It seems as if a number of those who chose to celebrate April as National Humor Month last month by taking in this columnist’s presentation of “Laughter is the Best Medicine: The Borscht Belt and American Comedy” at the Ethelbert Crawford Public Library in Monticello got more than they were expecting.
Even the participants who came to the program thinking they already knew most of what there is to know about the Borscht Belt were surprised to learn that one of the hottest names in television comedy these days was inspired by a real life Borscht Belt comic. And no, that inspiration was not Danny Kaye, Red Buttons, Alan King or even Jerry Lewis.
It was Jean Carroll.
Yes, Jean Carroll, who was one of the pioneers of female stand-up comedy, and starred in her own early television sitcom, and who lived a good portion of her later life in the town of Mamakating here in Sullivan County, was a real life Marvelous Mrs. Maisel long before the idea for such a character ever struck the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Although Sherman-Palladino does not directly cite Carroll as her inspiration for the show, typically mentioning Totie Fields and Joan Rivers instead, the actress Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Mrs. Maisel on screen, says she developed much of her characterization on You Tube footage she watched of Jean Carroll performing, albeit some ten years before the current show is set.
“Ms. Carroll was born Celine Zeigman in Paris on January 7, 1911, and came to the United States with her family at 18 months,” the New York Times reported at the time of her death. “Reared in the Bronx, she began her career in her early teens after a talent agent spotted her dancing in an amateur show. Soon after, she joined the vaudeville circuit as part of a two-boy, two-girl dance act. A natural verbal clown, she later joined the act of the comedian Marty May.”
From the time she began performing publicly, she was billed as Sadie Zeigman until one night when the stage manager at the venue where she was booked advised her that “we’ve got the (German-American) Bund here tonight,” and introduced her instead as “Jean Carroll.”
She never reverted to her birth name onstage.
After performing with Marty May for a time in an act clumsily named “Marty May: Friend of Thousands, Annoyed by Jean Carroll,” she met the dancer Buddy Howe and they became a team, first on stage, and then in life. He soon retired as a performer to concentrate on promoting her career, and the two remained a couple until his death in 1987.
“In the early 1930s, Ms. Carroll met Buddy Howe, an acrobatic dancer. Joining forces as Carroll and Howe, they toured the country with a dance act punctuated by humorous patter written by Ms. Carroll. The couple married in 1936 and spent the next three years touring Britain,” the Times reported. “After the United States entered World War II and Mr. Howe was drafted, Ms. Carroll continued as a solo comic, to wide acclaim. On his discharge from the Army, Mr. Howe was prudent enough to realize that the act was better without him and became a talent agent instead.”
Television was new and exciting when Carroll got her own sitcom, “The Jean Carroll Show” in 1953, with Alan Carney as her husband and Lynn Loring as their daughter. The show lasted just eleven episodes. Shortly thereafter, Carroll began devoting less time to performing and more time to raising her daughters, explaining that while she still loved show business, “I love my family more.”
One writer who recognized the parallels between Carroll’s career arc and that of Mrs. Maisel—although the two are admittedly very different in some respects — is Grace Kessler Overbeke, who wrote of the similarities in Forward magazine on July 5, 2018.
“Carroll’s story raises deep, meaty issues that are still at the core of so many women’s lives at this moment: Her determination not to be financially dependent on a man. Her need to downplay her ethnicity to ‘pass’ in the mainstream media. The choice she had to face between her career and her family,” she wrote. “And every time characters on [The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] express shock at a ‘girl comic’ or a ‘pretty comic’ in the person of Miriam Maisel — who faces none of those conflicts — an important story with resonant and enduring issues gets overlooked.
“To be clear,” she continued, “I enjoy watching ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ The classic one-liners and misdirection, the endless parade of incredible clothes, the celebration of a female standup comic — it’s everything I wanted in a show.
“But my adoration is tempered by the recognition that for many audiences, this marvelous fiction will further eclipse the fact of Jean Carroll, the actual foremother of standup comedy. As we celebrate Mrs. Maisel for her courage, wit and ability to pair an outspoken viewpoint with a fabulous cocktail dress, let us also take time to celebrate — and learn from — the incomparable Jean Carroll.”
Jean Carroll, by then more commonly known as Celine Howe, died in Hartsdale, NY on January 1, 2010. She was 98.
Photo of Jean Carroll provided.
V. Kohler says
Nice article, John. Similar, indeed! Thank you for this entertainin and fun piece.