By Stephen R. Duncan
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon’s Emmy-winning comedy series, doesn’t pull its punches. Within the first episode, the show’s titular character — an almost cartoonish 1950s middle-class, Upper West Side housewife — explodes into a drunken rant about the travails of family life during a profanity-laden performance that includes baring her breasts to the audience of a Greenwich Village nightclub. Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s impromptu comedic monologue packs quite a proto-feminist wallop, smacking down already-tenuous myths of midcentury domestic bliss. But what the show needs, if it truly wants to portray the New York underground nightclub milieu where Midge finds her comic footing, is a stronger left hook. The real history of the 1950s nightclub underground was far more radical than the hilariously foul-mouthed Midge would care to admit.
Although it’s shot through with minor anachronisms, Mrs. Maisel gets the big picture mostly right. Set in 1958, the show deftly jabs at that decade’s conservatism, with characters and dialogue that invoke the fledgling feminist movement that would rise up by the end of the 1960s. Midge (played stunningly by Rachel Brosnahan) is defined by her dedication to husband and kids. And her wardrobe — from its restrictive girdles and bras to its stiff dresses, shawls, elbow-length gloves, and pillbox hats — is almost a character in itself. For both Midge and her office-bound spouse, Joel (Michael Zegen), throwing on a comfy black sweater and heading down to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café is both a physical and psychic relief. The dingy basement coffeehouse’s open mic night is Joel’s escape hatch, where he can let loose his ambition to be a standup comedian and transcend his desk-jockey day job. The problem is, he lacks talent and can only get laughs by ripping off routines from Bob Newhart records. Getting him booked requires Midge bribing the club owner with homemade brisket.
In a snappy dramatization of the period’s real-life domestic relations, Joel blames his comedic bombs on Midge’s lack of support and declares he’s leaving her for his secretary. Midge proceeds to down a bottle of wine and return to the Gaslight, dressed in nothing but a nightgown and an overcoat, where she storms the stage and uproariously rips her cliché-ridden husband to shreds. She was the one with talent all along, and the rest of the season tells the clever, conflicted story of Midge’s awakening feminist consciousness and comic skills.
In both its characters and locations, Mrs. Maisel captures the uptown-downtown dynamic that fueled Gotham’s 1950s nightlife. Midge doesn’t hate her comfortable life — she wants to keep her family together, after all — and her parents and in-laws (even Joel) are ultimately supportive, sympathetic figures. The show doesn’t sneer at the mainstream American Dream. Who wouldn’t want to maintain the safe, affluent home life that finally came within reach for more Americans in the fifties than at any other time in the nation’s history? If its buttoned-up norms were sometimes suffocating, a night out in the Village was enough to let off some steam and relieve the pressure. And Mrs. Maiselpicks the right spots: the Gaslight, where Bob Dylan launched his folk music revolution; Café Wha? and the Kettle of Fish, well-known bohemian watering holes; and the Village Vanguard which, still standing, is one of the production’s few on-location shots (it’s mostly filmed on a set in Brooklyn.)
The show’s other breakout star, Alex Borstein, who plays Susie Myerson, the Gaslight’s crabby booker who becomes Midge’s manager, embodies the Greenwich Village nightclub scene’s sensibility: cynical and sly-witted, gender-bending and grungy, and also ambitious. Much like the relationship between Upper West Siders and Villagers, Midge and Susie need each other: Midge has the looks, the charisma, the money and social connections; Susie has street smarts, grit, and working-class authenticity.
Unfortunately, this duality is where “Mrs. Maisel” stops short. The reality of New York’s nightclub underground was not so singly subjective, a star vehicle for individualistic middle-class feminism. It was an ensemble production — with a much more diverse, and radical, cast.
The Village Vanguard, opened in 1934 by Max Gordon — a left-wing writer with slender but unmistakable ties to the Communist Party — is a prime example. A popular hangout for socialists and bohemians, the Vanguard was the first club to openly flout New York’s unwritten law against racially-mixed audiences — as did the nearby Café Society, which was closed amid the anticommunist Red Scare in the late 1940s because of actual connections to the Party. Gordon’s socialism was ideological, not institutional. (The club’s name itself was a sly nod to the Marxist notion of a revolutionary “workers’ vanguard.”) But he featured socially-conscious performers, from jazzmen Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk to comedian Lenny Bruce — who is periodically portrayed in Mrs. Maisel. The Vanguard launched the careers of satirical comic Judy Holliday, who saw her own Hollywood career derailed by Red Scare accusations of socialist sympathies in the early 1950s, and of the outspoken civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte.
