Amy Sherman-Palladino thinks the concept of innate human goodness is bullshit. “I believe that people are born evil,” she says, emphatically, “and you have to beat goodness into them. I don’t believe it’s the other way round.”
This might be surprising for fans of Gilmore Girls, the show Sherman-Palladino created, wrote and directed that was frequently declared “comfort TV” thanks to its nuanced, likeable characters and cosy small-town setting. Today, we’re here to discuss The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, her brilliant, 1950s-set new Amazon show that has a fearsomely positive protagonist in the titular Midge Maisel. But behind the New England idyll of Stars Hollow, behind mountains of take-out and coffee by the bucket load, behind the comfort shows that see you through break-ups and breakdowns, is a pessimistic, old-fashioned cynic.
“I just don’t think there’s good in the world,” she says. “I expect to be disappointed at any given moment. Like, I just expect the world to end in about three seconds – and I would be like, ‘Yep. That was gonna happen.’ I’m not a hopeful person at all.”
She pauses. “But maybe that’s… Maybe I write things that are hopeful because maybe something will…” she trails off, as though she can’t even commit to the suggestion of a silver lining. Then, more forcefully, again: “I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. I do believe people are born evil and you have to beat goodness into them.”
I meet Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and long-term writing partner Dan Palladino in a contrastingly cheery yellow hotel room in central London. The first thing she does is ask for some “cancer-inducing sweetener” for her coffee – “you know, the kind that does weird things to rats”. Then, she notices the bed has been removed, but a patterned headboard remains, floating eerily two feet up the wall. She finds this faintly “hysterical”. “What do they think’s gonna happen? It’s the Harvey Weinstein thing: now there can’t be beds in hotels rooms,” she jokes. “They don’t trust Anna,” Dan shoots back. “Not after what happened with Brad Pitt.”
It would be a cliché to say that Amy and Dan finish each other’s sentences, but they do: riffing on each other’s jokes, talking over one another, and answering questions on each other’s behalf. They’re visually something of an odd couple. Fifty-one-year-old Amy, known for her Tim Burton-esque wardrobe of dark colours and elaborate hats, is dressed exactly as you’d expect: head to toe in black, save for a pink felt hat and furry dark green coat left lying on the arm of the sofa. A silver, doll-like figurine in a top hat and pink bow (that she admits is “slightly sinister”) hangs on a chain round her neck. “I have like 50 of them,” she says, casually, “and I believe at some point they’ll unionise and they’ll come to life and they’ll kill me in my sleep.” Fifty-seven-year-old Dan, on the other hand, wears a knitted Breton top that makes him look like a cosy sailor.
The first time the pair met Dan tried to win Amy over with 12 brightly-coloured plastic monkeys. They were introduced in 1992 through a mutual friend; an old writing partner of Amy’s who had recently started working with Dan. She had a hunch the two would get along, or, in Amy’s words, she thought: “Your mental problems seem to fit with each other’s.’”
At a group lunch on a studio lot in Los Angeles, of all places, they sized each other up. And then Dan gave her the classic kids’ toy Barrel of Monkeys as a gift. “I heard she was having a hard time, and I had a Barrel of Monkeys in my office,” he laughs. “…so I gave her a Barrel of Monkeys!” Clearly, it worked.
It was on Gilmore Girls, the first show Sherman-Palladino created back in 2000, that the pair started working together. The idea of a mother and daughter who seemed more like best friends came 45 minutes into a pitch meeting that wasn’t going brilliantly. A trip to Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut provided the perfect setting: a tiny New England town with a tight-knit community, something that particularly appealed to Amy as she grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which she describes as “basically like growing up in a paper bag that you’ve brought home from the supermarket”.
They shot a pilot, which remains striking for just how well it sums up the characters, setting and tone of the series to come. It was bought by the CW, and ran for seven seasons until 2007, though Amy and Dan left the show a year earlier, after series six, when contract renegotiations collapsed. Last year, they returned to the show to make four 90-minute episodes for Netflix, under the title Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. It was a chance for the pair to end the series their way.
Amy Sherman-Palladino and Lauren Graham at a party celebrating 100 episodes of Gilmore Girls in 2004
Sherman-Palladino remembers her first year on Gilmore in 2000 as very difficult. Shooting each episode was a harder task than people imagined, thanks to each script’s immense 80 pages (a symptom of Gilmore’s trademark fast-paced dialogue) and long, single shots. On top of that, everyone was still getting used to the team dynamics. “I think people just assumed that, because I was coming from half-hour comedy, and this was my first drama, I wouldn’t have a strong opinion about how things were done.” She gives a hollow laugh. “Oh-ho-ho-ho! That was adorable.”
