Toward the end of the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the titular character, Midge Maisel, meets one of her comedy idols, the wildly successful comedian Sophie Lennon. This idol ends up becoming a rival as Midge’s emerging career starts gaining momentum. With so many cameos of real-life personalities from the time, including the trailblazing Lenny Bruce and the legendary Moms Mabley, it starts to feel like everybody Midge meets could have been real.
However, most of the characters—Sophie Lennon included—were not real people. The reason they feel so true to life, though, is because most were written as composites of real people. To accurately reflect the time period and what it was like to be a woman in comedy in mid-century America, Mrs. Maisel writers borrowed elements from different historical figures to create fictional characters who feel uncannily realistic. So, who is Sophie Lennon made of?
One Part Moms Mabley
Women have historically been limited to two possible roles: mothers or objects of desire. If a woman isn’t either maternal or sexually available, male audiences won’t know what to make of her. This made finding success as a comedian difficult for women because being witty and intellectually challenging was neither maternal nor sexually inviting.
Moms Mabley, one of America’s first stand-up comedians—who also appears later in the show played by Wanda Sykes—contended with this reality and the added challenge of the threatening and hypersexualized stereotype attached to Black women.
In order to reach a broader audience while avoiding that hypersexual and/or threatening Black woman stereotype, Moms Mabley leaned heavily into the mother role, outfitting herself in oversized housecoats and floppy hats to disguise and desexualize her shapely and fit figure.
The persona Moms Mabley put on in order to go out on stage was far removed from her real self. On stage, Moms was cranky, unrefined, and sexually unappealing—much like Sophie Lennon when she puts on her fat suit, her Queens accent, and makes her nonsexual persona the butt of so many of her jokes.
Off stage, Moms Mabley was openly lesbian, known for strolling through town, dressed in masculine clothing, with women on her arms. She was beautiful, brave, and quick-witted. While Sophie Lennon’s off-stage personality is nothing like Moms, she does balance the same stark contrast between the on-stage persona and the real self.
One Part Phyllis Diller
The on-stage persona of Sophie Lennon bears a strong resemblance to that of Phyllis Diller. Like Moms and other women in comedy, Phyllis Diller developed an exaggerated, self-deprecating housewife persona so that men in the audience wouldn’t feel threatened by the fact that a woman was making witty observations at (and sometimes about) them.
Diller’s persona was a working-class, chain-smoking, clumsy housewife much like Lennon’s. Unlike Sophie Lennon, however, Phyllis Diller was a working-class wife and mother off stage as well as on. The difference was that her on-stage self was dialed up into a caricature and desexualized. In fact, she got her start in comedy at the relatively late age of 37 as a way to supplement the family’s income because raising five kids on a single salary isn’t easy.
One Part Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers started with a similar threat-diffusing kind of gimmick that the women before her had adopted, though she appeared on stage well-dressed (more like Midge’s character in that way) rather than in frumpy housecoats. The gimmick came from her self-deprecating jokes about promiscuity, plastic surgery, her aging body, and other topics that women were normally expected to keep private.
Sophie Lennon shares not just Rivers’ success at developing a laughable, self-deprecating persona but also her secret aspirations to expand beyond the confines of a gimmick and the parallel insecurities that she would battle throughout her life in spite of her success.
When she tried to break out of those confines, venturing into directing, screenwriting, and even becoming the first woman to host a late night talk show in the 1980s, all of these efforts were met with varying degrees of disinterest, disdain, or, in the case of her talk show which became a competitor of her long-time friend Johnny Carson and ultimately ended in her husband’s suicide, resentment, and tragedy.
Sophie Lennon’s character experiences a similar career reckoning in the third season when she attempts to steer her career into the more high-brow theater that she had secretly aspired to all these years. When she tries to reprise her public persona as something closer to herself by starring in an August Strindberg play, she becomes so overwhelmed by her insecurities and lack of self-confidence that she botches the role and falls back into the safety of her housewife from Queens persona.
One Part Jane Lynch
Of course, what really brings Sophie Lennon to life is the award-winning portrayal of her character by Jane Lynch. With a career spanning dozens of blockbuster comedies and television shows, Jane Lynch might be best known for her portrayal of Sue Sylvester in the hit show Glee, a character who has since been immortalized in a meme (a high honor in this digital age):
Jane Lynch brought to the character a layered performance that accurately reflected the bristling insecurities and conflicting emotions that can come with achieving success by becoming someone that you aren’t. Lynch navigates that pull between a fragile self-esteem and a smug, superior attitude exceptionally well—the chronic dissatisfaction with being limited to a caricature and the fear that abandoning that caricature might reveal your own inadequacy to be anything more.
She also brought her own Jane Lynch mannerisms, both the clunky and space-dominating gestures of Sophie from Queens and the proud, stoic movements of Sophie at home. To construct the on-stage persona, Lynch researched the work of real comedians of the day like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, to whom she would later dedicate the Emmy she won for this role.
Though Sophie Lennon was not real, the many women of which her character is a composite were, and Mrs. Maisel itself is a meticulously crafted (if highly stylized) study of the challenges of building a successful, independent career as a woman in a male-dominated industry like comedy.