How Midge Maisel sets a fictional precedence for the female comics of today and yesteryear

How Midge Maisel sets a fictional precedence for the female comics of today and yesteryear

Amazon’s ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ swept the Emmy’s this year, and it is finally back for a second season. The protagonist Midge Maisel not only resonated with women around the world, but, of course, other female comedians themselves. Just like the series portrays, being a woman in comedy wasn’t easy in the 1950’s, and quite frankly, it still isn’t today.

For an industry mostly saturated by men, women have certainly made their mark, which is what ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is all about. Female comedians have always had to deal with certain aspects of the industry that men don’t, which in the era of the #MeToo movement, seems more relevant now than ever before.

MEAWW spoke to female comics that have not only followed in Midge Maisel’s fictional footsteps, but are also women that can relate to and validate the narrative the show provides. It’s not so crazy to believe female comics have been treated differently than their male counterparts for years. However, what is crazy is to think perhaps the treatment of women in comedy hasn’t changed much over the years, if at all.

That said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that fire inside of Midge Maisel is something that is still present in some of the biggest names in comedy today. Just like Midge, there are many women that took adversity in comedy and turned it into art, taking advantage of every opportunity thrown their way.

A great real-life example of a female comic that didn’t let any prejudices or preconceived notions get in her way, is Sandra Bernhard. Most known for playing the role of “Nancy” on ‘Roseanne’, Bernhard has a name and face that will likely be familiar, having a career spanning close to forty years. Bernhard moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in singing and acting, however after taking a stab at stand up in 1974, she was hooked.

After Bernhard’s first couple of years doing stand-up, the Comedy Store in Hollywood opened up The Belly Room, a stage where only women would perform. While the intentions were likely good, a performance room just for women called The Belly Room, really? Because what else could define a woman better than pregnancy, right?

That said, Bernhard took the opportunity and ran with it, hosting shows in The Belly Room weekly. However, Bernhard didn’t fit into the female comic mold people were expecting, and instead she used her comedy to speak on what she thought was funny and the topics that she felt were important to talk about.

Just like Midge Maisel, Bernhard put aside her fears of what others thought and was simply herself, which is what got her to where she is today. “There was nobody that was really doing what I was doing at that time, which was post-feminist, unapologetic, anti-self-deprecating material. These are things that nobody had really seen from a woman before and I was the only one to be doing that kind of comedy at that time. I honestly just kept on barreling through and didn’t really listen to what people were saying.”

In fact, one of Bernhard’s closest friends that co-hosted her show in The Belly Room at The Comedy Store was Lotus Weinstock, Lenny Bruce’s fiancé before he died. Fans of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ are sure to pick up on the connection, as Lenny Bruce is the only character on the show that represents a specific, real life figure in comedy.

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While discussing the importance of female friendships in the comedy world, Bernhard mentioned Weinstock, who was a woman that was instrumental in her success. “My best friend was a woman named Lotus Weinstock, she was actually Lenny Bruce’s fiancé before he died and she was one of the people who really took me under their wing. Between her and Paul Mooney, they nourished me, took care of me and believed in me.”

Just like on ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’, female comics have always been few and far between. Comedian, writer and actress Lisa Sundstedt noticed the lack of women in the comedy world right away and wanted to do something about it. The former ‘Chelsea Lately’ writer decided to start an all female showcase which then turned into the best female comedy class in town called “Pretty Funny Women”

Like Midge Maisel, Sundstedt enjoyed looking her best, but was often disregarded for her attractive appearance. “While I was at the Hollywood Improv one night a man said to me, ‘what do you do?’ And I said, ‘I’m a stand up comic.’ He then said, 'You're too pretty to be funny.’ And I thought that was such a funny thing to say…I didn’t know if it was a compliment or not. But I took the title and I created ‘Pretty Funny Women’.”

Sundstedt has fostered the careers of hundreds of female comics over the past twenty years, and sadly, she hasn’t seen the industry change all that much in regards to women. Whether it's the sexual harassment at open mics or the lack of women in lineups, women that do stand-up comedy have it many times harder than any man.

“I don’t think that much has changed in regards to women doing stand-up. Back in the day, there would be maybe one or two women on a lineup at any given club and it’s still the same. My world has changed because I produce all female comedy shows. I perform all the time, but if it wasn’t for my own shows, I would probably never get any stage time.”

However, comedian, actress and producer Camille Solari doesn’t necessarily have a problem getting stage time, but her issues in the industry sometimes arise with audience members that are not interested in seeing a woman perform. And, just like Sundstedt explained, Solari often feels judged for her femininity.

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“I think if you're funny, you're funny and gender doesn’t matter. However there are some more ignorant (for lack of a better word) audiences that don’t like to see an attractive woman be funny. There are times where I did the same act in New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong and it killed. But then I would find an audience that wasn’t supportive of seeing a good looking woman up there. I would tank, because they just didn’t want to get on board with a strong woman who happens to be kind of cute too," Solari said.

Like Midge Maisel, Solari is a mother of two, however, she has had a somewhat unique experience in that her first pregnancy actually helped her career. Solari has found a way to not just have a family and a career, but to make a career out of that itself. She even produces and stars in her own television series on Roku called ‘Charlie’, which also stars her daughter.

“I was eight months pregnant and got a late night television spot on the new 'Arsenio Hall Show’ in 2014. I was the first comedienne in history to perform stand up comedy on national television pregnant and showing! Now we have another baby, and it’s very frowned upon in Los Angeles to have kids, people think it’s a career killer. But really it’s wonderful to have a family in this crazy world of comedy. It’s great to kill on a show and then come back and my toddler says to me, ‘Mama, did you crush?’”

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Comedian and voice actress Grey Griffin also knows a thing or two about being a mother while having a busy career in entertainment. Griffin isn’t just a comic but is also one of the most prolific voice actresses in animation history. Like Midge Maisel, Griffin is a single mother, having to balance taking care of her kids while pursuing two very successful careers.

Bookers and audiences have consequently found a striking resemblance between Griffin and Midge Maisel due to her look, style of comedy and of course being one of the few single mothers in the stand-up world. “At The Comedy Store they started calling me Maisel, and I didn’t know what that was, I thought it must be some Yiddish term of endearment. I finally figured it out and I watched the show and loved it,” Griffin said.

While filming her first stand up special (which can be found on Amazon Prime) Griffin struggled with balancing her life as a mother and as a comic. However she did realize the obvious, if she was a man the problems she was having simply wouldn’t exist.

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“I felt like a terrible mother when I was getting ready to do the special. I was doing about two open mics a week, was trying to produce this show and I was taking a writing class. I just felt so bad I was never seeing my children. I mean as a dad, I probably would have been the best dad ever because I was still spending quite a bit of time with my kids, but not as a mom…as a mom I was slacking.”

If audiences can learn anything from Midge Maisel, it’s to be yourself and to not let anyone stop you from pursing your dreams. Bernhard sums it up best with some words of wisdom to any aspiring comics out there, but especially to women.

“Be authentic and be comfortable in your own skin no matter who you are. Find your voice and really cultivate it. Be strong and have a very clear idea of what you want to accomplish. You don’t need to have anyone to lean on, especially if they are being abusive and horrible or taking advantage of you. The minute you see that, cut out immediately and if it takes you a little longer to get where you want to go, it’s still a better journey.”

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‘The Marvelous Mrs. Masiel’ season two is now available on Amazon Prime.

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