The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.

From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.

Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list include: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript

Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does, “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we'll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don’t fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.


* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.


Thomas said...

Found your blog just because I was troubled by the script’s anachronisms. I noticed “perp walk” and “give it up for” that you mentioned, and another that you didn’t — “rock star” used to describe Ricky Nelson. 1958? Come on!

Jay Livingston said...

Right. Rock stars did not exist before the mid-sixties at the earliest. There were other terms I had my doubts about but didn't include. And Reddit has a discussion about "I'm like" followed by a clause (“So I'm like what's going on here”) to use a made-up example)which I'm sure didn't exist till much later.

But now I have another thought, which I may blog briefly about. If the characters did use the terms that were hip in the 1950s but then went out of style, we would feel more distant from them as people. (I can picture Susie saying to Midge next season, “A comedian has to be relatable,” as you and I wince.) The clothes and props are part of the external world, but the language is part of the person.

maria erin said...

In her opening wedding speech she said “Who does that?” which felt very modern!

Jay Livingston said...

I agree, like totally. One of the reasons that the writers and script-checker didn't catch this is that, like some of the other anachronisms, it's a very simple phrase made up of very ordinary words. How could it be a recent creation?

Thanks for writing . . and reading.

Unknown said...

The idiomatic anachronisms grated on my ear, but it made me nuts that they showed Joel coming in from work while Ed Sullivan was on the televsion. Ed Sullivan was aired on Sunday nights. It also irritated me that they did not seem to know the difference between Pyrex glass bakeware and Corningware ceramic bakeware.

Jay Livingston said...

I didn't catch either of those. I guess they wanted something that would be emblematic of the time, hence Ed Sullivan.

Unknown said...

In the courtroom the description of a guy who looks "kind of rapey". "Really?" in that whiny, uptalk way. nerd alert, take a meeting, is that a thing?, I don't hear this many modern idioms in my day to day life. It's like they are trying to fit as many in as possible!

Jay Livingston said...

The really interesting thing is that neither the experienced writers, who presumably have a good ear for dialogue, nor the person they have on staff to check these things notices. It's not that they don't care (unless Palladino in this interview is lying). Oh well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Anonymous said...

The first series is in 1958, Midge refers to “pantyhose” which were not on the shelves unti 1959, and they were called panti legs.

RIchard said...

I'm glad to see, among all the rave reviews for Mrs. Maisel, that some find the anachronisms irritating. Being in my 60s, I may be more sensitive to the genuineness of the language. I guess younger people wouldn't notice or care as much. Jay, you mentioned how they got the props right while letting the language go. Last night my wife noticed Midge and Susie were dipping their french fries into a McDonald's-like plastic cup. On the whole, I think the anachronisms dilute the potency of the comedy.

Claire Caterer said...

Also, I’ve noticed “I’ve/you’ve got this” (Midge is mocking Dr. Spock’s idea that a mother “knows more than she thinks she knows.”) She says, “That’s his advice? ‘You got this’?” I know that one has only been around the last ten years at most. And another one that struck me: A jazz musician recounts how he was arrested for spitting; “Spitting while black,” Lenny Bruce clarifies. “—ing while black” is very recent also, beginning with DWB (driving while black) in the 1990s. The word “nerd” dates back to 1951, but “nerd alert” does sound a bit modern. I don’t much care if something is 1960s vs. 1950s, but once you’re getting modern enough for me to remember it, it is jarring.

Jay Livingston said...

In 1958, it wouldn't even have been "while Black." It would have been "while Negro." Well, maybe Lenny Bruce would have said "Black." More likely "spade," which was hip then. (Hip lingo changes so quickly. As Dave Frishberg says/sings in "I'm Hip," "When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.")

I saw in WestSideRag that the show was going to be filming yesterday about ten blocks from where I live. I was tempted to go up there with a big "No Linguistic Anachronisms" protest sign and march back and forth on the sidewalk.

GrammyK said...

Nerd alert was used in the first party scene. Since this was the time period I grew up, this show drives me crazy with anachronisms of speech.

Anonymous said...

There are elements of this show I like, but the anachronisms are driving me to distraction. Not only the verbal ones, like those already mentioned and "It is what it is," but also the situational ones. In one episode her son is watching Howdy Doody after supper. The show appeared only on Saturday mornings. In the same episode, set in 1958, she talks about "two for one pantyhose," but that were not invented for another year. This is just sloppy writing. Hire someone that was alive at the time as a consultant.

Jay Livingston said...

The Wikipedia entry for "Howdy Doody" says, "Originally an hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (at 5 p.m. Eastern), the show moved to Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 6 p.m. EST in September 1948."

On Wednesday, the show will be filming just a few blocks from where I live. I'm tempted to go up there and tell them they need a better anachronism-checker.

Anonymous said...

Several observes have noted that "pantyhose"is referenced when it simply wasn't around in 1958. Along the same lines, you can see many of the women in skirts or dresses are bare-legged, a big no-no in 1958. A sharp automotive enthusiast will also spot cars in this series that are newer than '58.

Jay Livingston said...

The other thing that goes with the hosiery is a girdle. It's possible that a woman as thin as Mrs. M wouldn't wear one, but many (most?) women did.

ElliotNC said...

I am watching this series on Amazon Prime, so I didn't catch the episodes in real time. (Of course, they didn't have that luxury in Mrs. Maisel's time, hence the Ed Sullivan and Howdy Doody slip-ups).

What caught my attention was a reference to ordering General Tso's Chicken at Ruby Foo's. General Tso's Chicken made its first appearance in NY in the early 1970's and was quickly adulterated in a myriad of ways. This is a dish that had an actual creator and is not something from a traditional Chinese cookbook.

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

Chinese food in New York in the 50s and early 60s was nearly all Cantonese. Shun Lee, which claims to have invented General Tso's chicken, didn't open till 1971. In 1958, UWS Jews would have been more likely to go for steak kew or chicken chow mein at Ruby Foo's. In her day, Madame Foo was probably the number one Chinese restaurateur-entrepreneur in North America, but that day is long past. Good-bye Ruby Foo's day.