I recently watched season one of Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I found hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. I don’t watch a lot of comedies—I find the writing is better on serious shows that also happen to be funny. However, I found The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to be the perfect blend of plot and humor. SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for season one.
As a creative person, I noticed the show, while entertaining, also offered many truths to be learned about pursuing a career in the arts. Now, the show is set in 1958, and there are obviously hundreds of things that are different about pursuing a career in show business, or other creative pursuits, today. Social media. The internet. Society. Stupid people going viral and stealing my spotlight. And not just people. I mean, a rat dragging a piece of pizza down the street can go viral but I can’t get 100 claps on Medium? Anyway….
This show revealed so many epiphanies about pursuing a creative career that are still true today. Here are 4 funny (okay, some are not so funny) epiphanies I learned about the creative life from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel:
Lesson 1: If at first you succeed, fail, fail again.
The main character, Midge, embarks on a career in comedy after her husband, a would-be comedian himself, leaves her for his secretary. She—Midge, not the secretary—gets drunk and goesto the humble nightclub where he performed earlier to collect a pyrex dish she used to bribe the club’s manager for a good time slot. While there, she wanders up on stage and drunkenly explains her very bad evening to the audience, who finds her hilarious. Later, the nightclub’s scheduler, Suzie—one of my favorite supporting characters ever—offers to manage Midge’s comedy career. Midge has a few more good shows, then some not-so-good shows, after which she decides to quit. She later realizes she wants to keep performing.
As a writer, I want to quit pretty much all the time. I’d probably be a lot happier if I did. It occurred to me a few months ago that if I’d known just how much work there is in writing—not just the writing, but the editing, the rewriting—I probably would not have started. I’d have a lot less stress and a lot more time to sit on my ass and watch Amazon Prime, that’s for sure. Hell, I might even have time to vacuum my room twice a year instead of once. But I probably wouldn’t, because I don’t care. Anyway….
But I don’t quit. I keep failing. I try to learn something from my failures. On the show, Midge goes to comedy clubs, watches the most successful comedians, takes diligent notes. Then she tries to apply what she learns to her own writing. She figures out what works for her, what doesn’t, how long to ride the laughs, how to plan her show instead of just rambling and hoping something funny comes out.
This can be applied to other creative pursuits. I read a lot, and have always read a lot, but now I really try to notice how my favorite authors do things. How do they explain back story so seamlessly you don’t even notice, instead of just making a big infodump on page one? How do they explain a fictional world without spending three pages on the scenery? How do they disseminate a large amount of info in snappy dialogue?
When I think I figure it out, I try to do these things myself. It doesn’t always work. I’m still learning, and more importantly, still failing.
Lesson 2: The more privilege you have, the better.
This one sucks, because privilege isn’t usually something you can gain through hard work, and you can’t buy it on Amazon, either. It would be nice if pursuing a creative career was equally easy—or hard—for everyone. But that’s not how the world works. It wasn’t in 1958, and it isn’t today.
In trying to improve her act, Midge finds an ad in an entertainment magazine and hires a guy to help her. She tells him a few things about her act, and he tells her he can write five minutes of material for $15. Now, that’s a pretty cheap rate today, but back in 1958 it would have been pretty expensive.
Can everyone afford to hire a script writer, or an editor, or a cover designer, or whoever they need to help hone their craft? Can we all afford to take acting classes or singing lessons or improv classes? No. Midge lives with her decently well-off parents after her husband leaves and her father-in-law kicks her out. She seems to have some cash left over from the marriage as well, and could probably sell some of their nicer items if need be. She gets a job at the department store so she can buy a television for her room. If she wants to spend fifteen dollars on a script writer (who turns out to be a scammer), she can do so without thinking too hard about it. She can also call her husband and get $200 for bail after being arrested for swearing and flashing her boobs during a show. That shows a tremendous amount of privilege not everyone has. (Money, of course, is only one of many kinds of privilege.)
The one benefit to not having money privilege is that it somewhat protects you from lesson #3….
Lesson 3: Scammers are everywhere.
The best thing to do is ignore them, or be unable to afford them in the first place.
There is no area of show business in which you’ll fail to find grifters promising fame and fortune for a price. Midge meets one when she hires the script writer, who gives everyone the same tired jokes for “$15 for five minutes.” Hollywood is full of acting coaches, voice lessons, etc. who aren’t worth the money. There are, of course, people who are worth the money. Good luck figuring out the difference!
Unless, of course, you have no money to spend on classes in the first place. That’s a surefire way to avoid getting ripped off. It’s also a surefire way to spend all your time working five jobs, leaving you with little time to write, go to auditions, paint, or whatever.
