Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect guest for The Mental Illness Happy Hour than Maria Bamford. In fact, it would only be a slight exaggeration to argue that Paul Gilmartin’s essential exploration of the pain and loneliness that unites not just comedians but all of humanity exists to give Bamford the safest, most nurturing possible forum to tell her story.
Gilmartin has essentially given up standup since The Mental Illness Happy Hour kicked into high gear. These days, he’s a podcaster and advocate for people struggling with mental illness more than anything else, and Bamford is equally committed to fearlessly exploring the intersection of creativity and despair, genius and madness. The two share a holy quest to de-stigmatize mental illness, to make people who might feel isolated and overwhelmed and alone realize that there is a massive section of humanity who shares their pain. And the ones who don’t? Fuck ‘em.
When she visited the The Mental Illness Happy Hour in 2013, Bamford was promoting the groundbreaking special she had filmed where, in a dazzling high-wire act of psychodramatic dark comedy, she performed an entire spellbinding, hilarious and brilliant set for an audience of two: Bamford’s mother and father.
Bamford gets her plugs for the special out of the way in the first two minutes. The charmingly awkward and awkwardly charming guest then moves on to promote her real mission in life: confronting mental illness with honesty, courage and unblinking candor. Bamford leads by example and in the early part of the podcast, she and Gilmartin talk about the different roles standup plays for different people.
An artist’s sacred obligation is to expose profound truths. A comedian’s job is more often to entertain drunks. Of course, standup is art, especially when practiced by someone like Bamford, but even artists of her caliber need to bear in mind that part of their particular art form involves amusing drunk people who may not know who you are, let alone be powerfully invested in your emotional and creative journey.
It’s hard to even imagine what a theoretical comedy fan in Oklahoma who knows of Bamford only though hearing her plug a gig on a morning zoo radio show with a name like Beaver And The Horny Goat would make of her soul-bearing style of truth telling. Bamford concedes that when it comes to music, for example, she actually prefers Lady Gaga-style pop rather than whatever the musical equivalent of her own bleakly funny comedy might be.
Gilmartin admiringly describes Bamford’s standup as something that “goes right to the center of the earth immediately,” which is not a bad description of the episode either. Bamford recounts her lifelong battle with OCD and unwanted thought syndrome. She imagines a psychiatrist clued in enough to Bamford’s specific condition and the set of bleak obsessions that specifically plague her that they’d ask micro-targeted questions along the lines of, “Have you ever not wanted to spend alone times with friends or family because you’re worried you’d chop them up into chunks and bits, and then have sex with the chunks and bits and then put the chunks and bits on a Caesar Salad and then toss it and feed it back to your parents or eat it yourself?” (Think of it as a very bleak variation on a Jeff Foxworthy bit: “You might have Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome If…”)
Throughout her episode, Bamford and Gilmartin share laughter that is deep and dark and wildly cathartic, laughter that finds the humor and absurdity in the grimmest of subject matter, whether it’s a fellow standup comedian at one of the mental hospitals she attended trying to use the psych ward phone to line up gigs or a friend who responded to Bamford’s suicidal despair by telling her, “Maybe you’re done with this plane of existence” in a hypnotically soothing tone.
By her own account, Bamford is profoundly blessed to have friends and meaningful work and a good psychiatrist, but when her mind began to betray her, it was as overwhelming and terrifying as it would be for people who are not creative geniuses and lack Bamford’s resources.
Bamford stresses that the road from suicidal depression to self-acceptance was long and difficult and filled with setbacks and confusion, but that after going through this long, intense, and revelatory process, she come out on the other end with a hard-fought wisdom and a sense of perspective that are sometimes depression’s gift to the people it bedevils.
One of Gilmartin’s tropes is to ask guests to provide little snapshots from their lives, oral Polaroids that succinctly illustrate where they’ve been and how it’s shaped them. Gilmartin did not have to do that with Bamford, since elegant, haunting snapshots from her life spill out of her organically. With finely tuned gallows humor and deep empathy, Bamford recounts being sent as a neuroses and sleeplessness-addled girl for “Christian counseling” with an ex-nun who would let her sleep on her couch and, in a somewhat misguided attempt to aid her in her spiritual and psychological development, gave her a book about a young striver who suffered and suffered and suffered, and through that suffering got closer to God.
Bamford recounts a $350 an hour psychiatrist who not only took phone calls during their sessions but actually went ahead and played YouTube clips of Bamford’s Target commercials to ascertain whether she really was the successful performer she claimed to be or was suffering from some manner of psychotic episode that deluded her into thinking she was a commercial pitchman.
The episode has the wealth of telling detail of a great novel or heart-wrenching memoir, like Bamford’s longing for the bottles of Diet Coke that brought her the greatest joy in the hermetic, sealed world of the mental hospital or her mother telling her to mention both her website and her Gold Medallion Status to Delta when trying to get back home following a nervous breakdown in Chicago.
Bamford wrestles with a question that has long plagued great artists wracked with mental illness: How do you separate the spark of madness found in so many great artists from the madness that consumes and destroys? How do you separate the intense, quirky energy that makes Maria Bamford who she is as a person and performer (i.e. a goddamned national treasure) from the energy that can destroy someone’s life when expended in the wrong way? Can you cure the sickness without compromising the genius? Bamford’s career illustrates that it’s entirely possible to maintain that level of daring genius without compromising her hard-won sense of contentment.
The remarkable thing about Bamford is that she is such an original, such a unique voice and such a character, but she’s able to talk about her struggles in a way that’s incredibly relatable.
The theme song to Mental Illness Happy Hour sets sound clips from the podcast to driving guitar rock in an aural collage that poetically captures the essence of the show and Gilmartin’s holy mission in life. Not surprisingly, a lot of Bamford’s episode made it into the theme, like her flatly and hilariously recounting a fellow mental hospital patient dryly informing a gung-ho therapist, “I worry that the depression militia is coming over the hill.”
There is a musicality to Bamford as a performer that makes her perfect for that kind of sound collage. She has a genius for unforgettable, diamond-sharp turns of phrase. She isn’t just a comedian and an actress, and a former Target pitch-woman. She’s also a casual philosopher, a natural poet and, it should be noted, one hell of a podcast guest.
Photo credit: Above Average
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.