Huzzahs resounded here at Travlanche when we heard the news that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel had been picked up for a full season by Amazon a few months ago. For Women’s History Month we asked guest correspondent Lauren Milberger, who wrote here so enthusiastically about the pilot, to give us her take on the full series. She had much to say! This is the first installment. There will be more to come anon. And keep an eye (ear) peeled for Milberger’s new Murphy Brown podcast. It’s available here. Now’s here’s Lauren —
She’s Marvelous… And More
Many of you may have watched January’s Golden Globe Awards and cheered with delight as the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won not just one, but two—yes TWO—statues (or statuettes): Best Actress (Rachel Brosnahan) and Best Comedy Series. While some may have seen that and wondered, “What show is this?,” and others might have said quietly to themselves, with a hint of recognition, “Oh, that internet show… I should watch that,” still others, like myself, were crying over the fact that Amy Creator-of-Gilmore–Girls-and-Bunheads Sherman-Palladino (with her husband and collaborator Daniel Palladino) finally won a damn award for her amazing work… and she wore a top hat while doing it (yes, Amy doesn’t just wear top hats to awards shows). Those who have been following my past posts here on Travalanche may know that I have been excited about this show since before the pilot was even shot. Not due just to the pedigree of the Sherman-Palladino clan (kindred writing spirits of mine), but also due to the subject matter: Comedy… Late 20th Century comedy to be exact. And, not to recap my last column too much, somehow it took the creation of this series to open my eyes to the fact that the Jewish comedic narrative I thought I was a part of was mostly (entirely, in fact) a male one. I will try not to repeat myself, so please go back and read my thoughts on the pilot, but as a comedic writer and actress, seeing the character of Midge Maisel isn’t just about seeing myself represented this way, or even just about seeing a Jewish woman in popular entertainment without being relegated to the stock roles of nagging wife or mother. It was about putting the “her” back in the narrative both for Jewish women and women in general. It’s about, to quote a pivotal moment at the end of the series without giving anything away… “She’s good”. Yet, the series itself is truly a universal story even in its ambition to tell the tale of the female role in the creation of what we know as modern comedy.
The title character may be fictional, but what The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is doing is showing us that for every Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, Bell Barth, or Moms Mabley. Like most of the Sherman-Palladino canon, the dialogue in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is fast and the references even are faster. But there is a maturity in this series, and for those of us who know Sherman-Palladino work, we can sense a growth over the course of her television career. Perhaps she is finally in her true wheelhouse (Amy’s father was a comedian of this era). Of course, unlike with Bunheads or Gilmore Girls, the pop culture references the characters in TMMM let fly don’t just make them quirky, they make them current (a.k.a. 1958). Along with their signature use of music best remembered from their previous his series The Gilmore Girls (and knowledge, Amy knows music, comedy and pop culture), the Palladinos fully recreate an environmental sense of the time Midge Maisel lives in, immersing you in a fully fleshed out world, whether you catch all the references or no. But hey, that’s where I come in. Join me for a curated collection of my favorite references in the series. How many did you catch? Since I already wrote about the pilot, let’s start with episode two:
“Mort Sahl was the first person to talk like a human being on stage… he did for comedy what James Dean and Marlon Brando did for acting. Which is he… humanized it..” Neal Brennan, CNN’s The History Of Comedy documentary.
Episode 2: “Ya Shivu v Bolshom Dome Na Kholme”
Midge: Do you love it? (i.e., Stand Up Comedy)
Lenny (Bruce) shrugs with a sly grin.
Midge: Yeah …He loves it.
