How Joan Rivers Inspired The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Miriam "Midge" Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) first stand-up appearance isn’t at a comedy club. It’s standing on a chair at her own wedding. In that electrifying monologue, so provocative the rabbi leaves the hall in disgust, Midge hovers around the same topics she’ll explore once she actually makes it to the Gaslight: expectations of womanhood, her parents and, her husband, Joel (Michael Zegan). There, she’s happy. But by the time she gets to the Comedy Cellar, she’s separated from her husband and inflamed about those same topics.
No one’s quite like Midge of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the second season of which premieres on Amazon Prime on December 5. Still, Midge's biography and comic sensibility are loosely based on the iconic Joan Rivers, who rose to fame in the 1960s.
In terms of straight biography, Midge and Rivers share some overlap — but not much. Both are native New Yorkers born to Jewish parents. Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky to Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York; later, the Molinskys moved to Larchmont, a suburb of the city. Rivers and Midge's parents were skeptical of their career paths (well, Midge's would be, if they even knew). As Rivers said in an interview with The Guardian, her parents would have been fine with career goals as a physicist or the president. "When I said: 'Show business' they went out of their minds. They thought I'd end up in the circus performing in bad tights," Rivers recalled in 2009. Given their parents’ emphasis on education, both women received degrees from prestigious schools: Rivers was Phi Beta Kappa at Barnard, Midge studied Russian lit at Bryn Mawr.
Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images.
More significantly, Rivers and Midge share similar comedic sensibilities. Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, embedded Rivers' humor into Midge's jokes. "She had that wonderful mix, that battle of wanting to be accepted on a feminine level — [but] you can’t have that many balls and be accepted on a feminine level... Going forward, that’s how we’re looking at Midge’s humor," Sherman-Palladino told Vanity Fair,
It's in their paths to fame that Midge and Rivers most deviate. In 1958, Midge finds out her husband, Joel, is having an affair. The week prior, she'd seen Joel bomb during a stand-up set at the Gaslight Cafe. Stunned and outraged, Midge heads to that same stage — and kills it. From there, Midge befriends Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby), strong arms her way into getting a manager, and becomes a rising star.
In 1958, Rivers was still struggling to make it. At least in that year, Rivers narrowed her career goals from acting (she had appeared in some Off Broadway shows) to comedy. At the time, Rivers was 25 years old, already married and divorced. She was living at home in Larchmont, commuting to gigs in the West Village and strip clubs in an old Buick.
Rivers’ comedy career gained some traction in 1960s. However boundary-pushing her work was, though, she was struggling: She was fired from clubs after gigs; audiences weren't enamored. Her parents thought she was a failure. Their opinions were corroborated by some insiders. After seeing her perform at the West Village club the Duplex, talent agent Irvin Arthur said bluntly, “What can I tell you? You’re too old. Everybody’s seen you. If you were going to make it, you would have done it by now.”
Still, she forged ahead. Like Midge, Rivers had a career-changing encounter with Lenny Bruce. In 1962, Rivers saw Bruce perform; his fearless, bold set forced her to reflect on her own style. “I was seeing myself through his eyes, confronting my own hypocrisy, the way I had lived the Molinsky lie of phony riches, and while hating it, used it myself as a facade and a refuge,” Rivers wrote in her memoir. “The revelation that personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy, went off inside me like an enormous flash. It is still central to my performance.” Later, Bruce saw Rivers perform at the Bitter End. He saw stardom where no one else did. “You’re right and they’re wrong,” Bruce wrote to her in a note, which she carried with her.
In 1965, Bruce’s premonition came true. After 10 years of anonymity, Rivers got her big break: A stint on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Rivers shone. Her career was launched — and Carson knew it. After the six-minute set, Carson waved her over to talk. On air, Carson told her, “God, you’re funny. You’re going to be a star.” Rivers recalled, “Ten minutes on television, and it was all over.”
In those early years, Rivers shocked audiences with sexual innuendos and comments about her changing body. “I was breaking new comedy ground with talk about women’s intimate experiences and feelings, with jokes like, ‘I have no boobs. I went to nurse my daughter. She sucked on my shoulder. I moved her to the breast and she lost four pounds,’” Rivers said, as Leslie Bennetts reported in her Rivers biography Last Girl Before Freeway.
Midge and Rivers’ frankness about women’s bodies is refreshing, but there’s a flip side. The women comics share an obsession with weight, and seem to equate thinness with virtue. In her sets, Rivers frequently commented about celebrities’ weight — she called Elizabeth Taylor a “school bus.” While hosting the Tonight Show, Rivers told Oprah to lose weight. A few years before she died, she questioned how Lena Dunham could dare wear dresses that fell above the knee. While Midge is more reticent about the subject on stage, she does take her body measurements daily.
Above all, the women are similar in their ambition, and that’s what Brosnahan channeled while playing Mrs. Maisel. “[Midge and Rivers are] very different, but something about their drive is similar, I think. Also, my grandmother and Midge shared a lot of traits. My grandmother is a fabulous, fabulous woman... I’ve been researching a lot about actors and actresses during this time. She’s a young Jewish woman, so I’ve been brushing up on my Jewish history all the way leading up to the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Brosnahan told InStyle.
Rivers died in 2014 at the age of 81. She never got to see her fictional representation — but her daughter, Melissa Rivers, has an idea of what her mother would think of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “I think she would be super annoyed that we’re making any money off it. You knew my mom well enough,” Melissa told Andy Cohen on Radio Andy. “ She’d do anything for a buck.”

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