A Cult of My Own: Maria Bamford

I know she is an acquired taste. I know some people don't like the weird noises she makes. I know some people don't like the zillion voices she uses. But Maria Bamford makes me laugh in ways that no other comedian does. Her comedy seems so deeply personal that if you were not exposed to her previously, you may well wonder where the artist meets her material. 

Bamford's complicated history with bipolar disorder, depression and OCD informs her act, which can go from refreshingly innocent to starkly confessional and back again in mere seconds. The bleakness and dysfunction that hangs heavily over some of her comedy might be a little much for some people, but I find her absolutely refreshing. The uneasiness (somehow both hand-crafted and sincere at the same time), her frequent use of non-sequiturs, and the "just where is she going?" mood to some of her bits makes watching her anytime a delight. 

It's not in the Andy Kaufman way, however, where you would wonder just what the hell crazy thing he was going to try and pull off each time. Kaufman had issues, certainly, but most of his stunts were planned well in advance, and the main goal was to shock his audiences not to make them laugh. The ability to shock was his main weapon, and his routines pretty much lived and died by it. Bamford's act is purer, and mostly consists of a singularly talented woman alone with a microphone and her cavalcade of personas, accents and noises. Lucky for you and her, she comes complete with some marvelously twisted though funny material that almost always keeps you guessing. 

Bamford also likes to mess with the established comedy hour format. In a previous special – actually called The Special Special Special – she did her entire act for only her own parents, even giving them bathroom breaks and snacks in between short sets. It's not all cutesy though... the unease she unleashes with some of her sharper, darker jokes, which veer directly towards her parents at times – they are the source of much of her anxiety, after all – is meant to throw both you and them off-balance, but her actions also somehow never felt purposefully mean, just therapeutic, and ultimately loving, in her way.

At a few points in Bamford's latest Netflix special, Old Baby (in which she progresses from testing her stand-up act with one person in a living room to people sitting on a bench on a street to a small bowling alley crowd to an intimate stage setting), she breaks to also hawk her own merchandise (which she says at one point is completely free) from a small table to her various audiences. In selling pencils to benefit the psychiatric hospital in her hometown – she says her mom "worked there AND stayed there" – she shows that the pencil has "the word HOPE on this side... so you can GRIND DOWN HOPE... verrry slowly."

Yeah, I get that. Been there, felt that... occasionally still there and feeling that. Speak to me, Maria... in all your voices.


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