Amy Sherman-Palladino Is About to Debut Her Most Ambitious Show Yet

Anyone familiar with Gilmore Girls, the beloved television series about garrulous best friends who are also devoted mother and daughter, would immediately recognize Amy Sherman-Palladino, the series’ creator, as an Amy Sherman-Palladino character. She is a fierce and funny talker who yaks copiously, referentially, and caustically. To spend time with her is to hear how she wanted to play Rumpelteazer in a road production of Cats; learn that she can’t work in silence and so for a while was writing to Sophie’s Choice; be distracted by accessories that include a rhinestone flying-pig ring the size of an uncracked walnut; and witness her running argument with her Minnie Mouse iWatch, which is always telling her to breathe even though she is breathing and not just breathing but producing, writing, and directing Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the most ambitious TV show she has ever made.

In the first episode, Miriam “Midge” Maisel — a Jewish, Bryn Mawr–educated, 26-year-old wife and mother of two who is supremely content with her life as the queen of the 1958 Upper West Side — is abandoned by her husband, Joel, who name-checks the bohemian life he wants to be living and the secretary he’s sleeping with as he leaves. Midge wanders downtown onto the stage of the Gaslight Café, where she delivers an honest, raucous monologue. “All that shit they say about Jewish girls in the bedroom? Not true. There are French whores standing around the Marais district saying, ‘Did you hear what Midge did to Joel’s balls the other night?’ ” she punches, suddenly blessed and cursed by a calling to be a stand-up comic.

Mrs. Maisel is, among other things, a shimmery reverie about upscale Jewish New York, and in late July, Sherman-Palladino was filming in a delicatessen on the Upper West Side, a few blocks north of Zabar’s. “If I may,” Sherman-Palladino called through the room to the dozens of extras in period winter clothes, “in the 1950s, there was no manspreading. Put your knees together!”

Sherman-Palladino was a dancer into her early 20s, a background that you can see in her work — in the long swooping shots, the avoidance of close-ups, the length of scenes that unfold like a play. She had spent hours attending to the camera’s choreography, having it glide by the pickled tomatoes next to the cashier, slide underneath dangling salamis and over the counter as green-clad waitresses peeled off like kasha varnishkes–carrying dancers to reveal a sign offering borscht for 45 cents and a resplendently maroon Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, looking for her dining companion, a joke-writer played by Wallace Shawn. Now she wanted to ensure that the scene’s dialogue, a back-and-forth involving chopped liver and Eve Arden, zipped like screwball. “This is the part of the game where I start to say, ‘Pace it up!’ ” she called out, her image reflected in a dozen diner mirrors. “Pace it up, kids!”

A standard rule of thumb for a TV show is that a page of dialogue equals a minute of screen time. Mrs. Maisel’s episodes are around 50 minutes, but the scripts regularly edge up to 70 or 80 pages. “If it’s not fast, I’m bored,” she says. “The way I write, if you do it slow, I’m watching Narcos, I’m changing the channel. It’s got to have a pace and an energy and a rhythm to it.” The actress Alex Borstein, who plays Midge’s manager and has been friends with Sherman-Palladino and her collaborator and husband, Daniel Palladino, for years, says, “Sometimes you say [to them], ‘I think this line should be delivered slower,’ and they say, ‘No, no, no.’ If you don’t do it at that pace, the shows would be four hours long.” Sherman-Palladino’s request for speed is so common that, on hearing it, Brosnahan cheerfully said to no one in particular, “All day, every day.”

When Gilmore Girls was filming in the early aughts, its long, carefully synchronized scenes would often extend shooting late into the night. Lauren Graham, who starred in the show as Lorelai Gilmore, recalls that the only other series still on the Warner Bros. lot at such a late hour was also the only other one shooting pages and pages of walk-and-talks, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Sorkin, like Sherman-Palladino, writes long, mannered, thickly worded scenes and has a thing for musical theater. But his walk-and-talks acquired a very different reputation than hers did — his work celebrated for its writerly parsing of politics, her work for the cute gabbing of its chatty Cathies.