Soon, her workload was unmanageable. “I needed help, desperately.” Meanwhile, Dan was working on Family Guy. Amy called him “every single day” to try to persuade him to move over to Gilmore Girls. Serendipitously, Family Guy was temporarily cancelled, and the pair have worked together ever since.
“The great thing is to have somebody who you know their only agenda is to make sure that the product is good. No other career agenda, or scoring points agenda, or anything,” Amy explains. “I just needed a partner. But I needed a partner that I knew was really great, and that wasn’t trying to destroy me.”
Now, writing bleeds into all areas of Amy and Dan’s life. They write in the office, they write at home, they write on set between lighting set-ups, they write on the way to weekend brunches. “Usually after we’ve decided, ‘Let’s not think about work,’” Dan says. They’re keen to emphasise that they don’t literally write individual scripts together. “That’s the only way to stay married,” Amy says. “To not write together.”
I genuinely wonder how they avoid being at each other’s throats. “Police protection,” Dan jokes. “No, it evolved kind of naturally. Our outlook on how to write, what we write, and what a story should be is very, very similar. I think the key to any partnership like this is that you debate your points: I feel this way, you feel that way…”
“And then you cage match it,” Amy cuts in.
But once a key decision has been made, Dan explains, “There’s never an ‘I told you so’ or an ‘I should have done it this way’. At that point as you just move forward, and it seems to have worked. It’s really kind of like the ego has to be checked at the door.”
“Shit.” Amy deadpans. “No one told me I had to check the ego at the door. That’s the problem.”
One of Amy’s more eccentric quirks is that she prefers to write scripts with the TV blaring. It has to be a show she knows so well she could “recite it and act it out – badly.” She’s been through phases in terms of the shows she chooses: NYPD Blue, Orphan Black, The Sopranos and the movie Bill Durham, because, she says, it seems to be eternally aired on TV. “I don’t know how it’s possible, but I’ve seen that movie about 30,000 times.” She describes a long phase of working on Gilmore Girls where Buffy the Vampire Slayer played on a loop – but only seasons one to three, “because, you know, once Angel left…”
I ask if turns of phrase ever make it into her scripts from other shows, which both find a hilarious suggestion. “It’s Tony Soprano saying, ‘I’m gonna fucking kill you,’” Dan laughs.
“All of a sudden Lorelai’s like, ‘I’m gonna shiv ya, you fucking motherfucking rat,’” Amy joins in.
“We’re like, ‘Why’s Lorelai talking about a shiv?’”
“Everybody’s like, ‘Uhhh, Amy? Doesn’t seem quite loving enough.’”
Amy sighs. “I like the noise and the energy and I need the background. I don’t know. Look, if I had time to go to therapy and get this diagnosed, I would. I just simply don’t have time.”
An obsessive relationship with TV and film makes total sense for Sherman-Palladino – Gilmore Girls quickly became labelled a “pop culture show” for Lorelai and Rory Gilmore’s referential dialogue. The pilot alone references Hans Christian Anderson, Nick at Nite, the Menendez brothers, 1981’s Mommie Dearest, Rosemary’s Baby, Zsa Zsa Gabor and more. Amy was surprised by the label: “A lot of our references were like 200 years old!”
But while critics focus on throwaway allusions, scenes that stick with me are the ones where we see Palladino characters connecting with culture in a more meaningful way: Lorelai crying in front of A Star Is Born, Rory bonding with bad boy Jess over an annotated copy of Howl, or, in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Midge’s joyful laughing at a recording of comedian Redd Foxx.
Amy and Dan at the premiere for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life in 2016
Dan and Amy are still big consumers of pop culture: they cite Narcos and Catastrophe as current favourites, and both have certain obsessions they return to again and again. “Apparently Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I are going to be intertwined for the rest of our goddamn lives,” Amy says resignedly, before suddenly launching into mock tears. “When she pulls that sword out of Angel, and he’s not evil anymore…”
“Uh oh, we’ve lost Amy,” Dan interjects.
“AND THEN SHE’S GOTTA SEND HIM TO HELL!”
She lets out a long, comedy whine. “BUUUUUFFFFFFFFY!”
