Monday, December 16, 2019

Mrs. Maisel-Season Three | Lefsetz Letter

You’re always worried about going too far.

Athlete, musician, writer, performer…you strive to be in the zone. When you’re not even thinking about the work, you’re just riding the wave of inspiration and then…

It’s over.

It’s not like working for the man. It’s not like business. The first rule of business is “get along.” Come on, you’ve seen that person who does a worse job get the promotion when you don’t. They knew how to schmooze, take the boss out to lunch, butter them up. This is not what an artist does. An artist prepares their whole life for that one moment, when they have to shine.

But they don’t always. You’re always trying to climb that mountain. You get kicked in the teeth, you fail, the audience doesn’t get you, you keep striving and striving to be in the zone. But when you’re in the zone, when you’re channeling God, when you’re speaking your truth, some people are always offended, because they cannot handle the truth, they don’t want you to speak the truth, they don’t want their inner life revealed.

But an artist…always has to surf the zeitgeist, always has to take their work seriously, is inherently tortured, is constantly trying to push that rock up the hill.

And no one needs you, no one depends on you, the audience can always find somebody new, your manager, your agent, they can get another client, but if you blow up your career, just by doing your act, doing it well…well, good luck!

I could complain about “Mrs. Maisel” all day long. It’s not realistic, as good as Rachel Brosnahan is, I don’t see her as a comedian, but somehow the series touches your guts. Just when you think it’s flying off the rails, it zings into your heart.

Kinda like Abe, Midge’s father. He followed his heart, got caught up in the moment, and not only did his job go away, but his apartment too.

The business titans don’t experience this. What they do best is plan ahead, keep order, let everybody know who is boss. They may run on instinct, but they don’t run willy-nilly, they’re calm and collected, it’s all about keeping the prize.

But the rest of us, sometimes we don’t even know what the prize is.

So what was it like in 1960?

Hell if I know, I was seven.

But I do remember the Patterson/Johansson fight. I do remember the cars. The few television stations. The war being still visible in the rearview mirror, the threat of Communism on everybody’s mind. But I did not have access, no one had access. And this was in the pre-cellphone days, when there were no cameras, when what happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors. And if you were privileged to be an insider, you felt like a million bucks.

The depiction of Vegas makes you want to jet back there. A private party place. Where the acts interacted with the Mob and everybody had a good time. Before bottle service, before the rich made it rain, when the clubs were small and the audience was up close and personal.

Like at the Fontainebleau.

Jackie Gleason moved to Miami. It was incomprehensible, all the action was in New York, maybe L.A. But if you watch “Mrs. Maisel,” you get it. Sure, the production design may be a little over the top, but it’s the colors and sets that set your mind free, allow you to suspend disbelief.

And Sophie Lennon….

Midge said that bullies only respect bullies. Ain’t that the truth. If someone is picking on you, don’t cower, don’t try to make peace, don’t try to make them love you, stand up and fight, dish it back, it’s the only thing they respect.

And talent is mercurial. They’ll ping-pong you all over the map. Take all the credit for success and none of the blame for failure. It’s never their fault. Management is a service business, never forget it.

And fear… We all think we want to be the star, but when we get our chance…

We choke.

That’s the dirty little secret, just about everybody chokes. Especially in athletics. You need experience under the lights to get it right. The pros are even better when the lights come on. They can be half-dead in the dressing room, but when they hit that stage…YOWZA!

And sure, the hats and dresses are over the top, but not the matchmaking and marriage and vacations and schools.

If you don’t get into a good school, your entire life is ruined. Not only do parents in New York believe this, it’s true. It’s not so much what you learn in class, but who you surround yourself with. The goal is to get to the center, and you’ve got to peel back a ton of onion skins to get there. It’s such a learning process.

That’s what they don’t teach you in school, how to be a star. You learn through experience, and most people can’t handle the failure, never mind the lack of cash.

And are you entitled to get what you want?

That’s what the baby boomers believed. Their parents worked hard so they could experience their dreams, although the parents’ dreams were different from their children’s. The parents wanted their progeny to be a doctor, marry a doctor, if you’re bad at science be a lawyer, or an accountant, you’ve got to be a professional, to ensure that you won’t be short of cash, that you will have status in society.

Then Watergate ruined the reputation of attorneys, bankers made more than doctors, techies made more than bankers, old money was nowhere near as much as new, and we still haven’t figure it out, as many people were left behind and unaware of the race.

Now the thing about “Mrs. Maisel” is you forget about your regular life. That’s what movies are supposed to do, but how many flicks keep you from checking your watch, never mind your smartphone?

And we’re all looking, 24/7, for entertainment that does this. We’re addicted to story, we want to believe, we want you to shoot for the moon, on the rare chance that you might actually get there.

This is the ethos of streaming, this is not the ethos of network.

In other words, the creators get the money and they get no notes.

Can they handle the freedom, can they deliver on the promise?

And any artist will tell you when they know it’s going wrong. You’re in the groove, and then suddenly you’re not, and there’s no way you can get back there. You can finish the book, finish the song, finish the movie, make it as professional as you can, but you know it’s a stinker, because you were shooting for a ten, and it’s a few numbers below that. And today, with a plethora of entertainment, the audience only has time for tens, maybe nines.

And the amateurs, the journeymen, don’t understand this. They think if you pay your dues, you should get the reward. They feel if they put in the hours, they should get paid. They don’t know you might have to watch TV all day to catch lightning. You might have to take a shower, you might even have to masturbate to get into the zone, to clear your mind of the crap so you can deliver greatness.

But sometimes the audience isn’t prepared for greatness. It’s too far out there, the performer is too far ahead of them.

And then there are those who play it safe, for laughs. Just like Sophie Lennon they’re coasting on what once was, they know what titillates the audience, what makes people roar.

But that’s not art, that’s manipulation.

That’s why artists shouldn’t read business books. Business books tell you to give the audience what it wants, artists give the audience what it needs, even if it might take a while for those on the other side of the stage to catch up with the message.

The greats just know. Steve Jobs did no market research. He knew where he was going. And what happened? He got fired!

Luckily, Jobs wormed himself back into Apple, to become the legend we now know, who changed society, at least for now.

You can’t get away with rough edges at the corporation, Jobs is the exception. But in art…if you don’t have rough edges, if you don’t offend, if you don’t need it to be your way, if you’re willing to compromise…

You’re never going to make it.

Or if you do, you’ll never be remembered. You’ll be an entertainer.

And we’ve got enough entertainers, we’re looking for artists.

Artists riff on life, react to situations, try to parse truth, try to surf the zeitgeist.

But not everybody can handle that.

So too many people are afraid to take the risk.

But that’s what being an artist is.

If you can fall asleep right after doing your act, you’re not an artist.

If you think everything you do is great, you’re not an artist.

If you think if the audience likes it it’s great, you’re not an artist.

Being an artist is hard.

It’s easier to be a doctor, lawyer or banker.

Abe and Rose don’t want Midge to be a comedian. She almost gives up and marries a doctor when things go wrong. Her husband steps out on her because she’s better at it than he is.

No one wants their kid to be an artist. The odds are too long.

And no one has to be an artist, it’s your choice. And if you’re complaining about your path, no one cares.

And even if you make it, are lauded and rich, you still won’t be satisfied, because you’re still looking to push the envelope, whether anybody’s watching or not.

But you’re hoping they do.

Like I watched “Mrs. Maisel.”


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