A day on the set: Behind the scenes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

This past November, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with some long-lost friends. Old acquaintances, lovers, and everyone in between (read: girls from sleepaway camp) came out of the woodwork to text me, “Is this you?!!” along with a screenshot of the finale of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

 

Yes, that was me. There, in my 1950s turtleneck, with my one line, I made my TV debut on the now Emmy-nominated Amazon series.

 

As this was my first ever TV audition (and my first booked role), the week leading up to it felt like a dream. I got the notice and auditioned the next day, ’cause TV moves fast and wreaks havoc on the normal 9-5 employee.

 

I usually try to keep quiet about my auditions, so as to not jinx them, and I usually fail. My Maisel audition was no exception. I blabbed about it everyone I could (my roommates, my boyfriend, my Jewish mother to whom the show spoke very heavily) and then spent every remaining waking hour preparing my scene. I said the lines over and over again, in a way that made me laugh. (Why yes, I do crack myself up sometimes! Don’t you?)

 

I also asked myself: What made me special as a comedian? What was going to get me booked over, say, the approachable blonde woman sitting next to me who looked infinitely more TV-ready and had more credits under her belt? I felt like a little rat-girl with something to prove. Answering these questions was how I settled on the exact delivery of my lines. It had to be in my voice, in my specific brand of comedy (which is still developing, and that’s okay. I’d been honing my voice for a year through live performances, and now was no time to abandon it.) I also plundered my closet for the most mid-century dress I could find, and sewed on an extra button to make sure it stayed closed during my audition, as this had been an issue with the dress in the past.

 

In the audition room, I took a deep breath, tried to remain steady even as the reader raced through her side of the lines, and did my scene. Afterwards, I fretted that I had showed them too much of “me” and not enough of what they wanted. Guess what, inner-negative-Nellie? I was wrong. My manager called me the next to day to tell me that while they didn’t think I was right for the part I’d read for, they thought I was “so funny” that they cast me in another role.

 

I trekked out to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in for my costume fitting at Steiner Studios that same night. Whose fast-and-furious life was this? Certainly not mine, a lowly customer-service rep at a men’s shaving startup who, unbeknownst to her, was about to get fired from said job.

 

I was ecstatic. Then, I was nervous. I’d worked in production before (another article for a much later time when everyone I’ve worked with is either dead  or too senile to read my scathing tell-all), and I knew just how many people, places, and things it took to create an episode of television. What if I didn’t know where to go on set? What if they told me to do something and I didn’t know what it meant? What if my phone buzzed while we were rolling? What if I got edited out?!

 

None of these things happened. Here’s what did:

 

August 21st – 7pm: The Night Before

 

I receive my call time. My call time is not the crew call time, a mistake I’ve made before. I have my own call time, specially scheduled for me. I check it once. I check it twice. I triple-check it. I cannot afford to be late and, presumably, blacklisted from the industry. This is my first TV job and I must make a good impression. I am a principal actor for the day, so I am important. I am basically the #1. The production rests on my shoulders.

 

My call time is 1pm, which is is a nice call time. It means I can shower, which I assume is the polite thing to do before letting people touch your hair and face. The extra sleep will ensure that I am well-rested and emotionally prepared for my one line.

 

August 22nd – 12:15 pm: The Day Of

 

I arrive on set. I’m way too early, and I know that’s not convenient because no one is there to meet me at the campers. The campers, if you’re wondering, are the big long white trailers that you see taking up all the good parking spaces during the weekday. They are full of dressing rooms and they usually have the Desi and Lucy signs, not because there’s been a 12-years-in-the-making biopic about Lucille Ball, but because it’s funny and an homage to the old TV sets of yore. I walk to a nearby cafe. I am too nervous to eat, so I only order tea, which I’m too nervous to drink, and sit there for 30 minutes. Also, I pay with credit card, which is so obnoxious. The waitress gives me death glares.

