Iget off the phone with my stage manager who is instructing me to come in early for the show that day to do a sound check. My nephew who has been quietly watching me all afternoon as I go over my notes for my act finally asks his mother, “Mom, what does Aditi masi do?”
My mother, sitting across the room, cocks her ear to hear my answer. I may have been travelling the world doing standup for nearly a decade now, but she is still not sure of what I do.
My sister ruffles his hair. “She’s a standup comedian,” she tells him. “You know, like in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” His eyes light up. He has watched that show along with her. He is six, so I am pretty sure that he does not understand most of it, but the show’s immaculate retro candy-pop cinematography and aesthetic has him hooked.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, one of Amazon Prime Video’s consistently top-rated shows globally, is about a Jewish woman in the US of the 1950s, who has it all―an adoring set of parents, two cherubic children, and a successful husband who is trying to do standup on the side. Like the perfect partner, she attends all his open mics and bribes his show runners with briskets so that he can get ahead of the others. It blows up in her face when her husband leaves her for his secretary. That night, she drunkenly stumbles on to the very stage where she has seen her husband perform and talks about her plight to much laughter and applause―and a star is born. For four seasons we follow Mrs Maisel as she navigates the comedy scene then, which just like today, was dripping in testosterone. For four seasons, I, along with the thousands of women who do standup comedy around the world, had a reference point for when we tell people what we do, and they ask, “Oh, like in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?”
Here is a confession: No, I don’t do what the marvelous Mrs Maisel does. Saying that her life is like mine is like saying that Sooryavanshi is an accurate representation of how the Indian police force works. These are narratives which are fictionalised for commercial purposes. If they had to be “real” about the offstage life of a female standup comic, there would be many more scenes of a woman in her pyjamas clacking away on her laptop at 3pm on a weekday. But why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one of the most necessary shows of our time is not only because it is a technical and filmmaking marvel. There is, of course, the dizzyingly long single shots, the hilarious rapid fire dialogues that are characteristic of show creator Amy Palladino, and the subtle nuances of being a Jewish family (that Indian audiences should be able to relate with, since the cultures are so similar). But there is also the fact that in it, there is truth.
And much like all truths, it is hilarious and heartbreaking. The struggles of Mrs Maisel in navigating a male-dominated field are as true today as they were in the 1950s. I cannot tell you the number of times―when Mrs Maisel is refused spots on live shows because they don’t want a woman on the line-up, or when she is talked over continuously in an all-male writer’s room, or when audience members yell out things in the middle of her act that no male comedian would ever have to hear―that my sister has paused the show to ask, “Wow, does that s**t still happen?” And I have nodded and shrugged without taking my eyes off the screen.
TV shows and movies that feature or centre around standup comedy usually are tedious. The standup parts become an expository crutch by the writers to present a monologue about a situation or character, so that they don’t have to “show”, but just “tell” what happens. It is lazy and awkward. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has lasted five seasons because it is not only about standup comedy, but it is also the story of a country in transition. The characters interact effortlessly with the politics of that time. It could be easy to say that TMMM is a charming time-capsule of a moment in time in society, but at its core it is about the truth of a woman and her family.
In this show, you don’t only see the evolution of the protagonist because she decided to live her truth, but also of the ripple effect that it has on the people around her. We see every character grow, almost as though watching one person be honest with herself made everyone in her periphery reflect on whether they were doing what made them happy. Or were they simply playing to society’s expectations?
That message is especially potent in India today. Too many of us have averted our eyes from our truth because we think it will ensure our survival. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel reminds you that when you speak your truth, so many others will be empowered to do the same. That when the next generation turns to us and asks, “What did you do?”, the answer will not only be a reference to a TV show.