There are so many things that come to mind when discussing comedian Maria Bamford. An excited and wide-eyed stage persona, a much talked about stint in a psychiatric hospital after a nervous breakdown, being one of the four original Comedians of Comedy, and a strong surrealist streak have been etched into the Bamford biography. But, all of that’s second to the primary truth about Bamford — she’s a damn funny comedian.
Known for her quirky absurdism and ability to make a joke out of anything, including depression and suicide, Bamford has carved a niche out of the bizarre. “I know there are entire doctoral theses dedicated to the deconstruction of comedy — the unusual subverts expectation,” says Bamford. Her jokes run the gamut from wisecracks about believing “God is a 13-story tall wizard who lives in a dark mountain and never lets me win,” to asserting that Say Yes to the Dress is “very similar to a genocide documentary, in that nobody is learning from history.” All of the oddball playfulness carries over surprisingly nicely to her smart-ass jokes about the aforementioned time in a mental institution.
Much of the humor in Bamford’s darkest moments, like her stark descriptions of her life with bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorders, comes from her ability to maintain a childlike silliness and self-deprecation. Don’t worry — there’s a point to all of it. “I hope that, at the very least, people who relate find it to be comforting and if it contributes to a larger conversation in the world that is already happening about mental health, then that’s awesome,” says Bamford. “We need each other as human beings, and isolation, especially when it comes to any sort of illness or need, isn’t good for any of us.”
Bamford’s off stage work, like the critically acclaimed 2016 television series Lady Dynamite or her cult classic web series The Maria Bamford Show, has told the story of her time in a mental health institution and her recovery. That probably doesn’t sound like it’s funny on the surface, but both shows present the material in a manic way that’s weirdly whimsical. “Standing in a hospital gown while being asked if I have any gigs coming up by the inpatient therapist — it’s a usual thing, somebody asking you about work, at an unusual place, a psychiatric facility — it’s inherently funny,” says Bamford.
Lady Dynamite and The Maria Bamford Show take different approaches to express the ridiculousness of the situation, but both are great representations of Bamford’s comedy style. “I think the subject matter, because it is so heavy, lends itself to being a great foil for the silly contrast,” Bamford says. They’re outrageous, freeform, and mildly experimental, although Bamford says some of the experimentalism (like playing every character in The Maria Bamford Show) was her just being “cheap and lazy.”
In the years since her recovery, Bamford has noticed a difference in her writing method. “I feel so much better after being put on mood stabilizers that I’m much more joyful as a performer, I think, than I was,” says Bamford. “I write things with my husband and other people too and feel less precious about the process in general.” But, that doesn’t mean she’s lost her edge as her 2017 special Old Baby loudly declares. In a lot of ways, it’s a natural continuation of her 2012 stand-up show The Special Special Special. Parts of the former are presented in odd locations like a bowling alley or a driveway, similar to the latter’s living room setting.
Old Baby is, more importantly, right in line with Bamford’s fancifully demented sensibilities. At one point the comedian jokes about taking all the emotional trauma she and her husband have been through in their personal lives, finding correlations between them, and then playing “emotional sudoku” with the experiences. Emotional sudoku? That may be one of the best descriptions of Bamford’s comedy — and life.