 

12:45: I return to the campers. I approach a PA and tell him that I have arrived. He walkies the the First Team production assistant, a woman with a cool hairstyle and a cooler name (that I immediately forget. Spike? Frankie? Gone.). She puts me in my dressing room and gives me paperwork to sign. I have not even dug my pen out of my bag when I am whisked off to hair and makeup.

 

1 pm: I play a spoken-word poet from the 1950s, so for makeup, I get … eyeliner. My hair, on the other hand, takes about an hour, since they have to make my long locks seem short — an illusion, the magic of television. I end up what what I think looks like a housewife’s hairdo, but actually was a hip hairstyle at the time. Period pieces. Did I mention I got my facial piercing removed for this? Well, I did. We all make sacrifices for our craft.

 

At hair-and-makeup, I’m sitting next to a woman I saw at the auditions. Turns out neither of us got the part we auditioned for, but both got cast in other roles. We chat. She’s very nice. I like making friends on set because besides having the obvious in common, what greater “this is how we met” story is there?

 

2 pm: My hair and makeup are done. I am put into a van with a couple of crew members and two other actors who will be my Best Friends For The Day. We are driven to the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel stages in Brooklyn. Yes, I woke up in Brooklyn, came to Manhattan to get my makeup done, and went back to Brooklyn to film my scene. Showbiz, baby!

 

3 pm: We arrive back on set. I am taken to my onstage dressing room, and am delighted to find that there is a bathroom and a bunch of mirrors. I take pictures and send it to my family, so they can understand that I have hit the big time. I have a bathroom! In my (second) dressing room of the day! My costume is in there, so I try it on. My boobs are pointy and ready for action.

 

3:30 pm I go back to hair and makeup so they can make sure their work matches with the costume I’m now in. I don’t bring my purse down with me, and they want to see it with the purse. I go back upstairs and get my purse. Did I mention  that I have a First Team PA on me at all times? That means there’s always someone to bring me from point A to point B. I could say “I want to go to my McDonalds” and they would accompany me there, even though there’s a more convenient McDonalds right down the block. I don’t make this kind of request because I don’t like McDonalds, but one day I might.

 

4 pm We break for lunch. I don’t feel as though I’ve been working hard enough to deserve a break, but union rules are union rules, and the crew has been working hard and they need lunch. I eat chicken (it’s very good!) and drink water and hang out with my two new Best Friends Of the Day. We go over how we got these roles and who reps us. I like hearing how everyone got to this place in their lives, because every single story is a combination of hard work and sheer luck. I feel lucky to be here.

 

5 pm We meet to rehearse. We sit in a circle and go over our lines with the the creator and the director of this ep, Amy Sherman-Palladino. I am nervous and intimidated by the sheer popularity of Gilmore Girls (Sherman-Palladino’s other show), so I mess up my one line. She corrects me and I already know she thinks hiring me was a mistake. Then I remember that it was a little stumble, about which she doesn’t care, so neither do I. Okay!

 

5:30-11 pm Cameras roll! And roll and roll and roll. Basically, each shot goes like this: The cameras set up. The principal actors and extras come in and we rehearse to make sure the shot works with everyone moving. The makeup/costume people check to make sure everything looks good on the people-side. Then we film it a few times. Then onto the next shot. Rinse, repeat.

 

When we film my closeup, the director asks me to pace up my line. I say “what?” because even though I know what “pace” and “up” mean, the two together confuse me. She says to make it faster. I say okay. And then I do. And all the while, I know she is thinking, “Why did we hire this stupid, short girl who speaks at the pace of a snail and doesn’t even know her line?” And yet she still didn’t edit me out. So thank you, Amy.

 

We do the scene over and over again. It’s only about a page, but it takes six hours, which is normal. The cameras focus on different people, and different angles on different people. Sometimes, the cameras have to set up in an entirely different part of the room, so everyone clears out and waits in “holding.” I take selfies with my new best friends. We’re gonna keep in touch when this is over, i just know it. But it is a long day of standing around and not moving until you’re told. Sometimes, if you’re not in the background of a shot, you can just hang out. Usually, though, you’re on your feet. It’s fun. It’s tiring. It’s nowhere near as tiring as being a crew member. I do get cheese, though. It’s on the craft-services table.

