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UWM lecture explores the legacy of Jewish female stand-up comedians

left to right: Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Tiffany Haddish
Wikimedia Commons
left to right: Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Tiffany Haddish

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime explores the fictional life of a female stand-up comedian in the late 1950s. But while Midge Maisel is fictional, the character is rooted in the real-life history of female Jewish comedians who made their way to the top of the comedy scene despite many obstacles.

That history will be explored on March 5 at UW-Milwaukee in a lecture called, The Many Mrs. Maisels: The History of Jewish Female Stand-up Comedians, presented by Grace Kessler Overbeke, an assistant professor of comedy writing and performance at Columbia College.

As Kessler Overbeke explains, Jewish women's prominent presence in stand-up comedy took root in the 1910s, if not earlier. Jean Carroll is Kessler Overbeke's favorite contributor and the subject of her book. "She is the first Jewish woman to do stand up as we understand stand up today," she says. "So, there's no musical numbers, there's no sketches. It's just a person speaking from their individual point of view about their experiences in a really funny way."

She continues, "Around Jane Carroll's time and what she was part of was this transition into what we now think of as stand up, which is way more personal. It's almost like giving a confession."

Carroll, along with other comedians of her time, like Phillis Diller and Joan Rivers, had to fight against a lot of stereotypes in the comedy field. Many of these stereotypes were peddled by Jewish male comics who were writing and using material about the Jewish women in their lives.

"Before any Jewish woman even opens her mouth, there is already that ghost of the Jewish mother or the Jewish Princess or people that have really strong stereotypes of what Jewish women are like that are hunting that microphone," says Kessler Overbeke.

They persisted through these challenges and paved the way for many women Jewish comedians today, including Sarah Silverman, Jacqueline Novak, Sas Goldberg, Tiffany Haddish, Rain Pryor, and Rashida Jones.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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