Character name: Martha Kilgallen
The character has no lines and is only mentioned to Midge in an exercise class, but the last name “Kilgallen” can only be a reference to the journalist and TV/Radio personality Dorothy Kilgallen. By the 1950s, Miss Kilgallen was known as one of the panelists of the popular television game show What’s My Line? (1950-1964), refined and dressed to the nines. Known for her column, “The Voice of Broadway,” since the late 1930s, she mostly wrote gossip (including a notorious feud with Frank Sinatra), a predecessor for the likes of Liz Smith or Perez Hilton; but Kilgallen also ventured into politics and organized crime, writing about the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard (convicted of killing his wife), and the assassination of JFK. Not only was she a known celebrity of Midge’s generation, she also has a connection to the story itself. In 1964, she spoke on Lenny Bruce’s behalf when he was tried for obscenity. A year later, she went from famous to infamous when she died suddenly from what was determined to be a fatal combination of alcohol and barbiturates. While it was ruled an accident, many conspiracy theorists believe she was killed by the mafia because of what she knew about the JFK assassination. None of these claims have been substantiated.
Moishe Maisel: She’s gonna do what with her life… Sit around all day long eating bon-bons, watching Queen For A Day? Is that what you want for her?
Queen for a Day
Queen for a Day was a very popular game show that began in radio in the 1940s and by 1956 was nationally broadcast by NBC television. It consisted of regular women with financial hardships talking about their problems and having the audience vote on who would be “Queen for a Day”. The winner would usually be given money for their request, and anything from kitchen appliances, vacations or clothes. The winner would also be garbed in a sable trimmed robe and crown, and would sit on a throne. It was a game show with modern reality TV qualities. While many women loved the show, it was not considered to have much substance, making Midge’s father-in-law’s comments about her possible future of staying home and watching it all day NOT a high compliment.
Episode 3: “Because You Left”
Joel: “I thought we got Goebbels in ’45?”
Joel compares Midge’s gentile/White college boyfriend to this infamous Nazi.
Susie: “….Then I was Mrs. Miniver for a full three minutes”
Midge: “Mrs. Miniver? From the movie?”
Mrs. Miniver is of course the British 1942 World War One Romantic-Drama, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It won six Oscars, including Best Actress for Greer Garson for the title role. The character of Kay Miniver was played as a very “saintly” character, hence Suzie’s sarcastic tone to the line. Fun fact: Greer Garson (39) married the actor Richard Vey (27) who played her son in the film.
Susie: “I almost confessed to the Lindbergh Kidnapping.”
Midge: “They caught that guy.”
Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, was a celebrity in his own time. However, his most celebrated moment may be overshadowed by the infamous case of the kidnapping and murder of his son. The kidnapping and trial was called “The trial of the century” and inspired one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels (I’d tell you which one, but … spoilers!). The case led to the “Lindbergh Law,” which made it a federal crime to transport a kidnapping victim over state lines.
Imogene: “What does Dr. Spock say?”
When Midge’s friend Imogene asks her if she has consulted “Dr. Spock”, she of course doesn’t mean the Star Trek character, but Benjamin Spock, the author of the 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which became one of the best-sellers of all time. Dr. Spock was the first pediatrician to use psychoanalysis to help parents understand and raise their children. Popular through most of the second half of the 20th century, it influenced many generations of parents and children. The latest edition was published recently as 2012. Dr. Spock said, “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do,” a line which Midge later quotes in her act.
Michael Kessler, The Lawyer:
“You like that? Kirk Douglas gave me that…. I worked pro bono for his pal, Trumbo, when he refused to name names to Congress.”
Many may know the Bryan Cranston biopic of the same name, but for those who don’t: screenwriter Dalton Trumbo became one of the most famous names on the horrible blacklist of writers and actors (mostly Jewish, not far from exclusively) who were considered traitors for their involvement or supposed involvement with the communist party. Artists from Lucille Ball to Jerome Robbins were called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to “name names,” and save their skins by putting their friends and coworkers. Many did, some cut deals, some just got out of it career ruining free; others, after having their names published in a booklet called “Red Channels,” were blacklisted from the industry. Unlike actors who couldn’t hide their faces, writers began to write under pseudonyms. Dalton Trumbo used this tactic to write such classics as Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and The Brave One. Many say the blacklist ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger stood up for Trumbo, demanding he receive screen credit for writing Exodus, which he did. Trumbo was known as one of the “Hollywood Ten”: ten screenwriters who were cited with contempt of court for refusing to answer questions about their supposed involvement in the communist party. This is also a reason it’s a big deal (and funny) that Midge accidentally takes a commentary flyer in the pilot and then ends up at a communist social gathering (reading Marx).
