The first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel contains the greatest television scene I’ve ever witnessed. Until reaching that magic moment, viewers receive introductory material about Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a well-to-do resident of the Upper West Side in New York during the late 1950s. Her husband’s a professional, her father’s a mathematician at Columbia University, and, best of all, the Rabbi’s coming to dinner on Yom Kippur. “We’ve got the Rabbi,” exclaim Midge and her mother as they leave the butcher shop, perfect brisket in hand. We’ve also got period costuming, New York settings reminiscent of those in Mad Men, and creator/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sublimely laser-quick dialogue, much like that which made Gilmore Girls an eternal hit.
The perfect life, right? Not quite. Midge’s husband, Joel, fancies himself a standup comedian, but he’s not, really. Midge supports his desires, but soon discovers he’s stealing material from Bob Newhart. Even worse, Joel’s been cheating with his secretary. So much for that Rabbi-and-brisket infused bliss. On Yom Kippur no less, Joel announces he’s leaving Midge for his secretary . . . and here comes that scene.
Joel packs and leaves, inspiring Midge to inebriate herself on kosher wine. Her parents blame her for her marital demise, her orderly world is crumbling, and so why not storm out of the house without bothering to change out of her negligee and robe, sheets to the wind, and take a cab straight to the Village club where her husband regularly befouls Bob Newhart’s best work? She storms on to the stage, snatches the microphone, and breaks into an impromptu but inspired spritz about the massive shit the Universe has taken on her life. It’s foul, it’s funny, even if her pain’s blindingly evident, and she ends by exposing her breasts to the audience to show what Joe’s giving up. Enter New York’s finest who arrest Midge for public indecency. Out of the club she goes, right into a waiting police car . . . where she encounters Lenny Bruce.
Almighty Zeus. I couldn’t breathe at this point.
Midge gets drunk on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, delivers a bawdy standup routine that rocks a dingy, subversive Village club, gets arrested for public indecency, and takes a perp ride to jail with none other than Lenny Bruce, the high priest of sick comedy whose obscenity trials changed comedy and how we think about free speech!
None other than Lenny Bruce could illustrate what’s revealed in that moment, the hypocrisy of not only Midge’s life but that of 1950s America altogether, and thus Sherman-Palladino brilliantly set the tone for her show.
Originally, Sherman-Palladino had intended Lenny Bruce to appear only in the first episode for the purpose I describe above and to inspire Midge toward a standup career of her own. But the chemistry between Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge and Luke Kirby’s Lenny captured viewers’ hearts so mightily she couldn’t not have the pair interact more regularly. Along the way, fans began shipping them, hoping for romantic developments. Christine Laskodi of Tell-Tale TV summarizes the moment when it almost did:
Midge Maisel and Lenny Bruce are a powder keg of intense romantic desire that is clearly on the edge of sheer explosion. Their will-they-won’t-they dance has become one of the most fascinating and heartbreaking parts of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
We can’t look away. We’re waiting with bated breath for them to reunite and smoosh their faces together triumphantly, and finally take it to a bedroom for what we can only imagine would be an intense and passionate moment. When, oh, when will it happen?
Finally, in the fifth episode of the third season, we reach a scene where the couple almost goes into Lenny’s hotel room. Is this it? Is this it? No. Midge demurs. In response, Kirby as Bruce utters a heartbreaking foreshadowing of real-life events that reveals why a romance never should happen between them. He simply says, “Before I’m dead.”
A Midge and Lenny romance may feel written in the stars, but unfortunately, those stars could only bring sad tidings. Lenny Bruce died tragically in 1966, and the years prior were a hellish ride.
The line “Before I’m dead” runs deeper than just the fact that Bruce would die six years from when this scene takes place, however, because in 1960 Bruce’s lifestyle began catching up to him hideously. We remember the obscenity trials, the freedom of speech issues, the iconoclast who inspired Carlin, Pryor, Hicks, Rock, Murphy, truckloads of comedians who challenge us to think while we laugh. But Lenny was grotesquely flawed, a drug addict who by the time he met Midge had been living wildly and irresponsibly for years. What a toll this started taking on him legally, physically, and psychologically. If their shared perp ride constituted a rebirth for Midge — a first step away from her romanticized life in the Upper West Side into a reality her rabbi wouldn’t touch on any day, much less Yom Kippur – then any further contact with Lenny during future seasons, I foresee, will only open her eyes wider.
