This week, Elvis Mitchell welcomes the Emmy-winning showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The duo also helmed the series ‘The Gilmore Girls’ and ‘Bunheads.’ They address how their wide-ranging taste in music informs the tone and rhythm of ‘Maisel,’ and they discuss how their signature rapid-fire dialogue can actually make the infrequent moments of quiet even more powerful.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to the treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guests have taken the world of TV by storm over the past few years. So going back to, of course, ‘Gilmore Girls’ and one of my favorites: ‘Bunheads.’ Their newest success on Amazon is 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ in its third season. I'm talking, of course to Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Dan Palladino. Your characters are so much about taste, and their taste about things and asserting their tastes. I mean, going back to 'Gilmore Girls,' and even in the pilot episode where Suzy is giving the speech to Midge and saying that she believes in her and she sees in her something that nobody else sees, and it's really a reflection of her taste. And sort of making that stamp and putting it out there for Midge to see. I wonder where that comes from for you guys.
Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, we're very opinionated.
Daniel Palladino: No, we're not.
Sherman-Palladino: The more specific a character is, the more I think people can get behind the character. And, you know, pilots are a very tricky thing because in a pilot, you have to make the audience invest in a character they don't know, invest in a backstory that they are just being fed pieces of, and then sign on for the ride. It’s a tricky dance. And so to lay out your case, so to speak, I think that for us, it's always been a: fun and also to help sort of really define where the character is coming from to put very specific tastes out there, whether it be mentioning the kind of books that they read, which will say, you know, whether they are a book reader or not, or the kind of music that they listen to, or the kind of movies or information that they want to talk about. It can say a lot about who the character is in a short amount of time.
Palladino: Yeah, I mean, weirdly, like in TV over the many, many decades, you very, very rarely see people watching TV on TV. It's something that we writers forget is consuming media like TV, movies, books and magazines and stuff like that is what people do a lot every day. And yet so many movies and television shows don't show people actually doing these things. So on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ we always had the girls watching a lot of TV and commenting on the TV, which is what I think people do, especially since March of 2020. So yeah, we have people consume things and debate them and sometimes proselytize them. It's sort of what we all do everyday kind of naturally. It's the fun of everyday life.
Sherman-Palladino: Also, you know, something specific, like ‘Maisel’ is about discovering possibilities within yourself that you may not have known was even there. So it's important to have somebody else that sees it. Sometimes, we walk around the world thinking we're not special or we don't stand out, and sometimes it takes somebody to go, ‘Hey, you're the person that did that thing.’ And you're like,’ oh, wow, someone noticed.’ And that is what Susie and Midge are for each other. They are two women who, in any other circumstance, would have nothing to do with each other, wouldn't go near each other, like they wouldn't want to stand, you know, in a checkout line at a grocery store with each other, but they have this mutual goal, and they literally can't do it without each other and the discovery of that, the discovery of they see in each other, the cheerleader, the partner, the prodder, the person who sees what's special about them, it's kind of the core of the whole show.
KCRW: Taste as reflection of character in this specific way is really unique to the way you guys work and just talking about taste and going back to the pilot, the way that Midge basically introduces herself through her own wedding toast, which already shows that she's different from anybody else in 1959 that she's toasting herself rather than waiting to be toasted, but also that she basically goes through a very long route to outrage all the Orthodox people at the wedding. And again, for me, it's so much about taste. And that becomes a really interesting way to animate character. Rather than having them explain themselves in the more obvious ways we see in TV.
Sherman-Palladino: The problem you run into in storytelling is exposition. Because people need to know a certain amount of exposition to be able to keep up with the story. But there's nothing more boring than somebody saying, 'Hey, here's a page of exposition that I was going to tell you because you need to know it.' And one of the hardest jobs as a writer is to hide the exposition. And one of the ways that we have found that really does get things across quicker is you get insights into people by things that they do, by actions that they take, by the way they react to someone opening a door for them and you can make judgment about somebody without somebody giving you an expositional speech on their backstory, if you can dramatize it like that. Anything that can be dramatized, as opposed to told to you is an infinitely better thing, we have found, especially with our characters, who are weirdly, so chatty.
All of our shows are super chatty, and our people like to talk. But we like to have people talking about things that often are not what the scene is about. And the very fact that they're talking about this other thing while something else is going on, we find that interesting, and we think that it helps actually even define how our characters maneuver in the world and how they work with other people, because they aren't talking about the thing that they are doing at the moment. They are just doing it, and then they're doing something else.
KCRW: What we're talking about is sort of classic acting exercises where you give a character something to play, but not have them talk about it. So they're actually using that dialogue to express something that's really subtextural, which is also something we're not used to seeing on TV. But I think, too, the characters you guys write really are finally moved by their passions, and that's what creates so much tension and abrasion, doesn't it?