11 pm: I am wrapped. The crew still has one more short scene to film, but my scene is done. I go upstairs (with my trusty First Team PA), change out of my costume, check in with the PA they told me to check in with, and grab a Lyft. It is raining, and I am soaked waiting for the Lyft. I take out my 100,000 bobby pins in the car.


SOPHIE ZUCKER is a Brooklyn-based comedian-slash-child-star who loves musicals and slime. Sophie has trained at Second City, UCB, Under the Gun, and Annoyance NY and performed at most of those places, too. Her show Nervosa: The Musical!, a puppet musical about eating disorders, had an extended 8 week run at Annoyance Theater, as well as a slot at Cinder Block Comedy Festival. Her show Baby Ian Falls Down a Well had a sold-out one month run at Annoyance Theater and an additional one-month run at The PIT. Baby Ian was Time Out NY’s pick of the week. She’s also written and produced videos for Jill Soloway’s wifey.tv. You can find her performing with Ladies Who Ranch (an all-female bit show) at Vital Joint, FIONA (an improvised sketch team) at South 4th Bar, and Ground Floor Comedy (an online sketch collective, partner of JASH). Catch her in the Amazon series Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Or watch a Taking Back Sunday music video she starred in at 12-years-old, when she was her current height but not her current weight. Follow her @mightyzucks. (Bleecker Street Entertainment/CE)


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10 funny over 45: Female comedians making good TV great

I’ve been performing comedy, doing storytelling, and writing since 2007. Back then, I couldn’t find anyone else in what felt like a 100-mile radius who did what I wanted to do.

 

This was, at first, a huge challenge. It was like I knew what funny was — I could point it out of a lineup — but somehow, with no Gold Comedy to guide me, I couldn’t quite get there. So what did I do?

I turned to my most reliable, oldest, available friend: Television. This was my visual learning library. I could study women comedians crushing it every week to help my own work get better. Ten years later, I still do, and I notice that I gravitate towards shows with female comedians over 45. I chose eight who make up a master class in a variety of comedic styles to serve as virtual mentors to comedians at any stage in their careers.

 

Here they are, in no particular order — because each is amazing and hilarious in her own way.

 

1. Jessica Walter

Where to find her currently: Arrested Development (Netflix), Archer (Netflix)
Walter knows how to make hideously self-obsessed characters oddly irresistible. How? Through humor, of course. As matriarch Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development, she created magic with nothing but an arched eyebrow. And as the voice of the animated Malory Archer — a role she got because her agent heard they were looking for a “Jessica Walter type” — she doesn’t even have the benefit of a visible eyebrow; she just uses layers of tone, attitude, and perfect timing to create characters that are unlovable, yet unforgettable.

 

2. Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Where to find her currently: VEEP (HBO)
While its truth universally acknowledged that Louis-Dreyfus became a comedy superstar on Seinfeld (NBC) and impressed everyone with her follow-up, The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS), it wasn’t until she unleashed the foul-mouthed Selina Meyer that she embodied her true goddess status. Like Walter, Louis-Dreyfus knows how to add a dash of charm to a cauldron of awfulness and end up with funny. Her mastery of delivery and throwing her entire body into the moment means that even (or especially) the most hideous behavior — Selina abusing her staff, neglecting her daughter, even being annoyed at her own miscarriage — results only in greater and greater hilarity. She embodies “commitment to your bit.” It’s no wonder she won six consecutive Emmys for her work in this show (she has won ten in total).

 

3. Allison Janney

Where to find her currently: Mom (CBS)
Six feet tall and deadpan AF, Janney sidesteps punchlines and pratfalls; her greatest laughs emerge from her most straight-woman scenes. To learn from her humor, watch her utterly earnest execution: She never winks, never stands outside her character, never lets on that she’s playing a part. In fact, she’s often the window for the viewer. In broad comedies, she plays it pretty straight; As Tonya Harding’s abusive mom in a deftly over-the-top biopic, she brings an incandescent calm to — is this a theme? — the world’s most hideous stage mom, which is why the role brought her a Golden Globe nod.

