5 Reasons to See Maria Bamford at Mayne Stage
Friday-Saturday, 8:30 and 10:30, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse; tickets here, early show Saturday is sold out.
1. Other comedians love her. John Oliver*: "One of the greatest comedians in the world at the moment." Marc Maron: "I do get kind of nervous around you... because I think you're like the best comic in the country." Judd Apatow: "I love Maria Bamford.... She's so funny — she's one of the few people that really makes you laugh hard, who's doing something so interesting and insane."
2. I think the high regard for Bamford's act comes from her difficult, idiosyncratic act. She doesn't so much tell jokes as stories, what she calls "quiet, odd joke-stories," closer to David Sedaris, or maybe Bill Cosby—character-driven narratives that avoid the traditional setup-punchline structure. As a result, she has to be exquisitely careful about word choice and timing, since she has to be funny moment to moment instead of just waiting for the joke to conclude. I can't really tell you any of her funny jokes in order to convince you to go see her (ok, maybe "I don't think of myself so much as 'depressed' than 'paralyzed by hope'") because her act is so reliant on pacing and emphasis: it's part stand-up, part sketch comedy, and part storytelling. Yet it's not weird, avant-garde anticomedy, either; the subject matter is familiar, it's the form and the skill that's unusual, which is why I'd compare her to Cosby before any other comedian. It's an incredible high-wire act.
3. The best advice I've ever received: "drink more caffeine and just stay on your meds."
4. Not everyone will find her funny; part of the magic of comedy is that different comedians give voice to the different anxieties and fears of different people. I love Louis C.K., for instance—there's not a comedian alive who's better at subtle segues between seemingly unrelated bits, it's really a writerly gift that I admire—but I can't really identify with his psychosexual darkness, so I don't find him as funny as his biggest fans. Bamford gives voice to the voices in her head: her third, and to my mind best, album is called Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, which she discussed in a good interview with the Onion A.V. Club's Kyle Ryan in 2009:
I feel passionate about it because I had that OCD thing until I was like 34.... Like for me, I had all of these unwanted, sort of sexual, violent thoughts, ever since I was like 9 or 10 years old, and I always felt horrible about them. They’d get worse if I was with other people or any sort of anxiety-provoking situation, which was just about everything. [Laughs.] I tried to tell a bunch of therapists over time, but they didn’t identify that. They just said, “Well, let’s talk about your childhood,” and I’d be like [Labored voice.] “I’ve talked about it a million times before.” So yeah, I Googled it and went to this guy in Glendale and was just like, “Dr. Boone, you’re blowing my mind, man!” He had me just record my thoughts into a tape recorder and listen to them over and over again. And seriously, it was gone within a couple of months.
They started about the same time for me, but her album was the first time I'd ever heard anyone put a name to it; Lee Baer calls them "obsessive bad thoughts"; "intrusive thoughts" might be a more familiar term. As Baer points out, it's widespread but rarely discussed, so Bamford's album was cathartic. Obviously a lot of comedians do bits on anxiety and depression, but knowing it from the inside out she nails it better than any I've heard.
5. The Onion's Nathan Rabin coined a wonderful term: "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," who "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures," and whom you may be familiar with in the film and television worlds. She's a good antidote to that: the real origins and perils of eccentricity.
* Speaking of him: his BBC radio comedy show The Department with Andy Zaltzman and Chris Addison (In the Loop) is well worth tracking down, though it's difficult to find.