Sherman-Palladino: Yes, it is. You know, on 'Gilmore,' Lorelai clearly was somebody who needed a free thinking environment to be able to flourish. And weirdly, the circle in Gilmore is because she has this great daughter but the daughter as much as she's like Lorelei is also very much different than Lorelei. She's much more in her head. She's much more comfortable with structure and discipline and much more willing to, you know, bend a little bit if it'll make someone happy even though it's not necessarily what you want to do, but, you know, so what for an hour you put on a ball gown and you get paraded around a ballroom because it makes it makes your grandmother happy. Whereas Lorelei is a little bit more like me, which is like, 'I don't want to do that. You're not gonna make me do anything that I don't want to do because that's not my belief system, so you can keep your ball gown and shove it.'
And that was sort of the interplay of 'Gilmore Girls' that works so great is the connective tissue between two women who literally are never going to be able to learn how to speak each other's language which is Emily and Lorelai. Rory, because she can speak both languages, is sort of the UN. She's the interpreter; she's Switzerland between the two of them. Passion and choices in life come with wonderful things and come with consequences. And that's what Midge learns every day when she wakes up in 'Maisel’ is this passion that she discovered in herself, which, by the way, is not even her choice to even find this passion. It's just sort of thrust upon her but because she's decided to act on it in such a decisive way, every day that she wakes up is going to be an adventure that could hold wonderful surprises. And it also could mean terrible things.
You know, touring on the road with Shy Baldwin was a blast and fun and romantic, and it was hot, and she bought outfits, and she learned her voice on stage. At the same time. she's away from her kids, her parents are falling apart, you know, her husband's moving on with his life. It's like one world is leaving her while it goes in another direction. And those are the consequences that come with passion. And I think because we don't tend to do things that are about like, a terrorist takes over Macy's and you know, we got to get the hostages out because we are not necessarily plot driven as much as other shows. We are much more character driven. I think you have to delve into the passions of these people to keep it interesting.
KCRW: We're talking passions with the creative force behind 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' from Amazon: Amy Sherman Palladino and Daniel Palladino. You say that there's not plot in any way, but I feel like what you guys are doing is really treating these things and somebody's life happening in real time, and the passions basically take the place of traditional narrative because we're talking about people who lead with their hearts almost all the time. That sort of gives people a different kind of rooting interest, doesn't it? We're following the character rather than trying to see who's going to cut the blue wire.
Palladino: Yeah, but you know, there's something in Midge's character that is something that the character cannot help like, like what you said about the wedding toasts. She knew what she was doing at the end. She knew she was going to drive the crowd crazy, and she didn't care, and we showed that her husband didn't care either, which kind of showed them bonding. And then later in that season, she went up on stage and she had kind of a 'Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' moment of all she had to do was deliver this 10-minute set in front of Sophie Lennon, who was Jane Lynch's character in front of Sophie Lennon's manager, and basically she was going to score a gig that kind of put her up on a higher level. And because of her dislike of the pomposity of the woman, the whole lifestyle and the hypocrisy of the woman she just could not help but simply destroy it. And she did it of her own hand and she did it willfully.
KCRW: For me these shows work because you're writing characters and the actors respond and really take the bit in their teeth and go with it. But I also think it feels like the way you guys write that the characters end up informing where the shows are going to go more than you're laying out conventional sort of plot bites.
Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, I mean we've always been stingy with plot and we've gotten hit for it and we've gotten applauded for it, so anything is valid. My very first writing job was on the original 'Roseanne.' The writers' room there, the motto was always ‘make the small big; make the big small,’ and that was how we did stories on 'Roseanne.' And maybe it's because that's how I was trained, and that was my first gig and Bob Meyer, who was running the show at the time, was a great showrunner, and I learned so much from him about storytelling. It's always the way I thought about it and to do something like that where you're making the small pieces of life the big thing in a story, it's going to automatically become more about character and what the character is going through and how the character responds to a certain thing that everyone would respond differently to. And we always found ourselves, if we were talking too much about the actual plot of something, knowing we were on the wrong path, because it wasn't about that. The character and the thing that hooked them emotionally, that's what's gonna lead you down the path and that's what you have to follow.
Palladino: Yeah, we really like doing things like this year, in the first show, we did Miami. In the writers' room, we were really happy about the whole Lenny Bruce-Midge sequence, which had very, very little or almost no plot, but we wanted the challenge of sustaining basically the audience's interest over a long night of experiences without anything really hard in the way of plot happening until the very, very end which kind of culminated in a sort of, will they/won't they? thing that I think you kind of felt we were leading up to. But basically, we just wanted to do Miami after dark. We wanted to show a really, really busy night. And we didn't want to worry about plot, and we really liked how it turned out. And from fan reaction, it seems like they really, really liked it. I don't think they realize that nothing was really going on. We're really just kind of showing you this kind of fantastic version of an all night out in Miami.