Mrs. Maisel has all the trademarks of a Sherman-Palladino show — the bold female lead; the dense, almost musical chatter; the dysfunctional but fundamentally loving family — previously evinced in Gilmore Girls and her short-lived ABC Family series about loquacious dancers, Bunheads, but it is thematically and logistically more “muscular,” to use Sherman-Palladino’s term, than what has come before. “I never thought of Gilmore Girls as a woman’s show. I thought of it as a show. I thought of it like Northern Exposure was a show,” she says, but while she was working on it, every job she was offered “had the word girl in it.” She found herself having to tell people, “I can write for someone who’s got a penis and a set of balls. Even if he’s just got one ball and a penis, I can write for that guy too.”

Sherman-Palladino doesn’t like to think of her shows as making arguments so much as having characters, and while Mrs. Maisel is feminist, she says, it’s not “in the sense of I’m out to make a point — hammer, hammer, hammer — about feminism.” But the points, still, are there to see, and only more so in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations (the ramifications of which have included the resignation of Amazon Studios’ director Roy Price for sexual-harassment allegations). “People still don’t fucking think women are funny,” she says. “There’s a lot of dudes out there doling out cash who don’t believe women are funny.” Midge Maisel is a woman fighting this misconception in the 1950s; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a TV show fighting this misconception right now.

Mrs. Maisel takes on these heady themes with a light touch. Though it was faithfully filmed on location all over New York City, guided by a production team that had previously worked on Vinyl and Boardwalk Empire, it has an optimistic camera that gives even real places and difficult circumstances the bounce of fantasy. “I think drama has gotten out of the habit of comedy and finding the absurdity in life and relationships and tragedy. It feels like you’re very, very serious or you’re very, very not serious, and I just personally have never found that that’s my reality,” she says, sitting at a green Formica table in the delicatessen, the room stinking of herbal cigarettes, nearby tables peppered with milkshakes and half-sandwiches covered in Saran wrap while the cast and crew take lunch. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I walk through a minefield of comedic tragedy, but grit is something we did not want for this.” Mrs. Maisel’s aesthetic lodestar isn’t realism so much as The Pajama Game. When you watch it, you’re supposed to feel good. “When you see a woman up onstage, talking in a certain way,” Sherman-Palladino says, “it can make you feel like, All right, she’s up there, so maybe it’s not going to be The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Michael Zegen and Rachel Brosnahan filming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Photo: Mark Peterson

Sherman-Palladino has three more chandeliers hanging in her office than seems strictly necessary: One could sufficiently light the place. She spends an inordinate amount of time in her office doing what she calls “purging words that I then try and pat into a paragraph” — i.e., writing. She prefers to do it in an environment more inspiring than typical drab desk-job décor. She recalls with particular fondness — “It was fucking great” — a burgundy-and-gold Gilmore Girls office, inspired by the Moulin Rouge, complete with mannequins and a broken piano. Her current work space, a previously nondescript gray corner in Steiner Studios, recommended only by its expansive view of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge, has been redecorated in the spirit of “Paris atelier.” In the corner, an ornately dressed statue benignly stares off in the direction of an oriental rug, itself placed over a leopard-print carpet. The wine-red walls are hung with tasseled drapes, flowered wall sconces, and a large abstract yellow-and-red canvas with fraying edges. On her marble desk sits a Minnie Mouse mug, a Minnie Mouse travel cup, a black boater hat, a box of F*CK TRUMP lip gloss, and various papers. The overall effect is very madcap saloniste.

As she hangs a ukulele back on the wall, I ask her why she likes Minnie Mouse so much. “I just love Disney. I’m a child. I love Hello Kitty. I love anything that’s got a face. It’s like all my lamps have faces on them,” she says, gesturing across her office to a swooping floor lamp that, lo and behold, has a face peering out of its stem. She continues, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Tokyo. First of all, it’s the greatest place in the world, and I would live in Tokyo. Do you want a pretzel? I exist on those pretzel chips because I get tired of takeout after a while.” She offers me some without missing a beat. “But we went to Tokyo, and it was a whole city of pink and sparkly things, and I’m like, ‘Where have you been my entire life?’ Like I knew as a child, I knew this place existed.”

