Two-time Emmy winner Alex Borstein showcases her stand-up prowess with a personal, reflective, and hilariously fictitious show in her new Prime Video comedy special Corsets & Clown Suits, which is streaming alongside The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s final season. After eight Emmy nominations and five SAG nominations so far in her career, Borstein joins awards conversations again.
In her special, Borstein, currently starring in Maisel’s fifth and final season on Amazon Prime, opens up about her dating-life post-divorce and how she’s learned to stop caring what other people think. Accompanied by musicians Salva Rey and Erik Mills, and a playful ASL interpreter, Borstein fills the 81-minute special with intermittent musical moments and frequent audience interactions that segue into original songs like “Jewmanji”. It’s a show that the two-time SAG award winner admits gave her a cathartic outlet.
“I was definitely worried whether I’d sound like a motivational speaker, but the show is about a woman trying not to care how she’s perceived,” shares Borstein. “Ultimately, that’s what the show did, and it took me 40 years to learn. So maybe someone out there would love to learn it a little quicker than I did.”
Corsets & Clown Suits ties in with the latest season of Maisel, with filming taking place at the Wolford Theater set, which was built when creator Amy Sherman-Palladino altered the fourth season during Covid. The Prime Video series wrapped its final filming days with scenes devoted to the whole cast, before the Wolford Theater was disassembled following filming for Borstein’s special.
“We were all participants of our own funeral in some ways,” explains Borstein. “We each got to put a little dirt on the coffin, be there, feel each other in the room, and watch each other perform. I watched Rachel [Brosnahan], which was really moving. It was almost like Susie giving away her daughter at a wedding.”
Awards Focus spoke with Borstein about how her new comedy special came together, incorporating an ASL interpreter into the show, reflecting on five seasons of Maisel and whether she will appear in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s next Prime Video project Étoile.
Awards Focus: Can you talk a bit about how your stand-up special Alex Borstein: Corsets & Clown Suits and how you came to film in Maisel’s Wolford Theater?
Alex Borstein: What’s interesting is that I started working on the show when I moved to Barcelona post-divorce. This show was how I dealt with becoming a new person and starting a new life. I started meeting new people and met these two guys, Salva Rey, and Eric Mills, who were musicians, and we became friends and sharing music. I started monologuing, and they started playing a soundtrack to it. It just grew, and I can’t even remember which came first, the songs or the monologuing, but we started performing and building the show. It was the therapy I needed to start again.
By the time the show came to fruition, we had toured it in London for five nights and went to Ireland, Dublin, Cork, and Galway. Then we did New York, Madrid, Barcelona, and Los Angeles when Amazon said yes – we want to make this. Then Covid shut everything down, and all this time passed. When Maisel came back, Amy [Sherman-Palladino] had to alter her storyline because of Covid. Part of the changes included the Wolford Theater. It was strange because the second I saw the theater, I knew this is where I wanted the special to be. This is exactly what I had envisioned in my head.
I asked Amy, and she said yes. It was so interesting that what my story was about really folded into much of Midge’s larger story. It became about finding your voice and using it, how you are perceived within the conventions of the times, and how women should be perceived versus how we behave. So it was just this confluence of things coming together in this perfect, beautiful storm.
AF: Your style of comedy also feels in tune with Maisel because Midge’s routines also include interacting with the audience and feeding off their energies. Did you film your performance more than once, and how scripted is the show?
Borstein: We did it two different nights because we moved the cameras slightly, which was an exciting way to shoot a comedy special. I don’t know if it was the smartest way, but it’s the way we did it to try to have some cinematic choices. The same team shot a lot of Maisel, so they came at things more theatrically and semantically.
We shot close to two hours of material. It was very scripted, and there were moments when I was reacting with the audience. Some of those are impromptu, and some are things that had happened, and we incorporated them into the show. It’s something where you work on every nook and cranny. There are things we did on the first night that I changed up a little bit on the second night based on reactions.