Susie: “Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He was on their team…”
Kessler: “It took fours zaps in the chair to kill poor Ethel. There was smoke coming out of her ears…”
Susie: “Eh… Jewish women are known to be more difficult….”
The infamous Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, were a married couple, Jewish American citizens, who were executed for espionage for the USSR 1953. Their conviction and execution has been controversial for years, as many believe they were innocent and victims of Cold War propaganda. After the Iron Curtain fell, information was released indicating their guilt; however, their children have spearheaded a campaign to exonerate Ethel. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz says they were both guilty and framed at the same time.
Guy:“Are you sure you’re in the right place? The Friars Club.”
Susie: “I don’t know, am I?
Guy: “I don’t know.”
Susie: “Third Base.”
“I don’t know.” / “Third base.” is a repeated exchange from the famous Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”
The Friars & Georgie Jessel
Suzie goes to The Friars to talk to power agent, Harry Drake…
The Friars Club is a private club in New York City, founded in 1904 and populated by comedians known for their off-color or “blue” material roasts of their members. (You can see a sign honoring Ed Sullivan as Suzie walks in). Women weren’t admitted as members to the Friars Club until June of 1988, after a court order issued in California the year prior. Some of the women admitted at that time include Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Eydie Gorme, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Dinah Shore, Phyllis Diller, and Martha Raye, with Joan Rivers and Liza Minnelli admitted soon after. Previously, the only females allowed in the door were wives of deceased Friars and honorary female members, who at the time was only Phyllis Diller. This is why when Susie tries to enter the club she is stopped at every turn: it’s not because she isn’t a member… it’s because she’s a woman.
Susie: “Why don’t you get Milton Berle to swing his dick around. Knock me out into the street. That’ll do the trick.”
Long story short…Milton Berle was an extremely successful kid vaudeville performer who grew up to be known as “Mr. Television” when he started in one of the first TV hits, a variety show called Texaco Star Theater [For more on Berle see his Travalanche post here]. The rumor, or legend about “Uncle Miltie” that he had a larger than most… member… was in fact a real thing.
Susie: “George Jessel looks like he fell in a vat of fries.”
George “Georgie” Jessel was a famous comedian of the day and comedy legend. Among his many talents, he was known as “Toastmaster General of the United States” for his skill at MC events, especially roasts, like those at the Friars Club. He originated the lead in the stage production of The Jazz Singer (Which became the first talking picture, starring Al Jolson). He was also known for dating and marrying much younger women, including a sixteen-year-old wife when he was forty-two. [For more on Jessel, see his Travalanche post here].
Episode 4: The Disappointment of the Dionne Quintuplets
The Dionne Quintuplets were the first famous multi births and at a time before IVF, making a quintuplet birth far more uncommon. They also marked the first quintuplets on record to have survived their infancy. The French-Canadian Dionne parents had already had five children, and came from a very poor and meager background. After the children’s birth, the Dionne family was approached by fairs and exhibits who offered to put the babies on display. Concerned for the children’s well-being and fearful of exploitation, in 1935 the Canadian government made the four-month-old children wards of the state. The government built a home for the children across the street from their family as a home and a viewing center—making the children wards of the state for their own protection still did not stop the government from building a tourism industry around them, making thousands on visitors to the home they named “Quintland,” as well as using them to advertise anything from toothpaste to condensed milk. The family did regain custody of the children in 1943. By that time, they had appeared in a least three films. In 1998, the surviving sisters received a $2.8 million settlement from the Ontario government for their exploitation. [For more on the Dionne Quintuplets, see their Travalanche post here].