Sherman-Palladino’s characters often sound as if they are preparing to jump off the bench and take over for Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Talking to Sherman-Palladino feels the same, but with no possibility that a plot will get in the way of the patter. Her shows rarely make this mistake either — banter rules. Which reminds Sherman-Palladino: What’s the big deal about plot, anyway? “We always got slammed on Gilmore Girls because it was like nothing ever happened, there’s no plot,” she says. “But there’s a lot of plot! There’s a lot of emotional plot. I’ve never liked things where it’s like, the elephant walks in the door and then the aliens invade and then the house is on fire. Do these people like each other or do they not like each other? Where are we with that? I hate to say it’s a character study, because that sounds small. Game of Thrones is giant, while character-study shows are tiny and adorable. And that’s sort of like … well, are they?”

Any discussion of Sherman-Palladino’s distinctive style has to start with her beloved, long-lived, chicken-soup-for-the-soul of a television show, Gilmore Girls. The series premiered in 2000 as a kind of sophisticated spin on the teen show, a staple of its then-home, the WB (now defunct). Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel starred as the high-energy Lorelai and the bookish Rory Gilmore, an intrinsically simpatico mother-and-daughter duo, a fantasy both for those young enough to wish for a cool mom and for those old enough to wish for a teenager who might think of them as a cool mom, or at least not a mortifying one.

But to really comprehend Gilmore Girls, one has to make sense of the screen time devoted not to the patently appealing Lorelai and Rory but to the quirky residents of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, where the series is set. This is a fictional town that Sherman-Palladino herself has called “psychotic,” an idyllic and happy community that can be described — objectively, I believe — as irksome. The goofy shenanigans of Stars Hollow’s citizenry (the monotone weirdo Kirk, the tyrannical town selectman Taylor, the raspy-voiced Babette) are ancillary to the central family story line but given screen time that suggests they are fundamental to it. They are, in their way, the Rosetta stone of Gilmore Girls, the key to understanding its special stickiness — the feeling that it is deeply homemade.

TV shows reflect the people who make them, but few shows make you feel the creator’s sensibility as palpably as Sherman-Palladino’s. She is a woman of specific tastes: She likes pink, sparkles, and Dorothy Parker, whom her production company is named after, Minnie Mouse (obviously), hats, energy, movement, and using lots of words, except when expressing love, which one should express with deeds, lest things get “schmaltzy.” She writes to delight us by delighting herself, and sometimes, as with the residents of Stars Hollow, the bowler hat in Lorelai’s wedding wardrobe, or the way men unfailingly swoon at her series’ charming but self-centered heroines, she is delighted by things we may not be but that are part of the viewing experience, part of watching something made by someone who has an implacable faith in her own preferences.

Sherman-Palladino’s passionate feelings about schmaltz illustrate the fine particularities of her taste. Gilmore Girls is a show with two main characters who adore each other, romances to ’ship, bright colors, no tragedy, no machismo, no violence, no addictions, and lots of cutesy town-hall meetings. Though it was never a big hit during its initial run, which ended in 2007, it has persisted because streaming audiences have continuously cozied up to its coffee-swilling heroines. (So much so that, last year, Netflix brought back Sherman-Palladino and her husband, who had left the show for its final season, for a four-episode special that seemed to swallow the country’s Thanksgiving.) The series is, in a certain way, schmaltzy. But for all its sweetness, it has a near-Seinfeldian aversion to hugging and a hard-nosed position on individuals’ ability to change. “I have a weird schmaltz meter,” Sherman-Palladino says. “We were very careful on Gilmore Girls, because it was already a mother and daughter who were very connected. I worry a lot if there’s too much hugging, if there’s too much kissing, if there’s too much I-love-yous, because, frankly, in real life, there’s not as much hugging and kissing and I-love-yous as there are on television. I tell this story about Dan all the time, and he hates that I tell the story, but when we were dating, I had a white extension cord and really dark wood floors in my house, and one day he came over with a brown extension cord. To me, that was fucking love. That was more love than, like, looking over at me across a candlelit table and saying, ‘I’m going to marry you someday.’ It’s like, Nope, brown extension cord.

