Perhaps one of the greatest scenes I’ve seen on TV recently (and I watch a lot of TV!) was in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s “Vote for Kennedy, Vote for Kennedy” episode when protagonist, comedienne, and title character Midge Maisel does a 5-minute comedy bit to closeout a nationally televised “Stop Arthritis & Rheumatism” telethon.
The scene is reminiscent of that BCE/CE or “big break” moment—the kind you’d google years down the road when she’s famous and you were curious how it all began; when and how this star was born. Maybe it’s the genius of show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (of Gilmore Girls fame) and her writers; maybe the show was working towards this inevitable climax all along. Nonetheless, the scene was so beautifully done that it had me feeling as if I was her agent, and was finally getting to see my protegeé blossom.
Before her set started I was anxious for her. Like many female comedians of that (late 1950s) era, she faced sexism, gender-discrimination, stereotyping (“Hi, are you the singer?”) and worse, as this was a time was males ruled supreme not just in comedy, but in many aspects of life. “Women just aren’t funny.” “Their place is at home with the children.” “Not another “chick” comic.” Worse yet, Midge’s arch-nemesis and chief antagonizer is veteran comic Sophie Lennon, who’s upset with Midge for besmirching her good name (and is also probably a bit jealous of this up-and-comer). Downgraded to the final slot at 11:55PM, courtesy of Lennon, you feel for Midge and prepare for the blow of a lethargic, unresponsive crowd. The confetti sweeper starts in and cuts in front of her unknowingly. There’s a split second when she’s warming up where you’re not sure which way it could go.
Then she kills it.
“Really this whole comedian thing was just a ruse to get on this telethon.” Making a gun with her fingers and pointing it at the chuckling host off-camera, she says wryly, “I’ll take that 78,000 in small bills. Arthritis be damned! That’s right, this is an extremely unlikely stickup…” The audience and staff are starting to laugh harder. “The only witnesses being some drunk cameramen, three sailors on leave, and 14 people half-asleep in front of their TVs…” She’s effortlessly sarcastic, animated, confident, and charming; the real-life viewer breathes a sigh of relief as the TV cast—those who knew about her and those who are seeing her for the first time as “Mrs. Maisel”—erupts with laughter. “She’s good,” one technician says.” “She’s a natural!” laughs another. “She’s all that,” says her gruff manager Susie, smirking as if to tell both audiences that Mrs. Maisel is here to stay.
You’re then catapulted into an everyone’s-watching-at-the-same-time montage, where everyone in her crazy orbit—from conservative family and friends to colleagues, diner goers, and club regulars—are watching Mrs. Maisel shine. “I was very instrumental in making this happen,” one slimy agent boasts. “Oh my god she’s Mrs. Maisel! Mrs. Maisel is “Mrs. Maisel!” her B. Altman co-workers gush. They’re all joyfully watching, whether they knew her when or didn’t know her at all. I think the single greatest part of this episode is when her disgruntled and disapproving father, watching in the silence of their home, produces a half smile so rare and real it stole the scene. He stares through the window and sees his neighbors watching Midge and laughing. “So this is really happening,” her mother says quietly and humbly. Maybe in this moment her father finally realizes her potential to bring others joy. Maybe it was just a way to tell us he’ll one day accept and embrace her career. In any case, it’s hopeful.
Upon further reflection, the scene reminded me of a “coming out” story — albeit very public and very positive (not all are) — where most of the show’s characters got to meet Midge’s alter-ego “Mrs. Maisel” and in a sense see a singular, talented woman for who she really is. It’s like she was revealing a new dimension to everyone, one that she’d previously hidden from key people in her life, and now there she was — like a centerpiece on a grand pride parade float. She was showing the world another layer, a deeper layer, embracing it as they embraced her, some for the first time, and it felt great in both the TV and real world.
I think we can all relate to and empathize with her perseverance in the face of constant rejection, and thus we rejoice even more when she succeeds. Her journey of self-actualization endears her to everyone, because it is our timeless, collective story. It’s even more relevant in the post-MeToo world, as we see stories of the underground and underdog women of bygone eras as even more raw, evocative, and illuminating. Seeing Mrs. Maisel thrive makes us all feel tingly, like we’re finally out of the closet for good, finally at peace with who we are, and are happy about it.