Sherman-Palladino: And a lot of the things we do is playing to a feeling of something and playing into that feeling of you're out of town, you're someplace new, you're having one of those great hair days where your hair works perfectly, and the outfit you picked out works beautifully. And events just happen and unfold in such a way. Maybe you get one of those in a lifetime. But sometimes you get a few of those sort of nights or days where you just don't know what's coming around the bend, and it doesn't matter because your real life has been left so far behind and that's what that was all about. That particular episode: it landed in some true emotion, but a lot of the things that we do, you know we did it on Gilmore too, is like when we would do things like the "you jump, I jump, Jack,” you know the idea of like, what is it when Rory gets swept up into this world of this college group that is the death brigade and they're secret, but they have money and they do these insane things that there's no reason. What is somebody getting swept up in a moment like that? I mean, we enjoy doing that a lot.
Frankly the last episode of ‘Bunheads,’ since we sort of saw the writing on the wall, even though they hadn’t said that was the last episode. I said, as somebody who used to dance, ‘I want to take somebody through what a cattle call of a dancer is like.’ What is that feeling of, from the minute you pick your outfit, get your hair and makeup done and you pin that number on you and the soul crushing day that you go through when you find out that the job that you’re up for was taken before you showed up there. This was just a union exercise they put you through, and most of the times that you went on these calls, it was a very similar experience. It was a story about an experience, and I personally, it’s one of my favorite episodes we did on ‘Bunheads’ because it was just that.
KCRW: One of the things I'm really fascinated by in the way you guys work especially on 'Mrs. Maisel' is the way bassline and music play such a big part in the show. We're always aware of how the pump of the bassline is, even thinking about when those guys were doing the folk song in the club. We hear the acoustic bass going in the pilot. In fact, I think that any show you guys do could have ‘Girl in Trouble’ by Romeo Void.
Palladino: You know, a lot of times when we pick music, it's sort of like when you're writing jokes and stuff, like if something comes to you immediately or quickly, that's the best way of having something. It's when you have to hunt for it, that you end up with something that's not quite what you wanted, but it's close enough. We were doing that episode in, I think it was the first season, and when I was just in the editing room and just the first time I saw a cut together version of that stand up. And I hope I remember these episodes correctly, but the first time I saw it, that song just popped out at me, and I said, "Let's see what that feels like,” and we put it in, and it was right. Those are the best times for us for music.
Sherman-Palladino: Music has always been important to us. 'Gilmore' was done at a time when music was less expensive, like you can put a lot of music in 'Gilmore,' and you could pay for it. It's a lot more expensive now than it used to be back in the days of the WB when there was a dancing frog as our mascot. We both have musical backgrounds. I was a dancer until I discovered sandwiches, which ends every dancer's career. And Dan came from the musician side, and I think because of that, and the way we hear comedy in a rhythmic manner, it feels musical to us.
I grew up on 'The 2000 Year Old Man' was sort of like the big thing for me as a kid. It was Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and there's rhythm to that sort of comedy. There's a metronome; there's a beat to it and that is our comedy stylings. Our comedy stylings have sort of an intrinsic dance step to it. Then obviously when we did 'Bunheads,' which was simply based in a ballet studio, you know, the whole thing is music and expression through music and then 'Maisel.'
I think a lot of it is because Midge herself is a character who never stops moving, both in her life and in her emotion and in her physicality. She's a character that is constantly propelling herself forward. Her forward motion is everything about her. She's a shark. If she stops moving, she dies. And that's portrayed a lot in just the way she walks down the street and it cries out for music. You know, when I wrote the pilot of 'Maisel,' there were many musical pieces that were written into it. 'Wonderful Day Like Today' was written into the script. And for many reasons, you know, when you write a pilot script, you're showing people the taste and the style of the show. I wanted people to understand the kind of music that I wanted to use.
Palladino: That enabled us when we were shooting like in the beginning when she was walking on her daily errands to 'Wonderful Day Like Today.' We blasted that song wherever we were. So we're at Riverside Park, we played that song. We were at the butcher shop, we played that song, so that Rachel and anyone else and even the background character actors who were so great, knew sort of the rhythm of what we were going for.
Sherman-Palladino: It's also important for camera because if you're shooting something in a certain way and you don't have the music, now we don't always have every piece in mind, obviously, but for big important camera moves, we sort of feel it's important because otherwise what's going to happen is the camera is going to move at its own rhythm. And you can put any piece of music you want in there, you know, but if the camera and the music are not aligned, it's not going to totally feel like one cohesive piece, like everybody was moving together in motion.
