How "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Writer Alison Leiby Found Her Own Voice Through Comedy

by Sarah Lynch · December 12, 2019

    Alison Leiby still remembers jokes from a Janeane Garofalo comedy special she watched as a teenager. It was the first time she’d seen a professional funny person she could relate to: a wisecracking brunette in casual clothes with a sharp wit. From Elaine Benes to Joan Rivers, funny ladies gave Leiby the first glimpse into a world of comedy that would one day become her life.

    Today, Leiby performs all around New York City and has started traveling out of town, as well. She’s written humor pieces for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vice, and more, and she’s contributed her comedic chops to The President Show, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, and, most recently, the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her stand-up comedy is firmly rooted in her own life experiences, often revolving around topics like womanhood, diets, fashion or whatever seems funny to her at the moment – and sometimes that’s screaming on stage about shaving vaginas.

    Back when The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was still a pilot, Leiby talked to show creators Amy Sherman Palladino and Dan Palladino – whose past hits include Gilmore Girls and Bunheads – about joining the writing team, but the timing was not meant to be. Two years later, the opportunity presented itself again, and Leiby jumped at the chance. The show follows a New York City housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel who tries her hand at stand-up comedy. The series has garnered Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, and the third season will drop this winter.

    In television’s off-season, Leiby is working on new material, going to see other performers, doing stand-up at night, and winding down with some Bravo TV at the end of the day (because don’t we all?). She took the time to tell us about life as a comedian, writing for one of television's hit shows and working her way up NYC’s stand-up circuit.

    Midge Maisel discovers her comedic talents by essentially stumbling onto the stage. How did you get your start in comedy?
    Similar to Midge, I was living on the Upper West Side and my life was all set up. I worked for publishing houses and museums and had a whole different, pre-comedy life than the one I have now that feels a billion years away. I had interned at The Onion when I first graduated from college and always loved comedy, loved stand-up and wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know that you could just start doing it. I don’t know why I thought that Chris Rock had to come and point and be like, “You get to do it!”

    I started doing some storytelling and realized that the parts I was really enjoying were when I had punchlines and jokes and funny moments. And I was like, “Well, this is halfway there. I guess I’m doing stand-up now.” I just kind of hit the ground running. I started here in New York. I’ve been here almost the whole time and never looked back, which now in retrospect in my late 30s feels crazy...I just never stopped.

    Do you have a place where you go to write and feel inspired, or does inspiration tend strike you randomly?
    Sometimes it’s when I’m home, sometimes it’s when I’m on the subway and it’s crowded and I’m like, “Oh my God, I need to write this down!” but I literally can’t even reach into my purse for my phone. It’s always the shower, the middle of the night, the times you can’t record it – that’s always the best idea. There’s no specific place, but because my comedy is based on my life and what I’m experiencing and observing it adds onto doing things that strike me as, “That’s funny, I could talk about that.” That’s when most of the creative inspiration is coming.

    How would you say your comedic style compares to Midge Maisel’s comedy?
    One of the fun things about Midge, at least in her early, early career, is that it’s all kind of stream of consciousness. She is crafting jokes, but her and I and most comics want it all to seem very much like you’re just seeing me talk, like I’m just this funny all the time, which is very unrealistic for 99.9% of people. Even when you’re like, “This isn’t scripted!” it’s almost always scripted, which is being a comedian.

    The overlap for me and her definitely comes when she’s writing about her life that she’s living and what she’s seeing and experiencing, and I’m doing that too. Now, she’s doing that in 1960 as a divorced woman with two children from wealthy parents on the Upper West Side, and my life is a little bit different than that [laughs]. I think if she were alive in 2019, it would sound a lot more like some of the comics who are out working now because she’s just observing and commenting and I think that’s a lot of what I do too. I don’t do a character. It’s not a crazy act. It’s just kind of like, “I saw this and I thought it was stupid and now you all need to think it’s stupid with me to agree with me.”

    What are you most excited for viewers to see in the show’s third season?
    I always like them seeing a little bit more about what Midge’s life is as a stand-up. I think just seeing Midge’s journey as a woman who’s doing this, without giving away any details about what she’s encountering, really applies to any male-dominated industry, of which there are so many. I think seeing her navigate that, and seeing some struggles that maybe people don’t expect exist or some exciting moments that you don’t realize mean so much. That’s what struck me about the series when I first watched, so I hope that we’re continuing to do that, because I personally enjoy that part. If you like the show, you’ll love this season. We get to see a lot of fun times, as weirdly vague as that is.

    Season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is out now on Amazon Prime!

    [Cover photo via Amazon][Alison Leiby by Mindy Tucker, Alexandra Genova]