The joy of working on ‘Mrs. Maisel’? For Alex Borstein, it lets her be funny without the pressure
Alex Borstein says her biggest bomb on stage was a Selena joke that elicited gasps from the audience.
If there’s one thing funny woman Alex Borstein loves about her new gig on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it’s that she isn’t responsible for the stand-up comedy portion of the series.
From “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the Amazon original series revolves around Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a 1950s housewife who finds refuge on the stage as a stand-up comic after her marriage falls apart. Borstein plays Susie Myerson, an acerbic manager/mentor to Midge as she develops her stage persona, a role for which Borstein earned an Emmy nomination.
The actress, whose wide-ranging comedy chops have been on display in “Mad TV” and “Getting On,” recently dropped by The Times for a video interview to discuss the breakout series. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
On a show that explores the stand-up world, the jokes have to be good. For you as a comedian, was that a concern for you?
Amy Sherman-Palladino is very funny. She’s got just natural timing and comedic instinct. And she writes in a comedic rhythm. And she was very wise that she chose to make Midge a stream-of-consciousness monologist as opposed to a setup, punch, setup, punch. So you can rely on this funny character and this funny personality, and her raw, vulnerable and honest observations tend to be funny. Because anything that’s painful with a little time is funny.
A crucial component to this show is the relationship between Susie and Midge —
Right. What was it like developing that dynamic and what do you remember from the actual initial audition with Rachel?
When I went to audition, we were put in the room and read together having never met. And it just worked. She’s a very delicate, feminine creature. And I’m kind of like a bulldog. And it just worked. It was an immediate amount of trust. And they’re both vulnerable. And they’re both hard in different ways. So it’s really interesting. But it’s so important to me. Female friendships are the most important thing in my life. I’ve got wonderful male friends too. But I came downtown early to meet with my best friend who I met when I was 12 years old and we went to the jewelry district and bought matching rings. We just bought friendship rings to mark our, what 700 years. It’s the truest, most genuine, relationship that’s possible. And so I’m happy the show celebrates [that because] you don’t get to see it a lot.
What spoke to you about Susie?
The money. They offered me a great deal. No. I liked that it was a woman who was not a mother, who was not a spouse, who was not whining about trying to find somebody, who was not just being a sidekick to a hot chick who’s trying to find somebody. It passed the Borstein test, which is similar to the Bechdel test. I have kids. I don’t want to do that on television. I don’t want to play a mom and have that life exposed there. I want this — just an interesting, well-rounded woman who’s on her own figuring herself out.
What do you think drew her to comedy?
I think she’s always been a smartass. I think she’s had a painful life and the comic relief brought some relief to her. And from misery, comedy is born. So I think it’s just in her, it’s a part of her. But I think she would never do it herself. She’s more like an art collector, you know. And she finally found this painting and she can’t believe it. She wants to share it with the world. She’d also like to make some money. She could use a second bra. It would be nice. I think Susie has one bra, so, and it’s pointy.
What drew you to comedy?
Similar things. I was kind of the comic relief in my household. We had a chronic illness in the family. And so a lot of emergency room visits and my role was to be silly and add levity and we’re Jewish. So every Passover is a performance. You kind of learn to role play and do voices at the Passover Seder. Being the youngest, the only girl, I don’t know. My mother was very, very Rachel-like in a way, very much like [the mother character] Rose, on the show in that she’s beautiful, has always just been naturally thin and had a real easy go of the exterior. So early on I was like, “All right, that spot’s filled. What can I do? What can I add to this mix and what’s my personality?”
What is it like for you when you’ve been on stage?
Stand-up’s hard. It’s one of the hardest things in the world and it’s really lonely. I never became a road comic; it just would have been too sad for me. It’s hard for me to repeat the same material over. I get sick of it and I want to change it and you really should be working on the same thing. I really did it because it was the quickest way to perform. I just was like, “I want to be on stage. And OK, I’ll try this.” But I’m not really like Seinfeld and people [like] Steve Martin who worked for years on the craft. That’s not my art.
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