Juxtaposition and Comedy in THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL
It is Friday night, and my husband and I are sharing a bottle of wine by the fire, enjoying the rare quiet few hours after our triplet preschoolers have fallen asleep, before they begin waking with nightmares and coughs, needing water and to use the potty. Mostly during these hours, we zone out, two exhausted parents too tired to do anything else but enjoy our own silence. But, tonight is different. Tonight, we have returned to THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, having forgotten it for a while during the holidays, battling sickness. Suddenly, we both laugh, and then we giggle, and then we can’t stop. We are crying, like teenagers, and I’m struggling not to wet my pants. “This show is so funny!” I say, as though having forgotten, having only seen a few episodes before.
If you haven’t seen THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, you are missing out on a comedy masterpiece. We liked it immediately: the fast talking, the sixties costumes, the Broadway-like overacting, the strange characters who place themselves in bizarre situations, like Rose who casually explains to her unaware husband that she is moving to Paris and then does so, having made friends, obtained an apartment, and adopted a dog (poor, abandoned dog, by the way—I won’t ever say the show’s empathy is its strong suit) inside of a week.
But its true comedy—what makes the show laugh-at-loud funny—is its reliance on juxtaposition: setting opposites against each another, placing vulgar scenes next to high-brow ones. The scene that got us laugh-crying that night wasn’t anything special. Midge and her manager Susie sit in an old, borrowed car. “It’s loud,” Susie warns Midge before starting the car. A loud bang occurs. Susie says, “Wow, that was louder than before.” Midge screams, “What? I can’t hear you, my ears are ringing.” Susie replies, “What? I think I blew my eardrums out!” On the surface, and alone, this scene is superfluous, silly, maybe even throwaway. So, why did it make us laugh until we cried?
Perhaps we were wired so tight anything could have broken us. Maybe the rare glass of wine had done it. But, I believe the improvisational scene’s success lay in its placement immediately after a serious, staged, choreographed scene in which the lights dimmed as Midge and her husband (by separation) Joel broke their dance embrace to agree, “We should probably dance with someone else," turning to fall into their respective new dance partners' arms. The scene, like many in the show, was reminiscent of a Broadway musical.
Juxtaposition is one of the oldest comedy tricks in literature. Shakespeare loved using it, and not just in comedy (for example, using oxymoron in Romeo and Juliet to reveal Juliet’s ambivalence about her decision regarding Romeo). The genius about setting opposites in proximity is that it plays with our ups and downs. It jostles our expectations, and we let our guards down. It creates irony and, often as a response, satire. Though Midge’s father is supposed to be a ground-breaking physicist, declaring, “I’m a scientist with the highest endeavors,” in the next seconds he is playing a child’s record of nursery rhymes. That is ironic, and it’s hysterically funny. Even the characters Midge and Susie together create contrast. Midge is upper-west-side refined, talks fast and, for all her independence and wit on stage, can be annoyingly naïve. (She has never, apparently, carried her own bags to a hotel room.) Susie is rough and scrappy, a lovable butch woman who can hang with collectors who come to off her. The two are an unlikely friendship, especially in the ‘50s, which makes most of their scenes a constant battle of finding common ground. And, yet, they communicate fluidly, their friendship is rather effortless. They support each other, Midge not at all threatened by the elephant in the room, Susie’s apparent homosexuality (completely ignored in the show), in one scene the two falling asleep in each other’s laps.
The show might have some flaws, as several outlets have covered. But, in some way, its complete departure from reality is what allows it to play with comedic form, rather than trying to comment on social issues. It doesn’t tackle the alluded-to difficult issues, like single parenting, homosexuality in the early ‘60s, poverty, and racism. It does mention, casually, sexual harassment, Midge showing her new beau how she can handle herself around handsy men in clubs, locking her knees together, blocking her breasts with her elbows. But these moments, too, create irony. They are done with physical displays, using slapstick to express serious and topical issues. In other words, the show is a commentary on genre, not a serious criticism of culture. It is a writer’s show, a comedian’s comedy, a study in humor. And this, in a time when everything is rage-filled and social, is enough. It is laugh-until-you-cry relief.