How I Found Myself in Mrs. Maisel’s Shoes

Last summer, the day my husband drove my daughter to sleepaway camp, I moved into my parents’ apartment building. Neighbors who had known me since childhood saw me in the elevator and asked what I was doing there. “House-sitting,” I said. In truth I was getting divorced, and crashing to save money until I found a new place for my daughter, 14, and me. When I told friends my situation, they said, “You’re the real-life Mrs. Maisel.” Minus the costuming and time period, there were striking similarities: difficult split, close Jewish family, prying neighbors.

But unlike the main character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” I had never done stand-up and had no desire to. I’d had lots of stage experience, as a former child actor and, later, an author and journalist giving public readings, but stand-up had always seemed terrifying. My self-esteem was at a record low. Why would I want to tell jokes to a bunch of strangers? What if I got heckled off the stage? I never thought to imagine what would happen if they laughed.

Over the next few months my life unraveled, but I found myself with a surfeit of material: moving to an affordable but remote neighborhood in Brooklyn; dating men who swallowed Viagra in front of me; getting the HPV vaccine three months before the age cutoff of 46.

One day a college professor friend, also separated, told me he performed at open mics under an assumed first name. He said it had helped him in the early months of his split. He told me about a club in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, called EastVille. I thought, If he can do it, why can’t I?

I began scribbling jokes on index cards, practicing them on my phone voice recorder. On weekends I went to all-ages shows at EastVille with my daughter to watch established comics like Judah Friedlander, and took notes during their acts, getting ideas.

Last month I went to my first open mic there, organized by the comedy producer Laughing Buddha. I arrived half an hour early with $5 in hand. (While some mics are free, most require a minimal cover, a drink or both, and ask you to reserve online to guarantee a spot.)

When I walked into the brightly lit bar, I found about 10 people mouthing lines — mostly men, and only two other women, including the co-host Sunghi Yoo, a wardrobe stylist turned comic. I drank a gin and tonic for courage and we went into the back room. As Sunghi drew names from a bucket to set the lineup, I held my breath. I felt a pressing desire to bolt from the room and feared that if I did, I would never return.

The other comics’ sets were about marijuana, depression and reality television. The material was weak, sometimes demoralizingly so, and most jokes drew silence. I was learning the first lesson of open mics: virtually no one laughs. By the time my name was called, several audience members had left.

But the bar had been set just low enough that I lost my fear. I grabbed my index cards and pulled the mic out of the stand. “My name’s Amy and I’m recently separated.”

Though my set was not a total bomb, a Nietzsche “abyss” reference did not land, and I went on so long that Sunghi came onstage to make me stop. And yet I got a few faint laughs, as many as anyone else. When I sat down I was shaking with terror and glee. I wanted only one thing: to get better.

A week later I returned. Turnout was a bit higher. This time when I did my “tight six,” I didn’t use notes and got more laughs. I also learned from my failures. A joke about sex after divorce was too explicit to be funny. I began thinking about a G-rated metaphor instead.

I soon became a mic addict, rearranging my schedule around shows. I traveled to the comedy and arts space Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens, over an hour from my apartment, because their mics were free and said to be supportive. Each mic was an excuse to write more material.

At Q.E.D., I improvised a new line, and got so distracted that I promptly forgot the next joke, my best. Miking was one step forward and one step back.

Out to dinner with my parents I did a minute or two of my set. My father laughed so hard he wheezed. “This is incredible!” he said. “You’re like Jerry Seinfeld dropping in at the Comedy Cellar!”

“I pay to perform, if I drop in I can’t go up, and I will never get a gig at the Cellar, but yes, that’s exactly right.”

At a Saturday-evening Brooklyn show called Mic Jordan, I was tighter and cleaner. A guy with short dreads did a riff on “being on the spectrum” vs. being on Optimum cable. People roared. After the show I asked Optimum Guy what he thought of my set.

“Keep working, keep writing.” It was the last time I asked a fellow miker about my performance.

I stayed at the bar that night, chatting with my fellow comedians. As I went to more mics, I heard more of their stories: One was in analysis three times a week. Many lived with their mothers. Some lived with their wives and mothers. Tommy Treasure, the only comic bluer than me, had two kids. Everyone came alone. We were compelled for different reasons. Some guys told me they did 10 mics a week; they wanted agents and careers. I didn’t. Amazon already had a series about my life.

As I sat in the bar, I realized why I kept returning. It was the sense of community, which had been missing since I separated. More than I wanted a new partner, I wanted to connect. And because my shared parenting schedule involved five-night stretches without my daughter, I had to find ways to cure the loneliness, even if it was drinking at a comedy bar with a bunch of maladjusted guys young enough to be my sons.

After a friend took me to see the comedian Tom Papa taping a set for Netflix in Newark, I was so inspired that I went straight to a mic in the East Village. The evening crawled. There were racist and sexist jokes, and some comics seemed drunk. I wished I had gone to bed.

For my first few jokes, the laughs were faint, but I felt relaxed because I was so ambivalent about being there. Then I delivered a line about my Pakistani-American landlord’s reaction when she learned I paid spousal and child support, and suddenly the whole room erupted. It went on six, seven seconds. I felt like Midge Maisel killing at the Gaslight.

The shaggy-haired comic up next, Michael Thomas Geary, the only one within a decade of my age, looked out at me and said, “You made me want to get married, have a kid and get divorced, just so I could come up with that line.”

Then he talked about a breakup. “I realized it’s possible to be codependent and single at the same time,” he said. “I’m codependent with you, these people, in this room. You are my relationship.” I knew exactly what he meant.

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