“Amy’s generous and she’s loyal and she’s solid,” says Kelly Bishop, who co-starred in Bunheads and in Gilmore Girls as Lorelai’s imperious mother, Emily, “but I do find her bizarre sometimes. There is a quirkiness to her, a weird slant.” She recalls that in an early season of Gilmore Girls, she arrived on set to see Sherman-Palladino in a frilly top, a tutu, fishnets, and motorcycle boots. A few days later, she was wearing a vintage housedress. “When I picture Dorothy Parker, I picture her in a man’s jacket, I don’t picture her in a hat and veil,” Graham says by way of describing Sherman-Palladino’s idiosyncrasies. “She has a really flamboyant and colorful aspect to her, but she’s also this very urban and urbane wit.”

“With Gilmore Girls, we’re in so much of a fantasyland. The colors are brighter, everything is sort of happy, picturesque, and idealistic,” Graham says. “But it’s deceptive.” There is a much grimmer version of Gilmore Girls embedded right inside Gilmore Girls, the story of a pregnant teen who flees her oppressive family and raises her daughter in the company of strangers, leaving her own mother betrayed and heartbroken. This isn’t some wildly pessimistic reading of Gilmore Girls but a paraphrase of Sherman-Palladino’s own description of the show. “One of the great things about writing family shows is families never work their shit out,” she says. “Things can get better. Things can calm down. But I don’t really believe anybody actually truly works their shit out.”

Left, a young Joan Rivers. Right, Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Photo: I.C. Rapoport/Getty Images/Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios

In late September, Sherman-Palladino was holed up in Steiner Studios editing the eighth and last episode of Mrs. Maisel’s first season. Wearing Minnie Mouse Keds with no socks, dark-blue jeans cuffed at the ankle, an oversize button-down shirt, and a maroon brimmed hat over her dark hair, she stood in front of a TV screen occasionally stretching her back, on which she has had two surgeries, by reaching down to effortlessly touch her toes. On the monitor, a character was sitting on a snowy stoop chomping on a pickle as Christmas carols played on the soundtrack. “Can you find a carol with more chicks in it?” Sherman-Palladino asked the editor. “This feels like the pedophile carolers to me.” The editor played another Christmas song that Sherman-Palladino deemed to be by the “Up With People carolers.” She good-naturedly listened to half a dozen more options before asking for a version of “Jingle Bells” that temporarily satisfied her. “Let’s use it for now, it sounds sort of dumb,” she said. “Nothing like a Jew eating a pickle and you put some Christmas carols over it!”

While the editor was looking for an alternate take, I asked Sherman-Palladino if she would go on vacation after the show was finished but before the second season’s writing had begun in earnest. (Amazon has already ordered season two.) “Dan and I are gonna go check into the Betty Ford Center for two weeks. Just kidding. It’s too hot there!” she said, before outlining their real European vacation plans, the rest of their schedule through the New Year, and the date of Mrs. Maisel’s November 29 premiere, at which point, now two minutes after she had made the first joke, she brought it home: “And then we’ll check into the Betty Ford Center. No, it’ll still be too hot.” She delivered the punch line in a hurry, almost as if she were helpless to stop herself from finishing the joke and so wanted to speed right through it.

Sherman-Palladino was born in 1966 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley listening to the verbal rhythms of her father, a Jewish, Bronx-born comic, and her mother, a Mississippi-born dancer who has a “Tennessee Williams went to New York” elocution. (Sherman-Palladino’s 87-year-old mother still dances, and you can find her spry one-woman show, shot when she was 81, on YouTube. She too is immediately recognizable as an Amy Sherman-Palladino character.) When she was ready to learn jazz dance as a kid, her mother started a children’s-theater workshop, ostensibly to teach it to her, a setting Sherman-Palladino mined for Bunheads.

