Reviewed by Jason Zinoman
What the comedian Maria Bamford really wants is the approval of her parents.
That’s not armchair analysis. In The Special Special Special! (2012), which she released online at chill.com, Ms. Bamford performs an hour of stand-up for her mother and father as they sit on a couch. By replacing a typical audience with her original one, she breathes life into a cliché by making it literal and creates a compelling dynamic that is as eccentric as her singularly funny comedy.
“You know her from birth!” booms Jackie Kashian, playing a pumped-up warm-up artist. Ms. Bamford walks into her living room wearing a leather jacket and grabs the microphone, her name in lights behind her. She shouts as if she were trying to reach the rafters in a sold-out arena. Then she shifts seamlessly from grand to intimate, thanking her parents for coming. You see her mom nod pointedly and her dad raise his arms as if to say: No biggie.
It’s a scene that is both oddly natural and preposterously bizarre. The same could be said about Ms. Bamford. With her sensible smile, dyed-blond hair and Minnesota accent, she comes off like a soccer mom from a campaign ad. No doubt this is why Target placed her in a series of commercials. But she has earned a cult following after a decade of accomplished stand-up, daring in form, that involves blunt jokes about depression and her mental-health struggles and a dark David Lynch-like interest in what lies beneath.
“I’m really pretty concerned about celebrity chef Paula Deen because her recipes now really read like suicide notes,” she said, introducing an impression of Ms. Deen that sounds like Tennessee Williams imagining what the Loch Ness monster sounded like. Maybe the most jarring element of this joke, however, is the response.
In stand-up two people laughing is the melancholy music of failure. But it’s perfect for Ms. Bamford, who uses anxiety, loneliness and depression as unlikely vehicles to cheerful laughs. “Certainly there’s the possibility of dying alone,” begins a joke about the difficulty of finding love. “But I’m fun.”
Ms. Bamford’s family has long been an essential part of her act. She tells jokes that rely heavily on her impressions of her sniffling mother, her sister forever biting her nails and her father mumbling robotically. Her voices, shifting with alacrity from high to low pitches, can seem like manic riffs. But these are fleshed-out caricatures she has developed over years.
Her act is less Robin Williams stand-up than Lily Tomlin solo show laced with the satire of classic Steve Martin. One of her jokes about solving problems through baby steps (“Goal 1: Master and defeat death”) even echoes a bit by Mr. Martin, whose first goal was to be “all-being master of time, space and dimension.” But whereas Mr. Martin’s stand-up only grew larger, Ms. Bamford’s work has moved in the opposite direction, shrinking in scale, burrowing deeper.
Her crowning achievement is “The Maria Bamford Show,” an intimate, low-budget Web series from 2009 that featured her as a multitude of characters speaking directly to the camera. Out of this modest material she translated her stand-up sensibility into a relentlessly funny, elaborately inventive world. Ms. Bamford, who somehow didn’t get her own television show after this series, began with the premise that after suffering a nervous breakdown, she moves back in with her parents.
This new special, which includes breaks during which Ms. Bamford gives her dog medicine and takes cookies out of the oven, continues the theme of coming home. Performing for your parents could be seen as the perfect metaphor for the insularity of alternative comedy. In a well-known rant Bill Burr derisively described the scene’s self-selecting crowds as a “comedy womb.”
There is merit in this argument, but it can be overstated. Great artists don’t necessarily need the right audience to challenge them. They can do it themselves. In this case by performing for her parents Ms. Bamford finds a new way to use her family as raw material that suits her peculiarly dark comedy.
A major theme of the special is the meaning of mental illness. It’s long been a theme in her act. “I never really thought of myself as depressed so much as paralyzed by hope,” is her quintessential one-liner. But she plays with it unexpectedly here, summoning up a more unhinged persona. At times her grin and lowered head seem to evoke, with tongue in cheek, Norman Bates. She talks about being bipolar and having thoughts of suicide. Her parents’ chuckling presence assures us that it’s O.K. to laugh.
It also supports a more serious underlying intention: to help normalize mental illness. In the closest she gets to angry Ms. Bamford mocks the mind-over-matter school of thought about depression and makes a funny analogy to cancer to illustrate the different ways we talk about sickness. In her worldview being petrified of gorillas or of suffocation by balloons is ordinary. It’s the world that’s crazy.
Ms. Bamford isn’t searching for a womb, but she’s exploring what comforts us. In previous performances she’s talked about her mother’s devout Christianity, so when Ms. Bamford introduces, in front of her parents, a routine about her own lack of faith by saying she hopes no one in the audience is religious, it’s an inside joke. She talks about how churches have tried to lure her into the fold to no avail and how she worships celebrity culture.
Then Ms. Bamford takes a moment to imagine what’s it like to believe in God, spinning out a carefully wrought metaphor: “You know when you are in a third-world shantytown at midnight, and you’re terrified, but then off in the distance you see the glowing logo of an international conglomerate, and you just feel like: Everything’s going to be O.K.” Then she added: “Maybe it’s time I seek the Exxon within.”
It’s a funny, well-written joke delivered with the solemn tone of a woman thrilled to find solace. Her parents didn’t laugh. That silence is fascinating.
This review, originally titled “Comedian Brings Her Act Home, to Mom and Dad,” is courtesy of the New York Times.