Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, has gifted us with the Jewish feminist show we need right now. The protagonist is Miriam (Midge) Maisel, a 26-year-old Jewish housewife living on the Upper West Side of New York City. Played by Rachel Brosnahan (a gentile! Gasp. But she’s so good you’ll think she’s Jewish), over the course of season one, Midge transforms into a formidable female stand-up comic.
Her journey to the mic begins when Midge’s husband Joel (played by Michael Zegen — a real life Jew) leaves her; she drunkenly performs a stand-up set at the famed Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village.
Side note, because I just need to get this in print: I am 90 percent sure I saw Brosnahan and Zegen eating dinner in the Village at Grey Dog Café on Wednesday night, November 29, around 6 p.m. If anyone can confirm this (Zegen and I definitely made eye contact), please let me know. I’m starting the rumor that they’re dating here and now. Remember to cite me.
And now, with that out of the way, let’s begin. What is great about these 10 jokes — and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as a whole — is that Midge’s Jewishness is not just played for jokes, but celebrated as a key part of her identity. Luckily, when Jewishness forms the basis for a joke, it’s freaking hilarious.
As a warm-up for the 10 best jokes, some honorable mention one-liners:
- “Really, we are ruining ‘Lecha Dodi.’”
- “Do you miss the dodgers? They left because of you”
- “What’s more fun than [appearing in court]?” “A late in life bris”
- [in synagogue] “Are you going to answer my question with a question?” “If not here, where?”
- “Ethel and Julius Rosenberg? He was on their team.” “Took four zaps in the chair to kill poor Ethel. There was smoke coming out of her ears.” “Ah, Jewish women are known to be more difficult.”
- “Go home and clean the kitchen” “Oh sir, I’m Jewish. I pay people to do that.”
- “When I agreed to send you to that fancy goyische college, what was the one thing I told you?” “They’ll have terrible deli?” “The important thing I told you.” “That was about deli, too.”
And now, the top 10:
10. Bottle Dancers (ep 8)
Midge: You’re up next
Joel: These are your relatives?
Midge: Mine? No.
Joel: They’re definitely not mine. I don’t think. Maybe they’re the cousins from Florida, or…I have some family in Ottawa, but…Holy shit, who the hell are these people?
Midge: They’re chorus boys
Joel: They’re what?
Midge: Chorus boys. Dancers.
Midge: I wanted to make sure there were great dancers at our wedding, so I hired some chorus boys from the Pajama Game to come and dance. Two of them did “Steam Heat.” Notice the great hat work.
Joel: I’m sorry. You hired ringers to dance at our wedding?
Joel: Okay, come on.
Midge: Wait, where are we going?
Joel: To find the Rabbi. I’m marrying you all over again.
[Midge looks back at dancers]
Midge: Ooh, that’s good. Someone should do something with that.
The last episode flashes back to Joel and Midge’s wedding and focuses in on the dancers that Midge hired. Confused-as-always Joel can’t keep up and wonders if he’s related to them (are they the Florida cousins? Tbh, he should’ve guessed the Israeli ones…). The dancing, then panning to Joel and Midge, is one of the stronger visual bits of the entire season; coupled with an immediately recognizable setting (a hora at a wedding) and Midge’s relatable desire for control and perfection (hiring dancers to do said hora), it makes for a great joke.
The kicker is, of course, that last line: “Someone should do something with that.” Only those who have seen Fiddler on the Roof understand what that comment could imply; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel wants us to think that these dancers inspired the iconic bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHRe9qdfLsw]. Fiddler premiered in 1964, a decade after Midge and Joel’s fictional wedding. So maybe it was Midge…
9. Shiksas are for practice (ep 5)
Moishe: Her. No.
Joel: What the hell are you talking about?
Moishe: You know what I’m talking about?
Joel: How would I know what you’re talking about?
Moishe: She’s young, she’s emptyheaded, she doesn’t eat. She’s a shiksa.
Moishe: Shiksas are for practice.
Joel: Want to say that a little louder?
Moishe: I think you heard me just fine.
Joel: I don’t believe this.
Moishe: Don’t act like a child.
Joel: You can’t judge her like this. You don’t even know her.
Moishe: That is a girl that you have on the side, Joel. It’s not a girl you marry. You don’t introduce her to your fucking parents…
The delivery of the wonderful (marvelous, even) Kevin Pollak makes this potentially offensive joke work. Joel has just brought Penny (his mistress secretary turned girlfriend) to meet his parents; when Penny gets up to use the restroom, Moishe turns to Joel and says, “No.” The simple “no” wraps up his disapproval and disappointment nicely. Plus, the longer joke (past the “no”) includes the line that every Jewish grandma will now swear by: “Shiksas are for practice.” This 1950s theory of side chicks will definitely make you laugh.
8. Giant mezuzahs (ep 6)
Astrid: Here. This is for you.
Rose: Honestly, Astrid, you don’t have to bring us gifts every time you go to Israel.
Midge: What was this — your sixth, seventh trip?
Astrid: Can’t get enough of the holy land.