Despite having created many people’s Platonic ideal of a mother-and-daughter relationship, Sherman-Palladino does not have children herself. Years ago, when I interviewed her about Bunheads, whose main character, Michelle (Sutton Foster), does not have children, she said about childbearing, “I’ve always said the cycle must end with me. There’s a magic to that. I have an android power to end the madness. I will end this madness. And Michelle is that sort of extension of my ending the madness.” In Mrs. Maisel, Midge, stoned onstage at a jazz club, wonders, “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother? What if some of us are supposed to travel a lot … or just talk to adults for our entire life?” But Sherman-Palladino dotes on her cast, multiple members of which have described her as being maternal, including Graham. “I love her very unique maternal instinct,” Brosnahan says. “She was very concerned that I was eating the props, candy that had been there for three weeks. So she chased down our props guy and was always hammering him about making sure that the food was edible and fresh, because she didn’t want me to die.”

It is the world of Sherman-Palladino’s father, Don Sherman, who died in 2012, that inspired Mrs. Maisel. As a kid, Amy would listen to her father and his friends crack jokes and reminisce about Greenwich Village and the Catskills. “I had no frame of reference for it because I was living five minutes from 12 Ralphs” supermarkets, Sherman-Palladino says. “But I had these fantasies of all the intellectual, fabulous people walking around looking cool in coffeehouses.”

It’s a seductive setting, for comedy connoisseurs especially. In the 1950s, stand-up was becoming the form as we know it — a personal expression of the comic’s sensibility and not the rat-a-tat punch lines and prefab mother-in-law jokes of the Borscht Belt style. Comics like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters made stand-up over in an edgier, more political, more personal vein — and persuaded the world, eventually, that what they were doing was telling dangerous truths rather than just making people laugh. This scene coalesced into the first comedy boom, a craze for stand-up propelled by the sales of comedy records. Sherman-Palladino grew up loving this era — she says Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2,000 Year Old Man “formed her whole comedy outlook” — and she reanimates it in Mrs. Maisel. Midge hangs out with Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby), listens to Redd Foxx records, and spies on Red Skelton at the Copacabana, where Don Sherman once performed.

Sherman-Palladino was also present for the second comedy boom, which was fueled by the popularity of stand-up clubs in the ’80s. After high school, when she still aspired to be a dancer, her father helped her get a job at L.A.’s famous the Comedy Store, where she worked for two years, listening to the likes of Sam Kinison, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Arsenio Hall.
She was fascinated by stand-up but never wanted to do it herself. “It’s so terrifying and so lonely I can’t imagine it,” she says. “I can put my shit onscreen and nobody really knows what my shit is or if it’s someone else’s shit or if it’s someone I heard on the subway or if it’s my poor writers who come in and complain about their husbands. But when you’re a comedian, it is your shit and it is your pain and it’s very, very personal and it’s very raw.” She did, however, start taking improv class at the Groundlings, where she met a writing partner. When they got hired for the third season of Roseanne, in 1991, Sherman-Palladino still thought of herself as a dancer. “It wasn’t until my second year on Roseanne, where it hit me in the writers’ room, I never have to put on point shoes again,” Sherman-Palladino says. “I saw firsthand on Roseanne how a very strong female voice could form stories and shape things,” she says of her four-year stint on the show, where she also met her husband. “It was my sitcom college, and it taught me to get to the brutal honesty and to make the small big, make the big small.”