 

4. Donna Lynne Champlin

Where to find her currently: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Rachel Bloom is the big story of this show — she took her “one-woman-sketch-comedy” schtick from YouTube to TV’s favorite dark-musical-sitcom (okay, TV’s only dark-musical-sitcom), but I’d like to make a case for Donna Lynn Champlin as Paula Proctor. Champlin brings the funniness to a show that is often dealing with non-traditional comedic themes, like mental health issues, alcoholism, and codependency. Champlin finds the beats inside some pretty gallows humor — pushing her friend Rebecca to continue obsessing over her ex while ignoring her own deteriorating home life out of fear that Rebecca will no longer need her if she stops pursuing the ex. Champlin provides the opportunity to look nonjudgmentally at complex issues that are allowed to come from someplace real, even if that is a sad place.

 

5. Catherine O’Hara

Where to find her currently: Schitt’s Creek (Pop, Netflix)
Younger audiences may be finding Catherine O’Hara for the first time in her film work, but you should be looking her up on Schitt’s Creek as Moira Rose. A former minor TV star who married into fantastic wealth, Moira finds herself falling on hard times. She is spoiled snob who is out of touch with what she calls “real people”. Audiences should hate Moira, yet O’Hara makes her endearing and funny. How? By building a full world for Moira through details and character logic. Even when logic is absurd (and it is), like saying her town should pay for after-school care because manicurists can put on the wrong colour and make you late, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. O’Hara has built context for Moira. From her wall of wigs to her inability to do simple tasks like cooking or “fixing a wobbly chair,” there is a life for this woman that extends beyond the 30-minute runtime. O’Hara shows that building context builds character.

6. Dale Soules

Where to find her currently: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Supporting actress can sometimes feel overshadowed by their leading counterparts. Some would argue that means the supporting cast get to play the better roles, like Dale Soules as Frieda Berlin in OITNB. Frieda is a quiet, deadly presence, one of the “golden girls” backing up Kate Mulgrew’s Red; on the rare occasions that she speaks, she reveals truly terrifying breadth of knowledge about … truly terrifying things. Soules, like O’Hara, roots her character in a distinct perspective that carries her throughout the series. When Frieda explains “murder math” — would you rather dig one six-foot hole or six one-foot holes? — she does so plainly. Soules centers her humor in blunt delivery, without needing exaggeration or physical addition (though the neck tattoo is a vivid touch). It is a simple question, right? Soule’s humor is subtle. Like Allison Janney, her delivery is deadpan and understated.

 

7. Tracee Ellis Ross

Where to find her currently: Black-ish (ABC)

On Black-ish, Ross plays a mother of five with a demanding career as an anaesthesiologist handling social and cultural challenges like the election, racism, and LGBTQ issues. That massive framework sits inside the 30-minute, single-camera structure. Being on a traditional primetime television comedy means Ross has to be quick, with tight delivery and intention. There is not room for asides or extemporaneous additions. Like when her character, Rainbow, finds out her son is a Republican, she has to convey a lot of comedy and emotion in the hot-second reaction shot. Ross generates confusion, surprise, sadness, and shock in that hot second by using all available tools — body language, gestures, expressions, and voice. It’s no wonder she’s running up the trophies!

 

8. The Ladies of Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

Where to find them currently: Lady Dynamite (Netflix) (duh)
Lady Dynamite is a show filled with amazing female comedians. Before playing Dagmar on the hit series, Bridgett Everett toured with comedy festivals around the globe and performed a regular cabaret show at Joe’s Pub in NYC. On Lady Dynamite, she brings her big personality to the role of Dagmar, one of Maria Bamford’s terrible best friends. Meanwhile, Mary Kay Place gets to be the world’s most earnest straight person as Maria’s mother Marilyn, bringing a nicer version of her Big Love character into a completely zany environment and making her entirely believable by just reacting honestly. And Mo Collins manages to out-testosterone Ari Gold as Maria’s agent. This show is a gold mine of funny ladies over 40.

