Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jim Carrey all had a breakout moment early in their careers on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Late-night talk shows have long been a stepping stone for stand-up comedians, and Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) attempts to take this route in the final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
It hasn’t quite gone to plan. Instead of ending up in front of the camera, Midge has taken a staff position offering up the “women’s perspective” in The Gordon Ford Show’s writers’ room. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s series has never shied away from mixing real-life celebrities in with fictional figures. But instead of taking the Lenny Bruce route of having Midge strike up a screwball comedy dynamic with an actor playing Jack Parr (or even Carson), Veep’s Reid Scott takes on the role of Gordon Ford, who hosts “the No. 1 talk show in the country”—meaning he currently rules 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Behind the scenes, talent booker Mike Carr (Jason Ralph) has the power to make or break an entertainer, but he is caught up in a battle of wills—dreaming of usurping sleazy producer George (Succession’s Peter Friedman)—and keeps self-sabotaging his ambitions.
Ralph and Scott first appeared as guest stars last season, before getting the series’ regular bump for the final outing that sees both characters sparring with Midge and her manager Susie (Alex Borstein).
The duo recently chatted to The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about joining the Emmy Award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for one last hurrah.
“Amy and Dan [Palladino] write these incredibly poetic, epic scripts, and the last thing you want to do is butcher any of these beautiful words they’ve given you,” says Scott. Coming to a show this late in the game is an intimidating experience, and there is also the fact that The Gordon Ford Show team doesn’t interact with most of the season regulars (Brosnahan and Borstein aside). “One of the challenges, at least for me, is to make sure we’re still being authentic to the tone of the show,” Scott admits.
Fast-paced dialogue with an inherent musicality is a Sherman-Palladino script signature, requiring each actor to get up to speed and be at the top of their game. “You want to please them, you want to impress them, and they’ll let you know when you do,” says Scott.
Ralph is in a unique position joining the cast, as he is married to Mrs. Maisel herself, Rachel Brosnahan. So his experience within this world dates back to the beginning. “I’ve known everybody for so long, and so in a lot of ways, it was like getting to come home and hang out with all these people that I like,” he says. “But with the added bonus of having the opportunity to be welcomed to play and have a part in all the fun.”
That familiarity came with some trepidation as Ralph was “terrified I was going to embarrass my wife.” His worst-case scenario? “Amy wouldn’t know what to say, and she’d have to quietly write me off the show without trying to make anyone embarrassed, but it didn’t happen.”
Contempt to Comrades
Instead, Ralph’s character is trying to channel his resentment toward George into showing his strengths in the workplace—the result of which is that he often resembles a tightly wound screw. So far this season, Mike has put up with Susie’s persistence, dealt with Gordon’s crabbiness when he quit smoking, and handled an after-hours emergency meeting stemming from an incident with Midge and a handsy brand rep on a boat.
Ralph jokes that Mike is a “hyper-ambitious little sociopath,” He’s relished peeling back the character’s layers as the season has progressed. “At first, I was thinking about him as this mean, mad clown, and then Amy and Dan did such a great job of laying in all the nuance,” he says.
Over the course of a few episodes, Mike has gone from flipping Susie the double bird to speaking openly to her about his frustrations regarding his talent-booking woes (“Doris Day’s ostrich got sick, so she postponed”).
“I think they’re both after the same thing, and Mike definitely recognizes in Susie a very genuine person trying to get to the top,” says Ralph. “I think he sees himself in her, and she sees a little bit of herself in him.” Camaraderie has blossomed from contempt, which still leaves room for playful back-and-forths. “They see what each other is doing, so they know how to push each other’s buttons in all the right ways—especially her to him,” says Ralph.