[Rose opens bag and pauses]
Rose: What a beautiful mezuzah.
Astrid: I’ve never seen one that big before. [laughs]
Midge: It looks like it ate all the other mezuzahs.
Astrid: Is that bad?
Rose [politely]: Oh. No.
Astrid: I could return it.
Midge: To Israel?
Astrid [to Midge]: I brought you a gift too.
Midge: Is it another giant mezuzah?
Astrid: Oh, it is such a stupid gift.
Midge: Astrid, no.
Astrid: Rose has a mezuzah. You have a mezuzah. It’s not shoes — you can’t just change them out every season
Midge: No, but if we ever move to a very big house—
Astrid: Oh, I just wish Rose liked me…
In this scene, Midge’s brother Noah and sister-in-law Astrid come over. Astrid, trying to please the family, brings them gifts from Israel. Astrid’s desperate attempts to get Rose to like her make for a winner. This keys the viewers into Astrid’s subsequent attempts to amplify her Jewishness. Later in the episode, Noah tells Midge about Astrid’s conversion: “Goy to Jew in three weeks or less. Classes, rituals, and weird baths in basements, and, oh, my God, so much challah…” Astrid, while maybe not a realistic portrayal of a Jewish convert, strangely provides comic relief at her attempts to fit into the world of the Upper West Side Jews.
7. For Hanukkah we would get socks (ep 6)
Midge: Me, personally, I was never great at gift-giving. Maybe it’s because I never got to celebrate Christmas. I got Hanukkah. Doesn’t exactly prepare you the same way. For Christmas, a gentile would get a bike as a reminder that their parents love them. For Hanukkah, we would get socks as a reminder that we were persecuted.
A shorter joke, but I genuinely laughed out loud at the last line. Midge is doing stand-up (kind of) at holiday parties, and her joke about socks on Hanukkah is just too good not to include on this list. Who didn’t get socks for Hanukkah growing up?! This insider’s knowledge of Jewishness makes the joke land with the Jewish viewers.
6. Methodist version of me (ep 4)
Midge: You know, it’s funny. I thought I’d find you squatting in some downtown smoke-filled atelier, not two blocks away, living the Methodist version of our life. With the Methodist version of me […] You know what’s funny? I don’t have my apartment anymore. You have my apartment. You have a lot of my things, actually. You’re welcome. [Timer dings] Dinner?
Penny: Pot roast.
Midge [turning to Joel]: The Methodist version of brisket.
Joel: Can we discuss this some other time, please?
[Ethan runs off]
Penny: Uh, where’s he going? Where’s he going?
[Penny follows Ethan, leaving Joel and Midge alone]
Joel: Boy. Do you know how to make an entrance.
Midge: So this is what you were missing Joel? Pot roast and Santa Claus?
Joel: I don’t want to talk about this here.
Midge: Should we get lunch somewhere? Is there a mayonnaise and Wonder Bread café opening up somewhere we could try?
Midge: You said you didn’t want our life. But this is our life. You didn’t go somewhere exotic or different, you went across the fucking street […] Tell Ethan I’ll pick him up tomorrow. Don’t baptize him while I’m gone.
This exchange (excerpted) occurs when Midge goes to drop Ethan (her son) off at Joel’s new apartment, and finds out he’s staying with his secretary/mistress/girlfriend. After delivering an Emmy-worthy speech, she storms out, turns around to look at Joel one last time, and says: “Don’t baptize him while I’m gone.” The joke is so successful in part because of the incisive way in which Midge cuts him down (pot roast and Santa Claus). Her jabs at him are smartly layered in a deeper argument over why Joel left.
5. Adam & Eve time (ep 2)
Midge: See, my life completely fell apart today, and here’s why. My father-in-law owns my house. And he took it back when his son left me. Actually, that doesn’t sound funny at all.
That sounds… awful. Biblical, right?
Like, it’s Adam and Eve time, and I marry Adam’s son, Cain. We get a nice little place, we’re very happy, and then one day Cain leaves me for, I don’t know, his brother Abel, because there’s only four fucking people on the planet at this point! And then Adam, Adam takes my house and tells me to do jigsaw puzzles!
A drunk Midge, at the end of episode 2, finds her way back into the Gaslight Café after she realizes she doesn’t own her own apartment. When she first says the premise to the joke — “and he took it back when his son left me” — she gets no laughs from the audience. So she pauses, thinks, and re-frames it in a Biblical metaphor. And she finds her groove: The audience laughs uproariously at the line “because there’s only four fucking people on the planet at this point!” The joke works because of course Midge has a deep knowledge of the Bible (Jewish Bible, duh) and toes the line in joking that Cain left her for Abel. One of the best bits of her stand-up.
4. 13 Jews out of Germany (ep 2)
Abe: Miriam, because of you, we are stuck in this house with that man and his bloviating and speeches. And I have to say, if he talks about getting those 13 Jews out of Germany one more time…
Abe: He brought them here and stuck them in his factory! Is he paying these poor people? Are their toilets for them? I’ve seen their faces! I can’t be sure of this, but one of them has a look like, “I should’ve taken my chances back in Germany!”