 

BONUS ROUND: Here are a list of a few women in the next handful of years that will be eligible for the list! Sutton Foster (Younger), D’Arcy Carden (The Good Place), Kimberly Herbert Gregory (Vice Principals), Kathryn Hahn (Transparent, I Love Dick), and Adrienne C. Moore (Orange is the New Black). Watch them now so you can see it all happen.

 

Have any to add to the list? Let us know!



Courtney Antonioli is a performer and storyteller living in NYC. She produces Stay Golden, a YouTube channel of original content inspired by The Golden Girls. She hosts monthly Golden Girls Bingo and does too many Tough Mudders. You can find her at @stolafprod.

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How to nail a scripted comedy audition

You have an audition coming up. You’re given a script. It’s a short, funny scene.

 

Everybody (not just your mom) tells you you’re funny, so this should be easy. Just… make people laugh… but with lines someone else wrote.

 

Wait. How do you do that? Usually, when you make people laugh, it’s because there’s milk coming out of your nose or you’ve masterminded some kind of complex inside joke unwinding among your friends. How do you make someone else’s words funny? In an audition room filled with strangers, no less?

 

The answer is a mix of exactly who you are when your friends are giggling at your ridiculousness plus a secret sauce of technical skills that I’m gonna lay down right now. And HERE. WE. GO.

 

Start one place, end somewhere else

Read your scene a few times. Take note of your first impressions. Otherwise, you’ll work on it for awhile and you may forget what your very first impressions were. Don’t! They often hold the keys to your scene. What do you think of the scene upon first read, and how does it make you feel when you first read it?

 

Then, read it again, with this in mind: Where does the character start out, emotionally and physically, and where does she end? This is your arc. Like that curved line, it starts one place and ends another. Trace that arc and voila! You have a journey, like a little play.

 

Want something so badly, you could puke

What does your character want? Once you’ve answered this question, multiply the intensity by ten. Your character, in this scene, must want something so badly that it’s physically uncomfortable. EXAMPLE TIME! If you saw Lady Bird, think of that grocery store scene where she is talking to a boy she likes. (NO SPOILERS, I’M JUST SAYING SHE TALKS TO A BOY, OKAY?) She wants so badly to make a good impression and to get him to like her. If that was your audition scene, that would be the want. You can see in the scene how this want makes the actress nervous and how that’s expressed physically (in this case, shallow breathing, intense eye contact, facial tension).

 

This is not only true for scenes that have romance in them. Your character can desperately want to join Mathletes, or go zip-lining in Costa Rica, or acquire an ugly Christmas sweater. There is no end to what a character can want, but it must be a longing that you, as the actress, experience to be intense. The more intense it is, the more heightened the comedy.

 

Make the obstacle so big that you can’t stand it

This goes directly with the want. Something epic stands in the way of your want. Keep the want and the obstacle at the front of your mind are as you prepare your scene.

 

Romeo and Juliet really want to hang out with each other. The obstacle is that their families hate each other, and they are forbidden to do so.

 

In my silly zip-lining example, maybe the character wants to zip-line, but her uncle had a tragic zip-lining accident in the ’80s and therefore her family has an iron-clad no zip-lining policy due to their tragedy. The family trauma is, therefore, the obstacle that this character faces. She must go against her family’s wishes to do the thing she most wants in the world.

 

Raise the stakes

You may have heard directors yell at you to “raise the stakes!” I didn’t really get what this meant until I was around 30, so I’m gonna save you some time here so you can have fewer years of bad acting than I do. The stakes are what you will lose or gain if you can’t surpass the obstacle to get your want.