Luke Kirby portrays a charming, witty Bruce, handsome and dangerously charismatic. He’s better looking than the real Bruce ever was. Biographers offer a different image of Bruce, however. Albert Goldman, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!, dedicates nearly 700 pages to describing Bruce’s nefarious doings. Real-world Lenny’s attitude toward friends and women wasn’t pretty. The following comes from a portion describing February 1960, about the time when Lenny and Midge are dramatized as nearly have sex:
When Lenny Bruce comes into a hotel, the switchboard lights up like a Luftwaffe raid over London. Every junkie, hooker, shadow-comic, shingle-man and jazz musician in the city is trying to get through. All the dope fiends want to lay a taste on Lenny so they can hang out together. You know, “Let’s get Lenny high and dig his crazy head!”
Almost as bad as the junkies are the broads who crash his quarters. Every painted up, garter-belt whore wants to crawl in the sack with him. Give him some free trim, just like the heads. Lenny can’t stand these freebie chicks. He’s got his mind on business these days. Chicks don’t mean a damn to him. He could go a month without getting laid. Or he could jump the broad who comes through the next door. Really doesn’t matter. What counts now is writing material and playing dates and getting on the road. Chicks are the preoccupation of the unemployed.
And about drugs:
Lenny continues to fish out stock from his portable drugstore, handing each item to Terry [Lane]who lines everything up on the table. Finally, the inventory
1 bottle Dilaudid, 200 pills
1 box no. 26 ¾-inch Luer-lock needles
2 no. 30 needles
2 no. 15 transfer needles
2 2-cc. hypodermic syringes
1 3-cc. hypodermic syringes
100 Hypak disposable syringes
1 bottle Tuinal sleeping tablets
1 bottle Biphetamine spansules
1 bottle Phisoderm antiseptic soap
1 bottle Phisohex antiseptic solution
1 box cotton batting
2 white plastic baby bottles with black caps for carrying moonshine Methadrine made my mixing powdered drug (“crystal”) with distilled water
1 cooking spoon
1 box kitchen matches
1 elastic belt
With Scotch tape from a big roll, Lenny starts to stash the goodies in his favorite hiding places. Some go on the ledge above and behind the closet door. Other pieces are taped to the tops of drawers inside the dresser. Nothing goes inside the medicine cabinet except the sleeping pills, the baby bottles and the antiseptic solution.
Earlier in 1951, Lenny had imitated a priest to defraud individuals thinking they were donating to a leper colony in New Guinea. And his terrible on-and-off marriage to Honey Harlow, and years later how he attacked Pearl Bailey during her Las Vegas show, blasting her with a fire extinguisher, and then when he ordered Faye Dunaway to pick up his laundry and later refused to take it from her . . . the list continues.
Had Midge decided to sleep with Lenny she would have noticed the track marks, knotted veins, and bruises lining his arms collected from long-term methamphetamine and heroin abuse. He later faced drug charges in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the latter arrest occurring outside a hobby shop owned by Jackie Coogan’s brother. Then in 1966, Bruce was found dead at his Hollywood Hills home, the cause an overdose of morphine. Any relationship outside the mentor-protégée bond that validates Midge’s comedic aspirations? No, thank you.
Kelly Wynne of Newsweek summarizes Rachel Brosnihan and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s opinions about whether Midge and Lenny will fall in love. Sorry, Midge-Lenny shippers. Both say no. Wynne quotes Brosnihan from The Hollywood Reporter:
It’s an intimate friendship, unlike a lot of the ones I’ve seen between men and women on television,” she said of Midge and Lenny. “They like each other because they admire each other; they admire each other’s talent and they admire each other’s drive. And that is allowed to be all that it is, you know?
Palladino-Sherman agrees: “The fact that she was there for him last year when he was feeling low and in the season finale, and she shows up for him… [A] lot of time it translates into, ‘Well, eventually they’re going to have sex.’ But it’s not necessarily the way it’s going to go.”
My prediction? Eventually the truth about Lenny’s lifestyle will come to light, which will once again dunk Midge into freezing reality. They’ll not connect romantically (again, sorry, shippers, but don’t wish that on Midge), but they’ll remain bonded. His experiences may prove educational for the growing comedienne who’s taken slaps already from fictional entertainment professionals Sophie Lennon and Shy Baldwin after blending them unflatteringly into her act. “It’s a long way to the top,” Bon Scott tells us, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel involves not only Midge’s coming of age, but America’s as well, from the romanticized 1950s with its dark underbelly and possibly into the 1960s when society questioned that façade forcefully. Lenny Bruce was instrumental to that process, even with his lurid foibles. He stayed unafraid regardless, and so should Midge.