At an uncomfortable dinner in the second episode, Midge, Joel, and their parents have just sat down when Moishe launches into the tale of the time he saved “13 Jews out of Germany.” Soon after, Abe pulls Rose and Midge into another room to fume at the fact the dinner is going so poorly and that Moishe is telling the damn story again. He rants and it culminates in the line — where he’s projecting what those 13 Jews are thinking — “I should’ve taken my chances back in Germany!” Midge and Rose are immediately outraged, but the darkness of the humor (and the repetition of the phrase “13 Jews out of Germany” throughout the season) makes the Holocaust-based humor shockingly funny (Larry David, you can learn something).
3. Explain Yom Kippur to a Gentile (ep 2)
Moishe: Your mother-in-law called and said the whole family is so ill that break fast is canceled. So ill, the holiest of holy days cannot happen.
Joel: If it’s so holy, why do you keep the factory open?
Moishe: You want a smack in the face?
Joel: I’m just saying—
Moishe: The people get paid by the piece. You want to take a day’s work away from them? God wants them to go hungry if I shut my doors?
Moishe [gestures to work floor]: Half those people out there are gentiles. You go explain Yom Kippur to gentiles. We’re happy, but we’re starving. It’s New Years, but we’re guilty.
Joel: Sounding like a nonbeliever, Pop
In this exchange, Joel visits his father Moishe’s garment factory to deliver the news that he and Midge split up. Moishe complains about break fast being cancelled, and then goes into a wonderful bit about Yom Kippur in the eyes of gentiles. His delivery — like the earlier “shiksas are practice” line — is everything. The classic framing of Jewish things through the perspective of a gentile is a winner. And later in the scene is the line that encapsulates the Jewish grandmother: “Your mother’s very upset… Yom Kippur’s a very big deal for your mother. There’s kugel, she sees the kids. You think that happens every day? You think every day there’s kugel and kids?” Moishe’s layering of Jewish references with parental indignation is a comic success.
2. Lenny Bruce’s Let Me Explain Jewish and Goyish (ep 3)
Lenny Bruce: Let me explain it to you. Let me explain Jewish and goyish to you. I’ll show you how it works. Uh, Gene Ammons is Jewish. Ray Charles is very Jewish. Al Jolson is goyish. The army is goyish. The Navy is goyish. The Marine Corps is goyish. The Air Force is Jewish.
Instant potatoes, scary goyish.
There was a thing in Life magazine, there was a picture of this cat. See, he’s up in the mountains, a rope around him, in this ad for Camel cigarette. And it’s — this is — his name is so goyish it’s beautiful. Bob B-Y-H-R-E. Try to say it. Bob B-Y-H-R-E. Bob Buh? It’s so goyish, you can’t even say it! Bob Burrrrre. Now, dig, Bob, it said, “Bob Byhre who goes up to the mountains to save people for nothing.” He risks his life to save people for nothing. What Jew would do that?! Bob Byhre does it.
Listen to the real recording of Lenny Bruce doing the joke:
Lenny Bruce is one of the few characters on the show that is based on the historical character. Comedian Lenny Bruce’s bit on “Jewish vs. Goyish” is iconic. He was not without controversies; he died of an overdose on heroine when he was only 40 years old. The Lenny Bruce of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is charming and acts as a mentor to Midge (he even bails her out of jail). This joke — while not original to the show — epitomizes Jewish humor in the ‘50s and will make you laugh no matter how many times you listen.
1. Midge’s first stand-up set (ep 1)
Midge: He packed up my suitcase and left. Oh, I’m going to have to lie to the rabbi about why Joel’s not there. Lying to the rabbi on Yom Kippur! I couldn’t get a clean slate for one fucking day […]
I loved him. And I showed him I loved him. All that shit they say about Jewish girls in the bedroom? Not true. There are French whores standing around the Marais District saying [French accent], “Did you hear what Midge did to Joel’s balls the other night?”
I can’t believe this is happening… I can’t believe I’m losing him to Penny Pan. That’s her name. Terrible, right? Penny Pan. Penny Pan. Penny Pan. And I’m officially losing my mind, which is perfect. Now I will be alone and crazy, the famous mad divorcée of the upper West Side…
I cheated: The best joke on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t a joke, but an entire set. If you haven’t seen the show, go watch the first episode. This set occurs at the very end when Midge — drunk from kosher wine (obvs) — stumbles into the Gaslight Café at the end of episode one. The jokes are raunchy, the Jewishness shines through, and she adeptly uses her personal life on stage. While we know she didn’t intend to do any of this — these jokes are brutally honest, and come from a place of grief and pain over Joel leaving — her comic chops are clear. Her nascent feminist streak is also there (“All that shit they say about Jewish girls in the bedroom?”) and also, she goes topless at one point. Compare this set to the one she delivers in episode eight: You will see the same hilarious boundary-pushing hilarious Jewish feminist.