 

Lady Bird, in the grocery store scene, will either impress this lovely boy or lose him forever based on this conversation and the impression she makes. (That may not be true, but that’s what the actress must believe to create the stakes of the scene.)

 

In the Mathlete example, if the scene is the big Mathletes tournament, the stakes are that the actress will either bring her team to glory, or bring her team to shame and loss based on her performance in this one type of equation she has prepared to solve all year.

 

Get the idea? Stakes are high when the thing to be lost is equal but opposite of the thing to be gained. Life and death in every situation. That’s what makes you, as an actress, exciting to watch. Commit to the stakes of your scene so much that your palms sweat. Being a human is hard, so represent it accurately!

 

Make it about the other person

Your scene partner (for the audition) will most likely just be a reader doing the scene opposite you. This person may or may not be bringing much to the role, but your job is to listen and be affected and moved by every little thing the reader says. Your scene partner is very important. Everything they say has some effect on you. Don’t fall into the trap of focusing only on your lines. Equally important is everything you are hearing and the way you react in silence.

 

Remember that actions speak louder…

Each line you say to someone else has an associated action. Actions are verbs. You can use a line to impress your scene partner, to scold your scene partner, to warn your scene partner. You will be amazed how the lines come alive when you assign a particular action to them. Play around, reading each line with different actions, and see how your performance of the line changes.

 

Be sure to direct your actions toward your target. Your scene partner is that target, and every action must fall on them, because you are seeking to affect them just as they will affect you.

 

Find the funny

Oh right! It’s a comedy scene! Now that you’ve done the basic scene work, you get to be a comedy detective. I find this part the easiest and most fun, but for dramatic actors newly trying their hand at comedy, sometimes the emotional stuff (which often lives in wants/obstacles/stakes) will come more easily, and the comedy sleuthing can feel like foreign territory.

 

Be able to say in one clear statement why something is funny to you.

 

Example: I find the Lady Bird scene funny because the way she flirts with the boy is to use stock phrases she’s heard from magazines and TV. She doesn’t sound like an actual human.

 

What are some other scripted scenes from TV, movies, YouTube that made you laugh? Go back and watch them again. Can you articulate in one sentence what was consistently funny about that scene?

 

Heighten the funny

You’ve got to know why something is funny so you know how each funny moment heightens. You have uncovered the skeleton of the scene, and now you can flesh it out.

 

In Lady Bird, this funny detail heightens because she does it multiple times. It becomes more absurd as the conversation goes on because it’s weird to chat with someone for a length of time and still be speaking stock flirting phrases plucked from the pages of a magazine.

 

Find the operative words

Just like a dramatic scene, a comedic scene will have lines and words that are more important than the others. Find the most important word or two in each sentence as well as the lines in your scene that matter the most to you.

 

Observe how you speak in your life. Some stuff you just say to fill silence, but at important moments in your life, chances are you speak to be heard. See if you can pick out the difference. Writers choose important moments to write about, and in a good comedic scene, your character really cares about what she is saying.

 

And…your major takeaway

Comedic scenes have high stakes and require an actor to understand why the text is funny, so she can heighten the funny behavior pattern as the scene goes.

Questions? That’s like 20 years of actor-training distilled in one article. You must have questions! Hit me up @emmatattenbaum (cc: @goldcmdy) on Twitter and let’s get nerdy about comedy acting.  


Emma TattenbaumFine is a comedy writer and actor who recently hosted HQ Trivia in front of nearly 400,000 people internationally. She was named a 2016 Comedy Central “Comic to Watch” and a finalist in the truTV “Comedy Breakout” competition at the 2017 New York Television Festival. Emma was a staff writer on Almost Genius at truTV, and as an actor has collaborated with Al Sharpton, Reggie Watts, Aparna Nancherla, and Amy Poehler’s “Smart Girls at the Party”: writing for and then appearing in absurd sketches with them. Emma is a founding member of sketch group Political Subversities and the writing duo Ari and Emmawww.emmatattenbaumfine.com @emmatbomb on Instagram

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