Susie: “When I make it big, if I’m still hanging with you, I’m gonna have Dorothy Dandridge beat me to death with Otto Preminger.”
Dorothy Dandridge was a singer/dancer/actress best known as the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance in 1938’s Carmen Jones. She was a trailblazer in many ways, including being one of the first people to prosecute tabloids for false & damaging stories. Although she did have an affair with her white (taboo at the time), married director of Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger, it is doubtful it was known to the public enough for Suzie to make a remark about it. It may be a fun wink or anachronism or just a reference to her being directed by him in the past. Unfortunately, Ms. Dandridge died tragically young, at the age of 42.
The Howdy Doody Show (1947-1960)
The Howdy Doody Show was a very popular kids show at the time, and had been for many years. A generation of children watched Howdy Doody in the way many of the last decades of children watched Sesame Street. [For more on Howdy Doody, see the Travalanche post here.]
Jack Paar and Steve Allen
Steve Allen was the first host of The Tonight Show, the first TV late night talk show, and was a jack of all trades. Not only did Steve Allen write the original Tonight Show theme song, he was said to have written over 3000 songs, by his own estimation, one of which one him a Grammy in 1964. He was also a prolific author, having written 50 books. Coming from a radio background, Steve introduced such now-classic comic situations as the fake “man on the street” interview, and audience participation bits. You can see his influence on the comedy of David Letterman. Among his many jobs was a panelist on What’s My Line? with the above-mentioned Dorothy Kilgallen. He invented what we know today as Late Night Comedy. [More on Steve Allen in his Travalanche post here.]
Jack Paar, also from radio, seems to be another forgotten host of the Tonight Show; Paar took over hosting duties from Steve Allen in the summer of 1957 and by 1959 had rebranded the show as The Jack Paar Show (or Jack Paar’s Tonight Show). His tenure was not sparse of controversy, as his principles clashed with those of the NBC brass. He is most known for the time he walked off his own show when he was barred from telling a joke about a “Water closet” (aka the British/European term for bathroom). Unlike Allen, Paar had a wider variety of guests, mixing celebrity interviews with notables from across the spectrum, such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy (when he was merely candidate Kennedy). On his death, Time magazine said “”His fans would remember him as the fellow who split talk show history into two eras: Before Paar and Below Paar.” [More on Jack Paar in his Travalanche post here].
Paar and Allen paved the way for the next host of Tonight: Johnny Carson, who then went on to influence a whole generation of comedians, the line of influence continuing through David Letterman, who influenced the late night talk show hosts of today. We are all connected, folks.
Rose pulls her face up at night with tape…
Yes, this was a thing. Many women believed it would help their faces stay that way. Also known as a “Hollywood Facelift.” Famously, in her later TV shows, Lucille Ball used tape under a wig to create a younger look.
Susie: “I do wish Mitzi Gaynor was my very best friend.”
Midge: “Come on… she’s adorable…:”
Mitzi Gaynor was the “adorable” star of such musicals as 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business (with Ethel Merman) & the 1958 film version of South Pacific. Perky, blonde, and (yes) adorable, she would be what the Maisel family might refer to as textbook “Shiksa.” Think Debbie Reynolds film persona. Coincidentally, she appeared in the film version of Joe. E. Lewis’s life.
Susie: “30% of all comics DIE from cord-related injuries.”
Midge: “That’s not true.”
Susie: “Well, It’s up there.”
This is based on a real incident that happened to Joe E. Lewis (A famous comedian (and Friar) in his own right). In 1927, Lewis was assaulted at the request of one of Al Capone’s lieutenants. Capone wanted Joe to renew his contract to perform at a club he partly owned, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Several men, including Sam Giancana, cut Lewis’s throat and tongue. He wouldn’t talk again for two years. Capone, who was fond of Lewis, was more than displeased with the assault. [For more on Joe E. Lewis, read his Travalanche post here.]
