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.

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

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