Other Greenwich Village clubs carried this torch of politically-active performances from 1958 through the mid-1960s. The Village Gate featured Maya Angelou, then still a dancer and singer, in its “Cabaret for Freedom,” which raised funds for the civil rights movement and led to Angelou’s own life of activism. And Greenwich Village was where Bob Dylan was transformed from a sheepish folkie imitating Woody Guthrie into the musical voice of the 1960s New Left. Dylan’s political education took place within the Gaslight folk scene, as fellow musician Dave Van Ronk and partner Suze Rotolo tutored him on Marx and the military-industrial complex.
By the early 1960s, denizens of New York’s nightclub underground translated their ideas into action. Poet and musician Ed Sanders, comedian Dick Gregory, and musician Nina Simone joined civil rights marches and performed for protesters in the South. Max Gordon’s spouse Lorraine was a leader in Women Strike for Peace, one of the first groups to organize in opposition to the Vietnam War. Allen Ginsberg and fellow gay poets and writers helped break down the walls of silence that enclosed queer America. Democratic socialist and White Horse Tavern regular Michael Harrington published a study, The Other America (1962), that is largely credited with spurring Lyndon Jonson’s War on Poverty. Village Gate regular Lorraine Hansberry fought on three fronts, as a gay black woman, publishing in the lesbian-rights magazine The Ladder before producing her signature work, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Mrs. Maisel offers only the most oblique hints of these deeper political currents: a winking reference to Midge’s invitation to a “communist party” in a Village apartment here, a mention of Jim Crow or a quiet comment about a jazz musician being arrested for “spitting while black” there.
The most notable missed opportunity to reflect the Village’s underground politics lies with the standup comedy at the heart of the show. It rings true that Midge’s stream of consciousness routines would take aim at domestic containment. But the appearances of Lenny Bruce (played uncannily by Luke Kirby) offer only anodyne, sanitized versions of his famously biting nightclub material. While it’s understandable to introduce Bruce to audiences with mild routines such as “Jewish and Goyish” or “Airplane Glue,” Mrs. Maisel could easily pivot to include slices of his more withering satires on racism, homophobia, the greed and hypocrisy of organized religion, and the violence of American militarism.
In once scene, Midge listens to a comedy album by Mort Sahl, the first of the “New Comedians” that came to include Bruce, Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, and Dick Gregory. Sahl’s left-leaning Cold War comedy might take some level of translation for modern audiences unfamiliar with his references (“They’re now making a Joe McCarthy jacket, just like an Eisenhower jacket but with an extra flap that fits over the mouth.” Meanwhile Eisenhower had better watch his step, Sahl warned, or “General Motors may become vindictive and cut the Government off without a cent.”) But as the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, said in an early interview, one of her goals was to spark curiosity among multimedia viewers, with audiences Googling as they watch. In this sense, politically-tinged comedy serves the same function it has since Sahl’s time: to help ease down the sometimes bitter pill of new or uncomfortable ideas. Instead, Midge is shown chuckling to herself in response to the blandest of Sahl’s humor: a joke about fishing.
Granted, the main purpose of a television comedy is to amuse, not instruct. Mrs. Maisel, in the best tradition of socially-conscious Hollywood and television, manages to do both without being preachy. Critics have justifiably praised it as entertainingly resonant in the #MeToo age. As the revelations of Louis C. K.’s sexual harassment last year showed, standup comedy’s boys club can serve to dramatize the challenges so many women face in forging breakthrough careers. And as Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony against Bret Kavanaugh highlighted, it is often only women of privilege who are deemed “credible” enough to shine a light on the past sins of powerful white men.
With the arrival of a new generation of intersectional women leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, however, the limits of Mrs. Maisel’s lessons are more clear. One can imagine Sherman-Palladino taking a cue from Orange is the New Black, which in its own way better channels the spirit of Village activism by using the story of lost white privilege as a launching pad to explore the lives of women of color. The potential importance of portraying the successes (and shortcomings) of 1950s and’60s underground cultural politics is to help us understand the obstacles and opportunities for solidarity among those whom the system denigrates and discards all too easily. While Midge Maisel’s middle-class feminism certainly deserves cheers for helping put patriarchy on the ropes, we can only hope that, as the series develops, it works even harder to deliver a knockout. Delving deeper into the real history of Greenwich Village nightlife’s left-wing activism would add some power to Mrs. Maisel’s punch.
Stephen R. Duncan is an Assistant Professor at Bronx Community College, and the author of The Rebel Cafe: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground.
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