When you think about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the first image that comes to mind is likely star Rachel Brosnahan, in a sharp vintage gown and elbow-length gloves, holding a microphone on a stage. From the very first episode, the series’ stand-up sequences, showcasing the growing talents of housewife-turned-comic Midge Maisel, have been a way of witnessing the show’s titular hero try to conquer this new world, while also using her time onstage to process what’s going on in her offstage life.
And when it comes to Midge’s act, almost nothing is left to chance.
Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also writes and directs many of the show’s episodes, noted that when she and executive producer Dan Palladino work with Brosnahan on these scenes, the discussions are focused on making sure that “Rachel really understands where she is in that moment, what emotion she’s supposed to be selling. It’s a lot about what she brings to it, in terms of understanding where her character is.”
Since the show’s beginning, Brosnahan has been clear that she’s not a stand-up comedian — she’s an actor performing lines that have been scripted for her. And, she told The Times, that didn’t change for Season 3: “I’m just as intimidated by all of the [stand-up] sets as I was in the first season.”
But, she added, “Midge and I have been forced to grow together, because while the first and second season, most of the major stand-up was born out of something she was experiencing in her real life in real time, this new season takes me on the road. She’s a working comic now. And she’s having to learn to be a technically better comic, to write tighter jokes, to write jokes for different audiences who won’t necessarily understand or relate to what’s going on in her life.”
Brosnahan too has had to become a better comedian, on a technical level, meaning that she’s “having to learn how to land jokes that are written like jokes. Midge’s style of comedy will always be Midge’s style of comedy, but she’s not just speaking from an emotional place. In parts, not always, it’s less about storytelling and more about carefully crafting and landing a joke. And that’s totally foreign to me.”
Sometimes, she said, she feels like she’s gotten better. “And then sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of a nightmare where I’m naked on the stage and no one knows how I got there or what I’m doing.”
Of course, there are times when the story is about Midge bombing, whether because she’s angry at someone in the audience or because she’s playing a new venue that offers different challenges. “The stand-up is basically tailored to whatever’s going on in the show,” Sherman-Palladino said.
Added Palladino, “It’s a challenge for Rachel, because Rachel has to have a comedic cadence with this stuff, but those scenes are specifically not appealing to the crowd.”
Season 3 features Midge on the road as the opening act for well-known crooner Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), which meant that production designer Bill Groom had to create a number of new sets, from Las Vegas to Miami and beyond. His tasks included creating a vintage Sin City casino in a 1960s-era event hall in Queens (beyond the carpet and some other details, everything else, including the period slot machines, had to be created).
“My favorite sets can sometimes be the simplest thing. My favorite sets are the sets that express the characters and tell the story,” he said. And when it comes to “Maisel,” that means finding not the most beautiful curtain as the backdrop for Midge’s performances but “the right one.”
Going through every minute of every take shot against Broom’s backdrops are the “Maisel” editors, and two of them — Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto, who have been with the show since the first season — told The Times that they receive a lot more footage for the stand-up sequences than any other scenes on the show. “It will sometimes take half a day to an entire day, just to really thoroughly watch everything and make very careful notes,” Sanford said.
They do so because, while Brosnahan is “a machine” when it comes to maintaining continuity between takes, the combination of a live audience of extras and the act of performance means there’s no such thing as perfect replication.
According to everyone involved, ad-libbing lines is out of the question — but impromptu moments do sometimes make their way into the show. One such beat occurs in the first episode of Season 3, as Midge performs at a USO show. After making a joke about the power of the color red, she turns around to show off the red bow on the back of her halter dress, which gets a huge reaction from the assembled boys.
Brosnahan had been nervous about that scene, which featured 850 extras crowded into an aviation museum: “Amy texted me a couple of days before we got the script, and she said something like, ‘Just so you know, there are 850 people in this scene, hope you’re cool with that.’ ... If I was really nervous, they could maybe try to reduce it to 250, just for my coverage.”
But everything came together perfectly. The American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale, Long Island, featured a large collection of vintage aircraft, and it allowed Groom and the production team to use the planes onscreen, even letting people stand in them on camera. The assembled extras were fierce in their enthusiasm. Sherman-Palladino said, “We got lucky, because we could have gotten 850 [extras] who didn’t want to be there.”
The red-bow moment, Brosnahan says, was “a weird and very cool unscripted moment that doesn’t happen very often on the show, which is so carefully scripted in a way that we feel very supported by. That’s one of the first times I can recall something like that happening. And that was definitely a result of the feedback from that audience. They were incredible. Those guys whooped and hollered and cheered and gave it everything they had and really interacted with me.”
The episode was edited by Andrew Mondshein, but both Sanford and Streeto said they’d also been able to slip similar, if less pronounced, moments into their work. “Amy and Dan are very specific about what they write, but sometimes something is so brilliant or feels so natural, we can get away with it,” Sanford said.
Which may be because, season by season, Brosnahan grows more comfortable with the job. She remains “totally in awe” of stand-ups, but while she said “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared” when it came to playing Midge, “Conquering that fictional world has made me bolder as an actor.
“I’ve tried so many things on this show that I was so afraid of and never thought would work or felt like too big or outside of my wheelhouse,” she said. “And that’s something I try to hold on to now, for every other role.”