And so whenever we can, Jim McConkey, who’s our steadicam magician, if there's a piece of music that's that is the piece we're using, he'll just have them play sound into his headphones. So he's hearing the music as he's moving the camera so he understands the feel. Is he floating? Is he marching? Is he pushing forward? Is he letting it drift? I mean that's all dictated by the music and there's nothing more frustrating than you have this beautiful camera move but you want to like goose it up a little bit and you put a piece of music under it and the music is saying one thing, and the camera is saying something else.
KCRW: I was just thinking about even the more period pieces like you were saying 'It's a Good Day' or 'Pass me By,' we can still feel the bass count in those and then to go from that to ending with 'Girls Talk.' You can almost hear the count the 1-2-3 or the 5-4, or whatever it's doing and I think that really applies to almost every piece that's played over the end credits. 'Our Lips are Sealed' or 'Curtains,' which is the way you ironically finish off the season, or going from 'Open the Door, Richard' to another piece of pop, but I do feel like the baseline in a way that hasn't been as important in the other shows. It's almost like a heartbeat.
Palladino: Definitely. And, one of the great things about 'Girl Talk' is that it was written by Elvis Costello and he saw it and he sent us a very nice note. We've been using music, like different kinds of music. You know, we had Sparks on 'Gilmore Girls.' We had Sonic Youth on 'Gilmore Girls.' We shamelessly proselytize our own musical tastes to people. Amy picked 'Girl Talk' at the end of the pilot because she just thought that would be a cool way to end it. It's got great energy. Thematically it works. And I think it points forward because Midge is a forward pointing character. I don't think it's a big mystery to say that she's got big adventures coming up in her life, and her heyday is going to be kind of the 60s, 70s, 80s...90s hundreds. So that music sort of speaks to her future as well. Lots of appearances on the Mike Douglas show.
KCRW: Comparing 'Maisel' to 'Gilmore Girls' or 'Bunheads,' the choices are much poppier than on those shows. And I feel like that too is about the 60s and the 70s a little bit, about the break in pop from the 50s to the 60s, and it becomes an interesting way to sort of tell us who these characters are by having them listen to different kinds of pop and then using pop at the end.
Sherman-Palladino: We're trying to keep a certain clock, timeframe. We haven't gone into any sort of modern music even at the end because we want to be in the future but not so far in the future that it's completely disconnected.
KCRW: One of the things that was really interesting to me in the last episode, and we just had Wanda Sykes on, and she's doing a terrific job as Moms Mabley and the way she uses silence, which when there's silence in your shows, it really lands hard, too. And we can feel so much if we're talking subtext and judgment, all those things happening when Moms is just looking at Midge as Midge is just going on and on, and Moms isn't saying anything and she gets a long beat of silence after Midge finishes talking.
Sherman-Palladino: In defense of our rapid pace of writing which again, some people love; some people like to kick us in the head for it. We often feel like life happens at a faster pace than people realize and then is often dramatized. When you're setting up for those dramatic moments, if there's been life and energy and chatter and motion and movement, when everything stops, when it's earned, I just think it's that much more effective, as opposed to a show where everything is sort of paced exactly the same. And you may even miss the real emotional moment because it's the same feel as the moment that just happened right before then when they ordered a cup of coffee. So it's just our comedy, but when we go for our emotional moments, we want them to really land, and if we're going to have people stop, if there's going to be silence, it needs to be completely earned.
What's interesting about Wanda is I knew Wanda as this just really, really funny stand up, and often when she was doing movies, she was kind of the side person who was the truth teller, you know. Just there to be really sharp and acidic and funny. And what I found so interesting is you can put a camera on Wanda, and there's just like a million things going on in that head of hers, and it's all in the face in that little scene that they do afterwards, it was so effective. And it was so important. Because we were, we were not only dramatizing someone real, which we don't do a lot, because a lot of responsibility comes along with that. But we were dramatizing a pioneer of not just Black female comics, but female comics period. So there was a lot of respect, you know, attention must be paid. And that scene had to have a lot going on there.
And I keep saying it to her and I think one of these days she's just gonna, like, slug me and say, 'Stop saying this to me,' but I was just so amazed and taken aback by the fact that I could just infinitely stare at her face during those moments. And she was taking it all in. And she was processing it all, and trying to figure out who this little girl in pink in front of her was and what she was doing there. And then when she found it out, the look on her face, just to me was almost a little heartbreaking. It was like, ‘This is what my life is, you know, this is the insults, they get paid to me. I deserve better than this. But I'm gracious. And I'm smart enough to know that this isn't going to be an easy task for her.’ I mean, there was just a lot of stuff happening there. And she just really nailed that.
KCRW: We're out of time. We're way out of time. I can't thank you guys enough for doing it. My guests who've been incredibly gracious with their time are the creative forces behind 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Dan Palladino.