In the publishing world, there used to be a thing called vanity presses, where you paid them to print your book. Today, thanks to the magic of Amazon—aside from Prime, I mean—you no longer need a vanity press to self-publish. Anyone can publish anything on Amazon. Now, some people take the time to learn Photoshop and make their own covers. Some edit and format their own books. These things are time-consuming and not every writer is a cover designer. Not to mention, it’s a really good idea to have at least one other person besides yourself edit your book because it’s hard to do all your own editing.
So there is a genuine need for these services. However, many vanity presses have morphed into “self-publishing services” firms that charge an exorbitant amount of money to edit, design covers, and promote self-published books. Some packages run into the thousands. Again, the way to avoid this nightmare is to either A) do a whole lot of research or B) Just be too broke to pay for any of it anyway.
If you are in the market, read reviews, inspect the company’s website thoroughly, check its ranking, do a search to see what people are saying about it on social media, etc. Also quiz friends who have purchased such services about what they paid to make sure your price is reasonable. In general, avoid spending money if at all possible.
Lesson 4: Trolls Are Everywhere
Every performer gets heckled, but Midge gets a lot of heckling from guys who think women can’t be funny. And say so. It would be nice if we could write this off as a backwards view common in the 1950’s. Sadly, it’s also a backwards view some people still have today in the 21st century. In 2007, there was even a Vanity Fair article in which Christopher Hitchens attempted to mansplain why women aren’t funny. (Apparently, we never evolved this skill because we already appeal to men, and obvs., that’s the only reason for anyone to be funny!)
Midge learns to handle hecklers with aplomb. When an audience member calls her a bitch, she puts her hands on her hips and says, “Who told you?” The audience laughs, and the heckling loser is forgotten. She’s funny, he’s not. It’s a great scene.
Of course today, it’s not just hecklers at shows. There’s the morass of social media, and the evolution of hecklers into what we call “trolls.” (Also known as “hecklers who hide behind computer screens.”) Trolls are happy to attack women, minorities, people who disagree with them politically, and pretty much anyone they don’t like because, I don’t know, it’s Tuesday. As long as you have a big following, of course—for some reason, trolls rarely seem to take offense at people who have, like, 3 followers. Could it be they’re desperate for attention? Or just jealous of anyone who’s even slightly more successful? Anyway…
If you’re going to have a creative career, you’re going to need social media, and if you manage to get a decent following, you’re going to have to deal with the trolls.
I follow a lot of my favorite writers on Twitter, including one who was accused of “ruining science fiction.” Which is pretty bizarre. I mean, it’s one thing not to like an author’s books. I’ve read or tried to read lots of books that just weren’t for me. But the idea that any one author can ruin an entire genre by writing a book you don’t like is pretty fucking ridiculous. (Of course, this particular troll was also upset because the author supports things like diversity in the genre.)
So a few days ago, the writer posted a screenshot about his ruination of an entire fiction genre, with an addendum about how he’s made a lot of money in royalties lately, and “ruining science fiction” is apparently really profitable. It is now my goal in life to ruin science fiction…okay, make it ruinier…and also ruin satire. NOW I know why I’m broke—I haven’t worked hard enough at ruining things!
Of course, if you don’t have the time or desire to personally respond to every troll, there’s another option: Just block and ignore the haters. This advice is easier to give than take. I know I shouldn’t engage with trolls, but, well, sometimes I can’t resist. If you can’t either, at least try to find a clever way to do it, instead of sinking to their level.
One last thing…
So, those are the 4 funny epiphanies I learned from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Before I conclude my review of season one (love it, you should watch it if you haven’t already), I’m going to leave you with some epiphanies I had watching the first two episodes of season 2:
My new favorite quote from any TV show ever: “My goal is money. I don’t have any and I want some.” Suzie, who speaks for me and my goals as well.
Also, I wish my parents would go to Paris, rekindle whatever romantic feelings they must have once had for each other (which I REALLY don’t want to think about), and leave me alone in their house. I’d be so much happier.
Forcing students to take four semesters of a foreign language is just a way greedy colleges make money, because after four semesters of French I still need subtitles when characters speak French. I want a refund from my university.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish watching season 2 and see what other great epiphanies I can find. Hey, the idea for my next novel would be great….
V. R. Craft is the author of Stupid Humans, a thought-provoking science fiction book series that asks the question, “What if all the intelligent humans abandoned Earth—and we’re what’s left?” Her first political satire book, Fail to the Chief, will be released soon.