Persistence is how Susie helped Midge get her foot in the door, but George’s rule that anyone who writes on the show cannot appear on the show is an additional obstacle. Mike was the initial gatekeeper preventing Midge’s path, but he is also at an impasse in his desperate bid to climb the ladder. “I wasn’t this happy when my kids were born” is Mike’s giddy response after Gordon has given George a dressing down in this week’s episode. But it’s also a lesson to be careful about what you wish for, Ralph teases that, in a future episode, Mike has “a dog chasing a car moment” when “he gets [to the top] and doesn’t know what to do with like his newfound power—to hopefully great comic effect.”
Late Night-Talk Show Research
Meanwhile, Gordon is at the top of his game, sitting pretty at number one. Of course, he isn’t quite as unflustered as he appears behind his TV desk.
As with his seven-season stint on Veep, a wealth of material is available on the inspiration behind the storylines. When playing Dan Egan, Scott visited Washington, D.C., to meet a real-life counterpart to his thirsty, upward-climbing politico, which was “an amazing education.”
For Maisel, Scott researched past icons like young Johnny Carson at the beginning of his career, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Jack Benny—as I have recently discovered, it is very easy to fall down a hole on YouTube watching old late-night clips. “I got to speak to several modern late-night talk show hosts that I’ve gotten to know over the years,” he says. These conversations were eye-opening when it came to how Gordon behaves when he isn’t in front of a studio audience. “What interested me was the personas they had to give off on and off camera—off camera being the juicier stuff,” Scott says. Because the late-night format hasn’t “changed much in the last 60 years.”
A meeting with the writers in Gordon’s office in this week’s episode gave us a glimpse at just how beloved he is by the public: records bearing the host’s face hung on the walls, Emmy trophies lined his shelf, and photographs with famous people dotted the room. (The attention to detail on Maisel remains unbeaten, and Scott recently posted some highlights on Instagram.)
The scene also shows how quickly he can flip from affable to prickly. His annoyance is pointed squarely at George—benefiting Mike—who is trying to get him to meet with potential Diddy Doo diaper cream sponsors. “Fuck the network!” is not what you want to hear your star saying, but it does speak to how against this sponsor Gordon is. Scott keyed into this behind-the-scenes element: “All of the people they had to be when they weren’t on camera is so fascinating.”
The Hepburn-Tracy Dynamic
Gordon’s rapport with Midge has been hot and cold throughout the season, from his fury at her loudly reacting to his incorrect reading of a joke during a taping to trying to kiss her during the ice skating celebration in the same episode. Midge yelled at him in a bar in response to his clumsy joke delivery and brushed off his advances on the skating rink. “I think he’s attracted to her on a number of levels. A). he respects her talent,” says Scott, “and b) He’s attracted to her physically. But then she also possesses these character traits that remind him of himself—or maybe of himself at a different time in his life.”
Ambition and drive connect these characters at different stages in their careers, but there are rather sizable obstacles in Midge’s path beyond George’s rule. Midge doesn’t have the same opportunities, and there are also uneven power dynamics, as Gordon is her boss. Scott mentions that Gordon “tries to push his weight around a little bit” when it comes to workplace romance. In Episode 5, “The Pirate Queen,” he even swings by to watch Midge in action on stage, offering to take her out for dinner at a time when the host would not have to worry about HR stepping in.
Midge chooses the restaurant, and under the harsh fluorescent lights of the diner, he says he wants to take her out on a follow-up date (even though this isn’t a date), have a no-strings fancy hotel rendezvous, or even just share a kiss. “He thinks he can get away with a little bit more than he should, and when she doesn’t allow that—when she pushes back in the right way—it puts him in his place,” says Scott.
Ultimately, he settles for a dance in the middle of the all-night City Spoon diner, after Midge rebukes his advances. “Rachel’s an amazing scene partner and such a strong woman in her own right—and her character’s so strong—so you get these two clashing personalities,” Scott says. “It was very Hepburn-Tracy. Talk about classic dynamics; that’s a dream come true to play that specific kind of relationship.” However, from what we have seen in the flashes into the future, Midge is anything but Gordon’s girl.