Dan is more of a music buff. “I actually was in the preview test audience for the Monkees pilot,” he explains. “I was six years old. They were my first album. And since then I’ve had thousands and thousands of records. I have The Kinks, and David Bowie and Led Zeppelin–”
“Please,” Amy begs. “Just, don’t start listing. We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.”
“You just talk about Angel and I’ll just talk about–” Dan begins, but Amy’s off again. “THE ONE WHERE HE WAS EVIL, AND THEY WENT TO THE DEPARTMENT STORE, AND DRUSILLA…”
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel begins by introducing us to the perfect, charmed life of Miriam “Midge” Maisel. It’s 1958, and Midge is married to the likeable (if less impressive) Joe Maisel, an amateur stand-up comedian. They have two children – a boy and a girl – and they live in a beautiful, enormous Upper East Side apartment decorated to perfection, in the same building as Midge’s parents. Midge is stick-thin and gorgeous, diligently removing her make-up and taking her measurements each night, but only after her husband has fallen asleep, so as not to shatter the illusion. She’s the architect of her own good fortune, and has the picture-perfect cosmopolitan Jewish family as a result: she’s even managed to get their rabbi to come to her Yom Kippur break-fast. But by the end of episode one, Midge’s husband has left her.
Suddenly, Midge is alone, and her dream life has slipped through her fingers. She finds herself on stage, drunk, telling the whole, embarrassing story. And a comedy star is born. Soon, she’s a regular at the Gaslight Cafe, sneaking in to Red Skelton shows at the Copacabana, and rubbing shoulders with Lenny Bruce. It’s a riotous delight, tethered by an irresistible lead performance from Rachel Brosnahan.
“We don’t see Maisel as a show about stand-up comedy,” Sherman-Palladino insists. “It’s really about family, and it’s about how one person’s decision to suddenly pursue a different direction can explode everybody’s very structured world.”
Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
Brosnahan was immediately drawn to the character. “I feel like I read shamefully few genuinely confident women when I read scripts,” she tells me. “That was probably the thing that attracted me to this project the most. I’ve never played someone as confident as Midge. She’s not apologising for it, which feels radical for that time, and still, today.”
Brosnahan is absolutely as effervescent as Midge. When I walk in the room for our interview, she immediately exclaims that my eyebrows are “AMAZING” and takes a photo of my brooches; we spend an alarmingly large percentage of our time talking about dogs (she took her two dogs, Nikki and Winston, with her to work on Maisel every day.) Her performance feels effortless – she runs through Midge’s whiplash-inducing dialogue in a way that’s simultaneously graceful, funny and sad. It’s an illusion, she tells me, and the result of hours of hard work in rehearsal.
Sherman-Palladino’s work is littered with confident, fast-talking, witty women struggling to deal with the immense amount of pressure they put on themselves: whether that’s Rory’s academic conscientiousness, Lorelai’s decision to raise a child totally alone, or Midge’s all-consuming perfectionism. “It’s not so much perfectionism,” she considers. “It’s dealing with the expectations: especially of the times.”
“It used be like, ‘A woman has to have children, and get married, and be a perfect housewife and look good – but she shouldn’t aspire to be more than that.’ Then it swung the other way.” She puts on a comedy voice like an old-timey newsie: “‘A woman should have a career! Fuck everybody else!’” And then it became, ‘A woman should be able to do everything! Have a career! Have a baby! Have a –’” she sighs with exhaustion. “The expectations are so ludicrous! And none of them are right. And the whole idea that you can have it all is absurd. You can lean in, lean out, lean in a circle, I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit what you do: it’s absurd that you can have it all. Every choice comes with consequences. Every time you get something, you give something up.”
Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
The expectations Midge has to manage on Maisel are particularly ridiculous. “I mean, stand-up comedy today is a difficult environment for the women who attempt it,” Dan explains. “Just ask Sarah Silverman, ask Kathy Griffin, ask anyone who does it. It was much more difficult back then, and there were expectations of what a woman should be. They often dressed up in funny outfits, and had weird voices, and tried to look like witches.”
“They needed to divorce their own femininity and sexuality,” Amy says. “They needed to put a barrier up so audiences didn’t see them as somebody you could fuck and have your children with, but they would see you as more of a character. Otherwise, they couldn’t laugh.”
