Maria Bamford and the Cathartic Comedy of Mental Illness

Maria Bamford is launching a revolution from her microphone. In less than two years, Bamford has survived the death of her best friend — her pug, Blossom — and a battle with depression, suicide, and hospitalization. The result: Her stand-up contains some of the most transformative work being done around mental illness and stigma today.

Last Monday, comedian Mike Birbiglia Tweeted, “Saw [Maria Bamford] tonight at Caroline’s. I’ve never seen a comedian who made me want to give 25 standing ovations in one set.” He wasn’t alone.

I have seen Maria Bamford perform for almost eight years, primarily at the now-shuttered Lakeshore Theatre in Chicago. Her act has always been brilliantly funny, generous, and kind, but at Caroline’s last week something was different. Her new material has pathos rare not just among stand-ups, but all performers.

Maria Bamford has long been open about her own mental health — her 2009 album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome chronicles her illness of the same name — but now she has a fire in her belly about the culture at large. She takes power away from her anxieties by satirizing herself (she compares her suicidal thoughts to other “repetitively shit ideas” she’s had, like buying raisin bread in bulk) but she explicitly condemns the stigma that keeps society sick.

“The reason people don’t go for help is because there is still stigma. People don’t talk about mental illnesses the way they do other illnesses.” She launches into impressions of people talking about physical maladies the way they talk about depression:

“Apparently Steve has cancer. It’s like, fuck off! We all have cancer.”

“I was dating this chick all this time and she let me know she’s been wearing contact lenses. I said whoa, do what you need to do but I don’t believe in all that Western medicine shit. If you wanna see like other people it’s all about attitude. You gotta want it.”

She’s earnest but never preachy, especially as she describes her crawl towards enlightenment.

“I killed my best friend by accident,” Bamford says. In the summer of 2011, Bamford mindlessly moved a ramp used by her beloved pug, Blossom. Blossom fell. Bamford described making peace with herself in the aftermath of Blossom’s death. “I typed ‘I killed my loved one’ into an Internet search engine and up came a chatroom where a woman talked to me for an hour who had left her baby in a hot car.” The room fell silent. “We’re all doing the best we can and sometimes it is not that good.” Thank god, we laughed.

Bamford didn’t mean to insult the woman, nor did she wallow in regret. There is nothing cruel in Bamford’s act (except, if you agree with her mother, her impression of butter loving celebrity chef Paula Deen). She believes this chatroom helped save her life, and feels compassion for the woman and the audience. We’re all going to move the ramp sometime.

What’s magical about the trick Bamford plays isn’t just her confession. What’s brave — what earns her 25 standing ovations — is how she balances satire and sincerity to do so. She jokes about the tragedy chatroom while proselytizing for it. Self-healing may feel stupid, she suggests, but it sure beats hopelessness. That’s the kind of lesson that keeps people alive.

One of my favorite new bits captures this balance perfectly. A well-meaning friend visits Bamford in the psych ward. The friend, a very New Age-y L.A. woman, tells Bamford that “this place has such negative energy, you’ve gotta get out of here…get out into nature.” Bamford, on suicide watch, mutters back, “Exactly, that’s what I said. Slowly into the surf, can’t find me — no muss, no fuss.”

Ignoring Bamford’s suicidal ideations, her friend says that some people are destined to commit suicide, “so I’ve just come in to say goodbye.” Bamford says, “You are horrible…And please come visit me tomorrow.”

With that line, Bamford distills years of therapy and Twelve Step meetings into two beats: People are self-centered and egotistical and horrible, but goddamnit if you don’t need them to survive. Her philosophy is the anti-“Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy.” I appreciate C.K.’s evangelical bootstrapping, but I will tuck Bamford’s Buddhism in my pocket to help me through life’s everyday muck.

Bamford’s tight-rope between sincerity and satire invokes a couple other blonde obsessives: Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe and her creator, Mike White.

HBO’s Enlightened is about Jellicoe who, among many things, is a woman on a mission. After suffering an emotional collapse at work, Jellicoe heads to a Hawaiian rehab, where she finds enlightenment — or so she thinks. Traditional narratives tend to climax with A-Ha! Moments, but Enlightened is about what happens after one, when Jellicoe returns to her old life. Enlightened is not about a woman who has recovered; it’s about the volatile process of recovery.

Like Bamford’s act, Enlightened is rooted in White’s personal experience of nervous breakdown.

In 2004, while working on a Fox show called Cracking Up — because the universe has a raucous sense of humor — White’s power struggle with Fox executives led to panic attacks. As the tension built, White found himself sending a combative fax to top network executives. “I was like, you failed!” he told The New Republic about the experience. “You should fire yourselves!”

His panic attacks intensified. “Next thing I knew, I was being checked into a real mental health facility, with people shuffling down the hallways,” he told TNR.

Unlike Bamford, who credits her hospitalization with saving her life, White fled. The experience spurred an awakening for him, though. He started reading Buddhist self-help books from authors like Pema Chodron. He practiced yoga and became vegan.

A few years later, White created Enlightened, which dances in step with Bamford’s act. Both were born out of their creators bottoming out and finding salvation. Like Bamford, Enlightened satirizes New Age culture but is also hopeful about recovery. The result is much richer than parody.

Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern, is a frustrating anti-hero with a Messiah complex I somehow can’t help loving or, worse, relating to. She best embodies Bamford’s line “We’re all doing the best we can and sometimes it is not that good,” a philosophy Mike White clearly shares. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he said, “I feel like we’re all human and nobody’s perfect, and we’re all sort of fumbling towards something better.”

As for the “fumbling,” Jellicoe and Bamford are both clever blondes in their forties struggling to get by in notorious L.A. industries, corporate America and the entertainment business, having known the highs and lows of emotional health. They’re getting older — Jellicoe spends one episode fixating on her hands’ wrinkles; Bamford does five minutes on Botox. Both aren’t quite where they thought they would be in life. Neither has children and both even lost a beloved dog.

The comparison isn’t perfect. Jellicoe is a wrecking ball; Bamford is plagued by emotional paralysis. Bamford battles a chorus of self-doubt, while Jellicoe is so headstrong she ends up knee deep in the bullshit she’s been selling. I’d hardly call Bamford an anti-hero. Then again, she did kill her best friend.

I see these women as sisters, or spirits at different points on a continuum. Bamford, like White, has the grace Jellicoe may have five years down the road. (Please, HBO, renew Enlightened so I can find out if I’m right.)

Mike White and Maria Bamford aren’t the first to complicate our narrative about mental illness and recovery, but that their work falls within the context of humor creates a safer, less stigmatized space to explore these topics with reduced sting. Where else but in comedy could we delight in the idea that everything’s going to work out okay, but we’re going to do a rotten job getting there?

Photo by Natalie Brasington

Marisa Carroll is just another woman who’s over it.

Maria Bamford and the Cathartic Comedy of Mental […]