Season 4 of the Emmy-winning comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is finally here and available to stream on Amazon Prime. The show continues to follow Midge Maisel, New York housewife turned comedic extraordinaire, as she worked the male-dominated comedy circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s no denying how much fans love the series, but few actually know if it’s based on a true story or if Mrs. Maisel was even a real person.
The answer, in short, is a bit of both. Show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino mixes the worlds of fantasy and reality inside Maisel, using locations such as The Gaslight ⏤ based on the old Gaslight Cafe ⏤ and real comics from the era including Lenny Bruce. The characters of Midge and her family are fictional, however. Talk to women’s health, Sherman-Palladino said of Midge, “She’s her own daughter.” Portrayed by Rachel Brosnahan, who won an Emmy for the role, she partly drew inspiration from a few different sources.
Over the course of the show’s four seasons, it’s been said that there are many similarities between Midge Maisel and the late great Joan Rivers. Also an actress in the 1950s, Rivers came from a New York Jewish family and performed at the same Gaslight Cafe where we saw Midge begin her acting career. Rivers also claimed to have had help from Lenny Bruce early in his career, which we also see in Maisel. While all of this creates compelling connections between Rivers and Ms. Maisel, not to mention similarities to other comedians of the era like Phyllis Diller and Jean Carroll, Sherman-Palladino told Women’s Health that, “[As for] all these women ⏤ obviously you think of them. You take your hat off to them because they were the pioneers, the pioneers, we love all of them, but it’s not really based on any of those characters.
In fact, Ms. Maisel was heavily inspired by Sherman-Palladino’s own father, Don Sherman. Sherman was a writer and comedian at the time, and his insider knowledge helped shape the show and the character of Midge. Dan Palladino, executive producer and husband of Sherman-Palladino, told Women’s Health that her stepfather “sat and talk about the good old days in New York,” going on to say, “It was really stand-up from the central comedy in the 1940s and 50s and into the 1960s.” Palladino credits Sherman with helping them understand the world they would eventually create. “Through his experience, we’ve come to know the ups and downs of a working comic. And we certainly got to know [it] up close – like, Amy grew up with it – but I was able to see it from a more objective place.
Now that we know Mrs. Maisel herself wasn’t real, what about the other characters on the show?
Susie Myerson, played by the fantastic Alex Borstein (who won two Emmys for the role), is based on a real character. Talking about the character with ParadeSherman-Palladino said: “We always saw Susie Myerson as a waiting powerhouse, so we had [Hollywood agent] Sue Menges in the lead, because she was the most formidable agent at one time. But we wrote this character with Alex Borstein in mind, so she’s the biggest inspiration for Susie.
Sue Menges was a talent agent for a new generation of stars in the 60s after starting as a receptionist in 1955. She worked as a talent agent at a time when women weren’t generally in that position and ended up representing talents like Cher and Michael Caine.
Lenny Bruce was most definitely a real person. Played on the show by Luke Kirby, Bruce was a stand-up comedian at the same time the show was unfolding. He often tackled topics that other comedians avoided, such as politics, religion, and sex, and just as happens on the show, the real Bruce was arrested for his use of sexually explicit language. Obviously the real Bruce never worked with our Midge, as we determined she was a work of fiction, but Joan Rivers said Bruce framed her the same way we see him take on Midge under his wing. In reality, Bruce died of an overdose in 1966, and we don’t yet know if the series will address his unfortunate passing. All we know is that his friendship with Midge and her mentorship made him a fan-favorite character, and Kirby more than earned his Emmy win for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
Shy Baldwin, played by Leroy McClain, is the charismatic and sweet crooner who gives Midge a chance to introduce him on his US tour. The character was an amalgamation of various artists working similarly at the time. The most likely contenders for his inspiration are Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte. Mathis very recently came out as gay, as seen in Shy in the third season of Midge, and Belafonte was known to have comedians opening up his shows to him. Season three revolves around Mrs. Maisel and Susie following Shy on tour, though it ends on a bit of a sour note and leaves us wondering what season four has in store for us.
Sophie Lennon considers herself Midge’s rival on the show. She’s an established comedian who uses farce and crude humor to seduce her audience and reinforce her “role” as a working-class woman. As Midge realizes, it’s all just an act. This draws parallels to real-life Phyllis Diller, who wore baggy clothes to make herself less attractive on stage. This is reflected in the spectacle of Lennon, played by Jane Lynch, wearing a big suit during his performances.
Blending the reality of the comedy circuit of this period with the fictional life of Midge Maisel, Sherman-Palladino has crafted a rich story that feels both authentic and authentically funny. It’s no wonder that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is back for a fourth season, and you can stream it now on Amazon Prime.