The Altruism of Comedy

Maria Bamford as Sheryl on Benched. Photo: USA Network/NBC/Getty Images

Maria Bamford tested out a brilliant new set on a Thursday night in January at UCB Sunset’s bicoastal standup comedy show, Fresh Out!, hosted by Emily Heller and Adam Conover. Bamford’s material on mental illness has undergone a hilarious and heartwarming evolution from her personal struggles with OCD, Bipolar II, anxiety, and depression to include the couple’s therapy she now attends with her fiancé, Scott Marvel Cassidy.

In a hysterical musical tribute to her couples therapist “Carol Grisham,” Bamford satirizes her anxieties about Cassidy urinating in the backyard leading to a Grey Gardens lifestyle and Cassidy’s existential angst about Bamford accidentally locking him in the garage. The audience loved an oddball bit similar to her Paula Deen Suicide Note, where she described all the sex she’s been having in terms of obscure foods (“froths, soups, custards, mustards”).

The new material blends the best of Bamford’s characterizations, social commentary, and candid depictions of emotional turmoil with a fresh, wise perspective on changing times. I was particularly touched by her humorous attempts to overcome anxiety, as my own crippling neurosis has kept me just one missed dose of medication away from a hermetic life of fear and loathing.

I completely identified with a ridiculous but familiar scenario Bamford describes where a friend persuades her to go horseback riding, despite her anxious reservations. “Okay, I’ll go,” she says, “but I’m going to cry the whole way there.”

My first nervous breakdown began when I was working with children dying of cancer and ended with Maria Bamford. In between, I provided behavioral services for children with Autism in underserved communities, followed by a stint at a Holocaust museum, finally exacerbating my dysthymia into an excruciating episode of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Overwhelmed by the injustice of the world’s suffering and my inability to make a significant difference despite putting in 80-hour work weeks, my hereditarily pre-disposed psyche collapsed and I found myself memorizing the lyrics to the hold music for the Suicide Hotline (“Lady in Red”).

I ended up in psychiatric care, where a licensed medical doctor advised me, “Girl, the Holocaust is over, forget about it,” prescribed me several strong anti-psychotics, and sent me on my way. I suspected that better mental healthcare was out there, but I didn’t have the will to seek it out.

Part of my initial resistance to getting help revolved around the shame of suffering from mental health issues despite having a loving family, a roof over my head, and food to eat. Bamford cleverly mocks her privilege in the new material, describing a speaking engagement with a group of high school students in an underserved community (“Neither of us know why I was there”), where she advises the kids to just “follow their dreams,” and a student answers, “Uh miss, it’s not that easy.” Bamford responds with a muttered performance of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” abruptly concluding with, “Yeah, you’ve got a point.”

Now that I’m on the healthier side of the mental rainbow, I understand that mental illness can happen to anyone and finding the right treatment sometimes requires trial and error. This experience gave me an appreciation for Bamford’s new bit on her irrational desire to force people to live out their passing fantasies through affirmations. She re-enacts a conversation with a woman who casually mentioned she dreamt of opening her own boutique deli. Bamford aggressively insists that she fulfill this wish until the exasperated woman tells her she has three kids and a full-time job – she doesn’t actually want to open a shop, she was just talking. Bamford is crushed.

I first heard Bamford’s uplifting take on her own experiences getting help and getting better following my first trip to the psychiatrist. After several heavily sedated days spent locked in my apartment with the blinds closed googling “how not to kill myself,” I hit upon a brilliant podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour, with an episode featuring Bamford. Her disappointment in her failure to be everything to everybody resonated with me in her conversation with comedian Paul Gilmartin, host of TMIHH:

I can’t love people enough. Like I’m always going to let somebody down. You know? I’m going to give somebody a shoulder-based hug, I’m going to forget their birthday, I’m going to half-ass it on the last part of the paint job on their ceramic dog. How can I just let people know how I really feel? So I have a bonfire on my front lawn, and its going 24/7, and I just tend to that. There’s a live webcam and that way if any one has questions, you can click on that link and know how I feel about you: Eternal Flame.

I had seen Bamford’s work before on The Comedians of Comedy, but I hadn’t connected with her material in the same way. I rapidly caught up on an abridged version of her decades-long comedic career via her two comedy specials on Comedy Central, The Maria Bamford Show, Ask My Mom!, and a PBS special, Speak Your Mind. Her compassionate, comedic approach to her struggles with unbearable emotional pain brought a lightness to a dark situation.

Working in helping professions while living in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, I frequently met people who were interested in my jobs and said things like, “Wow, you do something that actually matters.” I silently agreed with them on the moral superiority of my existence, while reassuring them in a patronizing tone that entertainment was a special job too.

Today, I hold a very different view. Great comedy is truly an altruistic act. As sentimental as it sounds, I credit Bamford with reinvigorating my will to live, banishing the shame associated with mental illness, and inspiring me to continue my quest for quality mental healthcare. A therapist shared with me recently that people come through her office all the time who say that catching the next episode of their favorite show is their sole motivation to stay alive. Entertainment is not a replacement for treatment, but creativity and its expression through different mediums can make a meaningful difference. Bamford’s positive contribution to humanity through comedy is not to be underestimated. In the words of George Eliot, “Our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy.” From one neurotic to another: Maria Bamford, I salute you.

Sydney Parker is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can read more of her uncomfortable and life affirming pieces on Carnival of Souls.

The Altruism of Comedy