. As per “the script,” Midge’s parents expect a quick reconciliation, but when Joel apologizes and begs for a second chance, Midge goes off-script and says no. Viva la revolución!

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries.

Midge’s rebellion leads her on a winding road to a bright future as a trailblazing female comic and a strong, powerful woman. The most impressive part of Midge’s personal cultural revolution is that her path is entirely original, yet she manages to include multiple parts of her previous, scripted life in her new life. In other words, Midge does not innovate at the expense of her entire past. She rejects all that is bad in the script and embraces all that is good. Her parents, her family, her fashion, her etiquette, her femininity, her Judaism and her sentimentality are all brought along into Midge’s journey.

In the season’s final scene (mild spoiler alert), Midge confirms her identity is independent from her past but also rooted in that same past when she creates her stage name: Mrs. Maisel. Despite the fact that she is divorcing Mr. Maisel, and despite the fact that she is an independent woman, Midge appropriates the name she was given and turns it into the name she chose.

In some ways, this frames Midge as a moderate revolutionary — a feminist hero toppling society’s conventions, gently. Midge’s foil in the show is her manager and adviser, Susie Myerson. She is the other kind of revolutionary. Susie is completely cut off from her family, she dresses and acts androgynously, and she has enough chips on her shoulder for herself and for Midge. There’s nothing gentle about Susie.

Some may think that a gentle revolutionary is weaker than a scorched-earth revolutionary. But the historic Jewish cultural revolutions of deity, ritual, philosophy, literacy and justice were not scorched-earth revolutions. We validated and valued the past while molding the present to create a better future. We have adapted and adopted from every culture we have visited on our 2,000-year Diaspora journey. We have created Judaisms that are unique to their time and place, interpretations specific to different academic spirits, and rituals that connect us to our surroundings. We are the gentle revolutionaries.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Jewish revolutions retold for a postmodern world. To inspire Hollywood’s cultural revolution, we needed scorched-earth revolutionaries. Now, to make Hollywood’s cultural revolution stick, we need gentle revolutionaries.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.