Midge is not modeled specifically on any contemporaneous female comics, like Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, or Joan Rivers. But Rivers, née Joan Molinsky, might be the closest match: She performed at the Gaslight Café in the early 1960s and by the end of the decade was doing her “You’re 30 years old, you’re not married — you’re an old maid. A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s not married — he’s a catch” routine on The Ed Sullivan Show. In Midge’s first monologue, she riffs on an age-old subject for female comedians: their looks. Comediennes have often insulted their appearance to get laughs and seem nonthreatening, as Diller did when she wore a fright wig and as Amy Schumer did more recently when she described her fifth-grade self as “Benicio Del Toro” for not shaving above the knee. Her first time onstage, a drunk Midge asks the audience how her husband could possibly have left her. “Look at me! I am the same size I was at my wedding. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to come home to this every night!” she says, taking off her coat. After a quiet reaction from the crowd, she reconsiders. “Okay, maybe this is not the best day to judge. I’ve been crying and my face is all puffy. Just ignore my head.” She covers her face with a purse and asks, “From here down. Who wouldn’t want to come home to this? Actually, I’m a little bloated right now. I drank a lot of wine.” She grabs a serving tray and puts the purse in front of her face and the tray in front of her stomach. “Ignore this and ignore this.” The crowd is now laughing uproariously. “Imagine not wanting to come home to these every night. Plus they are standing up on their own!” she says, dropping her nightgown and flashing her breasts.

A little nudity doesn’t shock anyone anymore, and yet not so long ago it still would’ve seemed strange in a show like this. Mrs. Maisel belongs to a cadre of shows — think of them as alt prestige television — that are no less thoughtful about their heady subjects (gender, sexism, comedy) than somber, masculine shows grounded in realism but are more serious about being entertaining than they are about appearing serious. Mrs. Maisel, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and the work of Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, and Jenji Kohan express their ambitions by riffing on TV’s less-respected genres, such as musicals, soap operas, women’s pictures, telenovelas, horror, and dance. If these shows seem slight at first, that’s because we are skeptical that anything so escapist could also be substantive, but that’s these shows’ magic: to be challenging and delighting, instead of supposing the two have to be in conflict. Mrs. Maisel isn’t a jaunty New York fairy tale smuggling in a more subversive tale about an indefatigable woman trying to smash her way into a boys’ club: It is simply both of these things at once.

It is also one of the absurd number of shows right now about comedy. We are living through the third comedy boom, and one of its manifestations — besides Netflix comedy specials, podcasts, and comedy in general’s transformation (alongside the previously lowbrow topics of television and food) into cornerstones of sophisticates’ cultural conversations — is the number of television series about comedians. Stand-up comics occupy an exalted position in our culture, not simply as a funnymen but as wise ones. Better Things, One Mississippi, Lady Dynamite, (the newly controversial) Louie, Take My Wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Comeback, Maron, Dice, White Famous, The Comedians, Hello Ladies, Saint George, Crashing, I’m Sorry and I’m Dying Up Here — loosely based on the Comedy Store’s owner, Mitzi Shore, a woman who fired and hired Sherman-Palladino “like 15 times” — are just some of the comedy-themed series, good and bad, that have aired in recent years.

These shows are sometimes funny, but more often they are “funny,” adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach to laughter. This is not the case with Mrs. Maisel, which wants you to laugh despite the fact that, as with Gilmore Girls, there is a more depressing version of Mrs. Maisel within Mrs. Maisel — a show about a 26-year-old who has to move back in with her parents, a woman who is alienated from her children, whose husband has just left, whose parents are cruel. Sherman-Palladino knows that comedy doesn’t come from a joyous place. “I grew up around comics,” she says. “They are not always a chipper, happy bunch. If they were, there would be no comedy, because comedy doesn’t come from a bunch of happy, well-adjusted people.”

But if Sherman-Palladino isn’t always cheerful, she chooses cheerfulness. “I am such a cynic,” she says. “I believe kittens would kill you if they could figure out how to get to your neck. But I love a world where my lead characters are powering through it without that cynicism. I love the energy of female heroines tromping through life with their high heels and their great hair. Why not have some color in your fucking life?” she says. “You’re going to be dead in like five minutes anyhow. Just enjoy it and wear a hat.”

*This article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s New Show Is Her Most Ambitious Yet