[with apologies to Elayne Boosler]
I’m totally pissed I missed Maria Bamford when she performed in Bloomington a year or so ago (I didn’t know about her then). Like Louis C.K., she offers a standup comedy of abjection & anxiety, with a quality of pleading loneliness and reaching out for connection. Part of the tension of the routines is in the sense conveyed of someone who feels locked up into him/herself, trying to communicate, and simultaneously undercutting and commenting on those efforts. Both Bamford and LCK have a similar kind of trademark apprehensive/amazed/horrified look, and an almost-cringing physical quality– a sense of someone used to getting beaten up by life.
Bamford’s supposed current Match.com personals ad: “I can wear the same outfit for five days straight! Or, I can crouch in the shower and make myself real small.”
I think I first heard about her in this fascinating piece in Slate, “Stand-up Comedy and Mental Illness: A Conversation with Maria Bamford,” in which she discusses her history of mental illness and how she incorporates it into her comedy.
Bamford: People get really irritated by mental illness. “Just fucking get it together! Suck it up, man!” I had a breakdown, and a spiritual friend came to visit me in the psych ward. And they said, “You need to get out of here. Because this is the story you’re telling yourself. You know, Patch Adams has this great work-group camp where you can learn how to really celebrate life.”
It’s something people are so powerless over, and so often they want to make it your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. I started thinking of suicide when I was 10 years old—I can’t believe that that’s somebody’s fault. Like, “Oh, you’re just an attention getter.” Mental illness isn’t seen as an illness, it’s seen as a choice.
Slate: Or a weakness.
Bamford: Yeah. I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental illness the way they do other regular illnesses. “Well, apparently Jeff has cancer. Uh, I have cancer. We all have cancer. You go to chemotherapy you get it taken care of, am I right? You get back to work.” Or: “I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic. You know?”
Slate: Right. And then people who suffer from mental illness feel ashamed, making it even harder for them to talk about it with other people—where if you had a “regular” illness, people would speak much more openly about it.
Bamford: Yeah, it’d be like, “Let’s pink-ribbon it up!”
Slate: By talking about these things in your act, you’re countering some of the silence that otherwise clouds them. Is that something you’re conscious of as you work on your material?
Bamford: Well, a lot of it is selfish, I think. If I talk about it, then maybe somebody will talk about it to me. I don’t know if there’s as much much nobility in it as I would hope…I feel super insecure and embarrassed and ashamed about mental health issues. That’s why I want to talk about it. There’s sort of a hostility even, where you go, “I’m just gonna say what I am and then see if you can’t handle it.”
Bamford has this brilliant new special called The Special Special Special that’s available for download or streaming for $4.99. Here’s her website for more details. It’s a standup routine she performs in her own home to an audience of two, her parents, sitting there on the couch. (Plus a guy playing keyboards.) She has to stop at one point to give her pug his eye drops, and to get some cookies from the oven for the audience. Imitations of her mother are almost as much a part of Bamford’s routines as they are in Margaret Cho’s. So seeing Bamford imitate her mother and father, to them and only them, generates a special kind of excruciating discomfort. Although in a way, maybe that’s not quite true, because the affection you sense between Bamford and her parents comes through clearly, and they also seem to find the stand-up pretty hilarious. It is awkward, though. And sometimes it gets to a place beyond mere awkwardness, such as when she discusses her suicidal episodes and desire to die.
But if you don’t know her, you might as well start by checking out some of the episodes of the 20-part 2009 web series The Maria Bamford Show. I’m not sure to what degree this is factual (it seems obviously based on reality), but Bamford sets up the scene in the little pseudo-theme-song she sing-songs in the first episode:
I was a marginally successful comedy living in Los Angeles for fourteen years… But I never got my own sitcom and then my boyfriend turned out to bisexual… And then I forgot to pay my insurance premiums so I couldn’t afford my medication for OCD, depression, anxiety… So I started driving cross-country in a blond wig and bathing suit looking for ‘angels’ with a drug dealer named ‘Lips’… My parents found me on a sidewalk selling clock radios in Detroit… And they said, hey why don’t you come live with us in Duluth, Minnesota so you can get your medications kind of stabilized… and they took me back to their house where I’m living in the attic with my 11-year old pug Blossom… It’s the Maria Bamford Show!
The addictive show, which consists of 20 3-6 minute episodes, chronicles the various embarrassments and humiliations of living in Duluth with her parents and encountering old friends and enemies as an apparently-failed would-be showbiz comedian. It becomes difficult to draw the line between the necessarily or accidentally low-budget, awkward, or even bad/ low-quality, and the intentionally so. Blossom the pug is a great presence; there’s one fantasy-horror (Holloween?) episode where Blossom kills and, if I recall correctly, eats Bamford. A lot of formal experimentation playing around with the limitations of the cheapo DIY production and the larger conceit of Bamford licking her wounds, back in Minnesota from L.A. and finally producing the pseudo-homemade star vehicle sitcom she would never be allowed to do in reality. (But maybe now she can??) She’s kind of the anti-, abject Marlo Thomas or Mary Tyler Moore.
Ideally you’d watch the episodes in order, but if you want to try another one, I really like this Mother’s Day special in which Maria’s (actual) mother tries out for the role of her mother (and tries to convince Maria that she might want to become a lesbian). It ends with this little encomium: “Mom? Thanks for letting me do less-than-accurate and highly-embellished portrayals of you for the internet and on television and in movies, if they’d let me… Happy mother’s day!”
Check her out! I love this woman. Shell out the $5 for her special, it’s great and she deserves it (and she definitely needs to keep those insurance premiums paid, too).