Screwball comedy 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' charms in unexpected ways

NOSELL

Amazon Studios

 

Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 4:33pm

We often forget how male-dominated stand-up comedy is. While there are a few exceptions — Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Chelsea Handler, Aparna Nancherla, Tig Notaro, Jen Kirkman — the general makeup of the stand-up comedy industry is predominantly male. According to a 2015 statistic from online blog Bitch Media, women only make up 14.3 percent of performers, though that number has increased since then. In a 2014 article from the Huffington Post, Lynne Parker, founder of the Funny Women Awards, noted this gender disparity isn’t necessarily due to the lack of female talent, but more with regards to women not being given enough opportunities.

There has always been a clear lack of female visibility within the comedy industry, especially on television, where FX’s “Louie” and HBO’s “Crashing” feature male stand-up comedians and their quests to make people laugh. Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the new 1950s screwball comedy from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, challenges that idea and the male hegemony of stand-up comedy with a story about a female comic.

Like the stand-up act of its novice but talented protagonist, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” starts off a bit shaky, but slowly gains traction once it gets to the good stuff.

Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”) stars in what could be her breakout role as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a spunky and sophisticated Jewish housewife from the Upper West Side with a knack for entertaining people with jokes. Initially, she supports her devoted husband Joel (Michael Zegen, “Boardwalk Empire”) in his side career as a stand-up comedian. But after a falling out between the two, Midge takes matters into her own hands, using her newfound autonomy to put her comedic chops to the test.

Along with its spectacular cast, smart script, impeccable production design and captivating characters, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” also works as a clever social commentary with feminist undertones. Instead of portraying overt finger-wagging or heavy-handed denouncements of sexism in the late 1950s, the show avoids clichés by focusing on Midge’s journey from domestic homemaker to an independent woman.   

Initially, Midge isn’t seeking to be a stand-up comic, though the opening sequence, in which she gives her own toast at her wedding, seems to show a secret desire for the profession. Later on, when she discovers Joel stealing an act from comedian Bob Newhart, Midge suggests coming up with an original idea, which leads Joel to doing an awkward, stale set and eventually admitting his affair with his secretary. Even when a devastated Midge asks for help from her tempestuous father Abe (Tony Shalhoub, “Monk”) and mother Rose (Marin Hinkle, “Two and a Half Men”), she is coerced into finding Joel to win him back.

As the show gradually pulls away layer after layer, Midge becomes more and more complex, showing us that she is more than just the thoughtful, caring housewife and mother Joel and her parents want her to be. This is mostly a credit to Brosnahan, whose three-dimensional performance deftly balances between buoyant confidence and vulnerability. 

While Sherman-Palladino’s trademark for fast-paced dialogue and punchy one-liners propels the story forward, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” truly shines in its quieter moments. In an early scene, a dolled-up Midge sneaks out of bed to roll up her hair and put on a face mask, but wakes up just in time to do her makeup again, as if nothing had happened. This moment, as insignificant as it may seem, demonstrates just the kind of expectations Midge is forced to conform to in order to be seen as the pristine, perfect housewife.       

Granted, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” falters in some aspects. Sherman-Palladino’s continues to incorporate her hallmark pop culture references, but the esoteric, somewhat antiquated humor might not land with every viewer. Occasionally, the show teeters into formulaic territory, such as when Midge interacts with famed comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby, “Take This Waltz”) towards the end of the episode. The pilot is also a bit long, clocking in at about an hour. But perhaps if it’s picked up for a full season — the episode is one of several in Amazon’s annual pilot season — “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will definitely find ways to improve on its flaws and expand on its best qualities. It might even help pave the way for female stand-up comedians to finally get the platform they deserve on and off television.