It takes a certain audacity to joke about suicide or Helen Keller. It takes praiseworthy artfulness to do so without falling into triteness or insensitivity. This is the line Maria Bamford treads with a veritable dose of self-awareness and experience. A Minnesota-bred comedian who does not shy away from the facts of her age (middle-aged, which somehow still presents a conundrum for females in the entertainment industry) or her struggles with OCD and Bipolar II (which have at times put her at odds with the breakneck demands of her profession), Maria Bamford is perhaps the most honest and innovative comedian you can watch onstage or put in your Netflix queue.
I first encountered Bamford through her one-woman Youtube series, “The Maria Bamford Show,” an absurdist project filmed at her parents’ house in Duluth, Minnesota during her work hiatus and recovery from a mental breakdown. In this series of vignettes, the first of which is titled “Dropping Out of Society,” Bamford captures both the pain and hilarity of being back in her hometown, watching her parents tip-toe around her mental illness, and enduring uncomfortable therapy sessions. With precision that suspends disbelief, she imitates everyone from her former high school bully to her earnest parents going through the motions of Weight Watchers. It’s concise, it’s depressing (as one friend who could not understand my obsession told me), and it’s reassuring.
Maria Bamford’s comic ingenuity cumulates in her Netflix sitcom Lady Dynamite, which is returning for a second season this November. Lady Dynamite is an exploratory, surrealist narrative tracing Bamford’s highs and lows surrounding the mental breakdown and subsequent clinical depression that halted her career. On the show Bamford expands upon her Youtube series and is joined by a star-studded cast for some self-examination and sly social critique. Across all platforms—Youtube, Netflix, her standup—Bamford requires the audience to meet her a little more than half-way. You have to accept her self-deprecating humor, surrealist meanderings, and the reality of living with a mental illness—which can be really, really funny.
Bamford was joined at the Charleston Music Hall by her friend and fellow Midwesterner Jackie Kashian, who decided to warm up the audience by getting the glaring topics out of the way—her weight, her gender, and her dorkiness—successfully breaking the ice without seeming contrived. Jackie Kashian delivered an astute account of growing up in Middle America, mixing childhood tedium with tidbits about lapsed Catholics and our current political climate, which, by a logic I can’t quite recreate here, she uproariously compared to Speed 2. When the mic cut off in the midst of a joke about being gay in the 80s, Kashian didn’t miss a beat, but gasped and whisper-shouted, “It’s the Lord!”
While Kashian delivered a straightforward series of fireballs, Bamford approaches her punchlines (when they’re needed—usually she has the audience rolling with laughter from the sheer absurdity of her stories) from the backdoor. Sometimes it takes a bit of mumbling, shoulders hunched, while trying out different facial expressions on the audience, but Bamford always gets to the point before we realize it—and it is her frank self-deprecation and awareness that fuel this peculiar timing. As a die-hard Maria Bamford fan, I love her despite her reluctance to try out new material. Bamford opened her set with this disclaimer, saying to all the critics who might be disappointed in the dearth of new material, “channel all of that rage into creating your own!” However, interspersed within the arch of her characteristically awkward but purposefully meandering set, Bamford delightfully expanded on some jokes and treated us to new material, from social justice sex fantasies to a retelling of the revealing quality time spent on a cruise with her husband and parents.
As anyone who has weighed the pros and cons of side effects knows, psychiatric medications can cause debilitating fatigue and—get this—difficulty thinking and speaking. What’s a bipolar commedienne in the ruthlessly fast-paced entertainment industry to do? Maria Bamford’s standup performance might sometimes lack the razor-sharp rhythm characteristic of a well-honed set, but even this potential drawback is an opportunity for comedic material. Bamford smartly described her initial encounter with a psychiatrist in a psych ward and the nonsensical criticism she was met with in the entertainment industry after her decision to take medication. On her reluctance to try new material and her decreasing career ambition, Bamford bemoaned our society’s “obsession with greatness,” concluding, “Isn’t that boring?!” She took to task those conversations in which we are pressured to one-up each other with our productivity: when pelted with “So what are you working on? What’s new with you? What do you have going on nowadays?” Bamford responded with an uncertain but liberating “oh, uh, I’m done.”
Maria Bamford’s comedy becomes meta-comedy as she tackles personal growth, her standup idiosyncrasies, and institutional critique of the entertainment industry. Bamford normalizes marriage counseling and psych ward visits. She talks frankly and openly about suicide, unglamorous sexual conditions, and intrusive thoughts. She gives us permission to feel ambivalent about our careers and ambition (as she always notes, “I didn’t want to do this show tonight!”). Inevitably some of these musings fall flat, but I’m of the persuasion that in comedy everything is up for grabs. In her courage to approach these topics, which have the double whammy of being both intensely personal and taboo, Maria Bamford is testing comedy’s capacity for making the human experience a bit more bearable. Given this meta-awareness of the comedy industry and her at times waning ambition, ending with a questionable bit about a “fart song”—though it didn’t elicit the most laughter and was most definitely hackneyed—felt right, perhaps even strategic.
Jackie Kashian and Maria Bamford delivered perfectly complementary sets, giving women the comedy we are due. This is still a fresh phenomenon, as Kashian was sure to remind us, noting that she’s been doing standup since female comedians were lucky to finish their set without being burned at the stake. Armed with a tongue-in-cheek awareness of their position within comedy, these women waxed unapologetically about menopause, politics, and mental health, giving the audience the power to find the humor in our own lives, from the tedious parts to the tragic.