When forming her character, the actress looked to both historical and contemporary female comedians.
When we first meet Midge Maisel of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she thinks she has it all: a husband, a beautiful apartment, and two healthy kids (though she seems to forget about them fairly often). Hell, the rabbi is even coming over for Yom Kippur—a coup that Midge mentions to anyone who will listen.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for her perfect world to fall apart. Halfway through the pilot episode, her beloved husband Joel up and leaves, abruptly revealing an ongoing affair with his secretary. At a loss (and more than a few drinks in), Midge stumbles onto the downtown stage from which Joel once poorly riffed. The starts to tell jokes and she’s good—really, really good.
So begins Midge’s quest to become a Great Stand-up Comedian, aided in no small part by her manager, Susie Myerson, and real-life midcentury comedian Lenny Bruce. By the end of the season, she’s performing regularly, and often getting in trouble for it—whether with the cops or, as in the finale’s cliffhanger, with her maybe-not-ex-husband Joel.
We spoke with Rachel Brosnahan (now up for her second Golden Globe in the role!), to get an idea of where Midge’s head is at the start of season two—and of where she might go in the future.
What comics did you look to when you were trying to figure out how to play Midge?
Before I’d ever met [creators and showrunners] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] or spoke to anyone about it—having read the script and done some research about the first female comedians—I discovered a woman named Jean Carroll, who I’d never heard of. She was a whip-smart, beautiful, hilarious comedian, and I found her work as early as 1955. I initially thought that Midge must be inspired by her. I later learned that Midge is just Midge, and sort of inspired by a lot of different comedians.
So I looked toward Jean Carroll, Joan Rivers of course, Phyllis Diller, Moms Maybley, Don Rickles, Elaine May. Yeah, many, many people. I love research; I’m a nerd.
Did you do any historical research to get into a 1950s state of mind?
I did a lot of research about what it meant to be a woman and a housewife during that time. I went on eBay and bought a lot of vintage Good Housekeeping magazines, and other women’s magazine titles that are escaping me. I read the kind of advice that women were being given, and taking in, and teaching their children. And yeah, watched a couple documentaries about New York in the 1950s. I just tried to place myself in the period.
Was there any advice in those magazines that stuck out to you as particularly insightful?
Oh gosh. The stuff that disturbed me the most were the articles advising how to get a husband. You know, “make sure you smell nice; make sure you don’t talk too loudly, or wear colors that are too bright.” Basically, “be seen in an appealing way, but not heard too much, but enough that you seem smart.” I mean just the number of rules and restrictions— how much you should eat, you know, in front of a man—were… disturbing. Unpleasant.
To say the least.
Yeah. But you know, but there was also some great advice about dress patterns and good decor. It was fascinating.
I’m sure. It seems like a whole other world.
Yeah it was. I found some amazing advertisements. Because I’d obviously read the pilot, with that now infamous scene where Midge goes to sleep with her makeup on, and wakes up in the middle of the night to take it off, and wakes up early in the morning to put it back on. I pulled an advertisement where a woman was pictured in bed with a full face of makeup on. I was like, “this, this is the message we were sending.”
Do you have a favorite costume that you got to wear?
So impossible to choose. We have so many incredible costumes. Our costume designer Donna Zakowska has continued to outdo herself in this season. She really has.
We’ve entered summer, which is a new season for the show, so Midge has some fabulous summer dresses and a good swimsuit. I go back and forth on my favorite. It’s probably her summer dress which she arrives in the Catskills in, which you see a little bit of in the trailer. It’s this beautiful yellow floral dress, and it has a yellow hat and matching yellow shoes and a cute little yellow bag. And I just love it. It’s a happy dress.
Do you have to wear period undergarment like girdles or corsets?
So I’m in a corset. It’s not a period corset, thank goodness. It’s not one of those stick your foot in someone’s back and pull as tight as you can corsets. Its purpose is only to change the placement of my waist. Because per our brilliant Donna, in the 1950s it was very fashionable to have a very long waist, the longer the better. And so a lot of the costumes and designs are done that way. My waist is more of a 1940s shape, it’s kind of right in the middle of my body, and so the corset just punches my waist down a little bit lower. But it is tight. And I’m in stockings and petticoats and heels and things.
I’m grateful that we’ve done away with a lot of that. Although the Kardashians are bringing corsets back. I’m very confused about that.
Yeah, I’ve met some people who do waist training.
No, no! As someone who accidentally waist trained, don’t!
Are there any contemporary female comics that you admire?
Yeah. I love Sarah Silverman. Ali Wong is one of my favorites. I watched Baby Cobra a bunch of times to get ready for shooting the pilot. I’ve seen this comic Laurie Kilmartin a couple times in and around New York and she cracks me up. So many good ones out there right now.
Did you ever do any non-Midge-related stand-up to get the hang of it?
No, absolutely not. I would be so traumatized; I don’t think I’d ever be able to get up on a stage. Because a huge part of being a stand-up is writing your own material. And I’m not a writer, I’m an actor. I’m so fortunate to have such brilliant writers creating Midge’s stand-up for me.
No, I’ve definitely never tried my hand at stand-up, but I’ve gone to see a lot of it. I enjoy watching from a distance. From a safe distance.
What do you want see for Midge in season three?
I want to see her be wildly successful. I want to see her make a firm commitment to pursuing this path. We’ve watched try her hand at something new and rise to the top of it very quickly. And in season two I think she’s going to be confronted with the sometimes gritty reality of what that chosen career path looks like. It’s not easy to break barriers in a completely male-dominated industry; the kinds of unique obstacles that she will face as a result are not all sunshine and rainbows.
So in season three, I would like to see her be willing to fall without a safety net. She’s always had this support system, she’s got her family and her friends some kind of back-up finances. The stakes are not quite as high for her as they are for Susie. I’d like to see her willing to take the leap and let them be higher for her too.