“Midge is always gonna be telling the truth, and she’s going to get a lot of blow back for that,” says Dan. “Because she’s a woman, because of how she looks as a woman, because she’s defiant, and a little angry, and truthful.”
Even as Midge is drawn further and further into the life of a stand-up comedian, the pull of her old life remains. “She’s never going to be as happy as she was the day before her husband left her,” Dan says. “She loved her life.”
It’s a deeply sad premise for such a comic show. “We actually tend to see a lot of our characters as tragic, and then we write them funny,” Dan insists. “In Gilmore Girls it was Emily: she lost her daughter, and she never really got her back. In Maisel, it’s the explosion in the pilot.”
Amy and Rachel Brosnahan on the set of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
“Frankly, I think for the rest of her life it’s going to be that pull,” Amy says. “That pull between the safety and the happiness that she knew, and the power of having the venue to speak her mind. Because you know, there was something very easy about her old life. And her new life will never quite be that easy.” The tension is palpable, in every episode.
“This show,” Brosnahan says, “is created by, written by, directed by and produced by an extraordinary woman, about an extraordinary woman. That’s what makes it so electric, that’s what makes it feel so alive. Because it’s authentic.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino never expected to be a famous writer. “Amy became…” Dan says, searching for the words. “In the old days, the sixties, seventies, eighties, when people watched TV, they didn’t know who the people were who were writing it. But then 15, 20 years ago, everyone started paying attention to the showrunner. Which is not our thing. We would rather be classically hidden behind the scenes, wearing burkas. That would be fine with us.”
“It’d be weird if you wore a burka. I have to say,” Amy quips. “It’d be eccentric if I did it, it would just be flat-out weird if you did it.”
It’s true that Amy doesn’t relish all elements of her enormous success. Conversations about Gilmore Girls – from the supposedly ugly 2006 dispute that saw her and Dan leave the series before it ended on the CW, to the media excitement around last year’s Netflix revival, to rumours of more episodes – have the power to instantly generate headlines. (During our interview, Amy mentions her contract with Amazon allows her to take a break to return to Gilmore Girls should further episodes be planned – the next day, the story has already broken and been picked up by countless outlets.) “Everything’s blown out of proportion,” she says dryly.
Amy and Dan in London in November 2017
She is astonished by the level of knowledge some fans have about the show, noting of a Brooklyn trivia contest, “They took it veeeery seriously. We didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about!” At one point in our meeting, Amy seems to be flagging. Dan takes the lead to explain the influence of Amy’s father – a comedian based in New York in the 1950s – on the show. “If I may speak for you,” he says, turning to his wife. “Because I think you kind of ran out of steam here, a little bit. Already! It’s only 9:58am!”
“I’m exhausted,” Amy deadpans. “I’m a very old woman.”
Clearly, Amy puts a lot of her own humour into her characters. I ask which, of all her characters, she sees most of herself in. As she pauses to think, Dan cuts in with a loud, theatrical stage whisper. “LORELAI GILMORE!”
She rolls her eyes. “He says Lorelai, I dunno…”
“It’s absolutely Lorelai!” he shouts. “Are you kidding? She and Lauren Graham are very similar. They’re bright, vivacious. To me, they’re like sisters. Amy wrote this role and it took a long time to find Lauren Graham. She finally walked in the door and it was just a natural fit.” He turns back to Amy. “A lot of your outlook is in Lorelai, and a lot of your spunk and vivacity.”
“Lorelai is a lot more cynical, which I know I am.” Amy admits. “I think that that element of Lorelai is me. Whereas Midge is very joyous and optimistic and doesn’t even see the adversity until it is like, on her head.”
What makes her despair the most right now? “It’s, uh, three years and how many months?” she says, referring to the Trump administration. “It’s rough. It’s a rough time. It’s the roughest. It was hard to be cynical when Barack Obama was running around and Sunny and Bo were in the White House. You’re like ‘Maybe things will be okay?’ But now it’s like, ‘No I was right all along. It’s just doom and gloom and dragons in the air.’”
“It’s the best time to be a cynic!” she says, dryly.
But when I ask Brosnahan what she thinks the most striking thing about Sherman-Palladino is, she instinctively draws a comparison between her and her most optimistic character. “She’s fearless,” she says, smiling. “If she isn’t, she’s a damn good actor. She is fearless. She shares that with Midge. She’s not going to apologise for any piece of herself or her vision. And it’s inspiring to be around every day.”
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from November 29