Redd Foxx / Party Albums
Redd Foxx said “party albums” were comedy albums you put on at a party to make it a happening party. Some would say they were underground records recorded in a party atmosphere. Known for his raunchy nightclub act, Foxx spent most of the 1950s successfully performing at exclusively African American clubs. This would make sense as to why Midge had never heard of him. Coming from a form of segregated vaudeville known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, Foxx’s stand up was controversial because he talked about sex and race. Richard Pryor named him as one of the big influence on his comedy, as did Chris Rock. In the 1960s, Foxx became the first African-American comedian to play the Vegas Strip. He still didn’t appear on TV until 1962.
Woman: “You’ve never heard of Jane Jacobs, where have you been?”
Midge: “The Upper West Side.”’
It’s impossible to talk in great detail about every single reference in the series and the same applies in regards to Jane Jacobs’s accomplishments, but here it goes. In the context of the series, Jane Jacobs is the reason New York still has many famous locations still intact, like Washington Square Park. Jacobs was the author of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is known as one of the most influential books in urban planning, despite her lack of college degree or training in urban planning. When Jane Jacobs runs into Midge, she is active in stopping Robert Moses from extending Fifth Avenue through the famous Washington Square Park arch. The group of people Jane is preaching to was known as the “Committee to Save Washington Square Park,” co-created by Jacobs. In 2004, Random House published her book, Dark Age Ahead, in which Jacobs states North American “civilization shows signs of a spiral decline comparable to the collapse of the Roman empire.” After her death in 2006, NYC’s then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, made June 28, 2006 “Jane Jacobs Day.” She died in Toronto, having left the US in the 1970s over her disapproval of the Vietnam War.
Comic: “Did Greene send you?”
Shecky Greene: A nightclub/Vegas/Catskills comedian (the Jewish Circuit) who happens to be 91 years old as we speak. When this comic accuses Midge of stealing his act, he then rattles off a series of last names of men he thinks sent her. Another name in fact, Dana, refers to a last name, not a first name, as in Bill Dana (see also Don Adams below), a writer and comedian in his own right, but who got his first attention during this time writing the stand-up acts of other comedians.
The Copa, The (Village) Vanguard
Places like the Copa and the Vanguard were real venues. The Vanguard still resides in the village, having opened in 1935 as a jazz club downtown. The Copa, short for The Copacabana, was far more upscale: Martin and Lewis, for example, made their New York City debut there. The Copa was an exclusive white only club through the 1950s, for both audiences and performers. In 1957, an incident occurred when most of the New York Yankees roster defended Sammy Davis, Jr., after a group of patrons began harassing Davis with racial slurs. The Vanguard, meanwhile, was always integrated.
The nickname Red seems as popular for men born in the early part of the 20th century as the name “Bobby” was for young men in the 1960s… that being said… Red Skelton started out in Radio, having previously come from Vaudeville (even a spate in Burlesque), like most comedians of his generation. By 1951, he had a very popular television show at a time when more people had radios in their homes than televisions. Although he had a film career in the 1930s, he is still best remembered for his television show, The Red Skelton Hour. [For more on red Skelton, read his Travalanche post here].
An American company since 1925, Burma Shave was the first brand of brushless shaving cream and known most famously for their funny and often rhyming poems on several highway billboards, one after another.. By 1963, the company was sold to Philip Morris, making it literally a product of its time.
Midge watches Don Adams do stand up on TV. He most famously has been left to posterity as bumbling 1960s comic super spy Maxwell Smart on the Mel Brooks series Get Smart. His first appeared on TV in 1954 was when he won on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts with a stand-up comedy act written by the above mentioned Bill Dana. He then and spent much of the 1950s appearing on The Steve Allen Show (Steve’s show after he left The Tonight Show). For more on Don Adams see his Travalanche post here.
Okay, this is the end of PART ONE. Stay tuned for more!