AF: I also love the incorporation of music because you have a beautiful singing voice, but the mixture of covers and original songs bridged the truthfulness with the wildly fictitious aspects of the show. What considerations went into choosing the songs to include in the show?
Borstein: The very first thing that happened was Salva, Eric, and I met on a weekend in Amsterdam. I met Eric first when I moved to Barcelona, and he invited me away for his birthday. He said he wanted to bring his friend Salva because he thought we would get along. I had never met him before, and we all stayed in an Airbnb. We smoked and choked and started playing music for each other on our iPhones. He played something, and I started singing, and that’s when we realized that many of these songs had the same feel, so we started folding these songs together. It just happened very organically.
AF: The mash-up of David Bowie’s “Changes” was beautiful.
Borstein: I didn’t think we could even dare to cover a David Bowie song at that time. Like, who do we think we are? But when it really became about altering those lyrics and having them mean something different, it wasn’t about trying to cover David Bowie; it’s using those words to further the story along, and the music is supposed to transition from one beat to the next and move you in this other direction. So that’s the only way we had the balls to use such a well-known song like that.
With the original music, the first song I already had was Liesl’s song “Blood and Vomit,” about Hitler’s maid. That had been rolling around in my head for a few years and was something I had worked on before meeting Eric and Salva with a woman named Susan and her husband, Rich. So when we started talking about the world and what a mess it is, and discussing these crazy leaders and talking about the male mind versus the female mind – it just fell in and worked.
AF: I love your interactions with the audience and people on stage, including the ASL interpreter. There’s a moment in the show where the ASL interpreter’s demonstration of a phrase had me in stitches.
Borstein: That was created many years ago with Family Guy. We would go to Comic-Con and do a panel, and they had an interpreter. I always ask how you say certain inappropriate things. I love ASL as a language and think It’s so beautiful, and I don’t think people pause for a moment even to look over and see how incredible the movement of these two hands creates language. It’s fascinating to me.
AF: This season of Maisel has taken a different direction by jumping into the future and revealing how things turned out for many of the characters. Were you surprised when you started reading the new season and how Amy approached the final episodes?
Borstein: Yes, I was shocked. We were all completely surprised. The script sometimes arrives the night before you’re going to a table read, and it was jaw-dropping. I was alarmed to see that we were immediately being told about Midge’s future in the first episode.
Amy is a genius and a very sophisticated writer. The show isn’t about whether Midge will make it but what happens on the way to making it, what is sacrificed, and what does a woman lose to achieve her dream? It was a learning experience for me to be like right, this is what it’s about.
AF: After five seasons, what was it like to film your final scenes with the other cast members?
Borstein: Amy scheduled the filming of a series of events that the whole cast is in for the last few days. It’s not necessarily the show’s final scene, but we’d all be together. I could barely rehearse. We bet on who would cry first, and I absolutely lost. I just started cracking in rehearsal – I couldn’t look at Rachel without getting emotional. It was almost like Susie giving away her daughter at a wedding.
AF: What do you reflect on when you think about the experience of filming Maisel for five seasons?
Borstein: You know, I had developed some shows before on my own, and I sold a pilot. I made one, but it never aired. Working with Amy has almost made me never want to take that on again because I realized I could not have seen something as completely as she did in a million years. She knows her entire series’s beginning, middle, and end, not just in a season. From the beginning, she knows the last line of every show. That’s phenomenal.
In episode five, Amy had this idea for Midge to take part in a trash musical. I watched the documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway on which it’s based, and I still think it’s insane. Unbeknownst to me, all the while, there are a hundred dancers and set painters and musicians and songwriters that have been working for two months on this spectacle that I’m only aware of once the script hits my desk the day before. Just the amount of foresight to have and create something and fold in all these different aspects is mind-boggling. It’s made me gun-shy to ever work with anyone other than Amy again because I don’t know if people take that much care.
AF: Could we see you in her next Amazon series, Étoile?
Borstein: I have no plans of doing it, but I know they will be shooting in Paris. So I’m going to visit, but I want to play, watch, and eat croissants.