the great bits

In Maria Bamford’s Stand-up, Facing Nightmares Is Unusually Fun

Maria Bamford. Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

A young comic is onstage. Another comedian watches their act, nursing a beer he bought with a drink ticket. He leans in to a friend and whispers, “Gaffigan.” Jim Gaffigan is an outstanding comic, but it’s not a compliment. He watches the next act and whispers, “Hedberg.” To him, these comics are imitating the styles of better performers. One name you won’t hear whispered in this situation is “Bamford.”

Emulating Maria Bamford would require techniques beyond the ability of any beginning comic. She combines extreme, confessional vulnerability with distinct, original character voices. Her characters interact in lean dialogues, without scene description. Her voice acting is so good, she doesn’t need it.

I love tracks 20–24 of her 2013 album Ask Me About My New God! “Over 40 and Dating,” “Confidence,” “Terrible Relationships,” and “Lying” make up a single, remarkable piece. YouTube has them all in order here.

That this is an online-dating bit is partly what makes it so fantastic. Internet dating is as well-worn a topic for 2010s stand-ups as “I am the best” was for ’80s rappers. A comic asking “Anyone on eharmony?” is usually a cue to go to the bathroom. Bamford mines it for eight minutes of genius. It’s the difference between ham, onion, and eggs in the hands of the average home cook, and the same ingredients in the hands of a James Beard winner.

Internet dating is only the launchpad to get to her true subject: the internal life of Maria Bamford. No comedian provides a more riveting portrayal of their own fear, doubt, and despair. It’s difficult territory for comedy. Smashing Pumpkins made millions off feelings like these, but they didn’t need to get laughs every six seconds. Bamford’s technical excellence makes it possible.

“I’m on eharming me, as well as Attatch.glom and OKStupid,” Bamford begins. In one sentence, she makes the point that constitutes most stand-ups’ entire five-minute internet dating bit: These websites can hurt your self-esteem. She puts the punchline right in the setup, eliminating pointless “Have you seen this?” exposition. The whole joke lasts 12 seconds. She then recalls a comic saying unmarried women over 40 have something wrong with them. Instead of nailing this straw man with a scathing retort like a typical comedian, Bamford acts devastated. She lets this information rock her world. “NOOOO!” she wails, “Nonononono!” By pretending to accept it as a verdict on her life, she illuminates the careless hostility of such generalizations.

Bamford continues with a brilliant one-liner: “Sometimes I worry about dying alone, but, you know … I’m fun.” She says “I’m fun” like an apologetic dad wondering why his kids don’t want to go camping with him. The audience laughs as they stare at a basic human fear.

Bamford proceeds to shove this fear in their faces. She conjures a dark vision of her elderly self in a nursing home. She launches into a two-person scene with no narration whatsoever. She doesn’t have to describe the old version of herself or the nurse — she simply becomes them. Bamford brings her dismal senile future to life with gut-wrenchingly banal specifics. She hallucinates a puzzle of an “old mill” and looks for “pieces of sky.” Not only will we do imaginary jigsaw puzzles in our final years, they will be dull as hell.

This glimpse of the tragic last act of Bamford’s life gets five hard laughs in 50 seconds. She has the comedy chops to make facing this nightmare fun. Bamford shuffles between three voices. It’s hard to do even one character without sliding back into your normal voice or your Italian accent morphing into Russian, but Bamford’s voices are all distinct and consistent, like she recorded them separately in a voice-over booth then layered them over each other with editing software. She nails every line. It’s hard to get the timing of a joke right in your own voice, let alone having to switch voices twice before the punchline. Attempting a live one-woman sitcom is daunting. No wonder fledgling comics don’t try it. Bamford then dramatizes her mistrust of prospective dates. It’s her second seemingly effortless mini-dialogue in two minutes. It gets three laughs in 20 seconds.

Bamford’s next character has the romantic confidence she longs for. Asked if she and her partner ever fight about anything, she replies “He doesn’t like onions!” with a contemptible giggle. Bamford wants us to feel envy and resentment toward this woman. To achieve that, most comics would present a stereotype out of a bad Groundlings improv class. They’d fear you might not get their point otherwise. Not Bamford. More than any other comedian, her characters feel like real people.

Her style helps. Many comics project competence and control in their delivery. Bamford tells her jokes in a voice full of hesitation, pauses, and ums. She highlights her insecurity with every syllable. It’s an insecurity we all feel from time to time, regardless of how we present ourselves. The audience empathizes. They get used to her delivery as the show goes on. When Bamford switches to a self-assured character, their very confidence seems jarring and heightened by contrast, even without exaggerated tics. These “normal” people who lack self-doubt now seem unnatural. That’s exactly how they seem to to Bamford, who calls her Confident Woman “Merlin the magician with your book of spells and potions!”

Halfway through this chunk, Bamford gets interrupted. Her Confidant Woman character suggests you need to “be the one before you meet the one.” One audience member must have suffered through this platitude before. She emits a strange, animalistic cackle halfway through Bamford’s sentence, and the crowd erupts. Many comics would be thrown off by this; they would stop and address it right then, ruining the bit. Bamford spends the next 35 seconds finishing her joke. Then she admits, “I got a little confused … Girl, you got a loud laugh,” earning thunderous applause. She tells the woman she loves her but she’s “a little distracting.” This gets 20 more seconds of laughter from the crowd. Bamford’s experience allows her to stay on track, deliver her intended punchline, and address the incident at her own pace. It’s like watching an infielder snag an unexpected hit, calmly refocus themselves, and turn a double play.

Bamford gives us a ring-side seat to her internal conflict. “WHY DON’T YOU GO TO THE GYM AND HAVE A BABY!” she yells at herself, mushing all of our self-criticisms into one absurd command. She returns to her initial premise of internet dating with a perfect three-second joke: “It’s going so well since I stopped lying!” She recites her old dating profile, the bio of a hyper-competent super-person. Then we hear her current, truthful ad. It’s a portrait of rock-bottom dysfunction. The first profile, the one full of lies, is presented with Bamford’s signature nervous delivery. She is full of the anxiety of someone lying for acceptance. The second profile is delivered with the confidence of one of her characters. It’s as if Bamford, in deciding to be honest about who she is, has at last made peace with herself.

The audience can relate. Anyone can. We want ourselves to appear like Bamford’s first profile — bold and self-actualized, ready to go “para-sail-glide-kicking” at the drop of a hat. Inside, however, we are often shaking and sputtering. We’re afraid to speak our true thoughts. We sometimes even “crouch, naked, in the shower, and get real small.” These are uncomfortable, shameful feelings. Getting an audience to laugh at them takes expertise, and ironically, confidence. It takes real courage to proclaim your innermost anxieties to strangers. This alone is beyond a beginning comic. Transforming these thoughts into a hilarious, cathartic performance takes more than bravery. It takes lean, evocative writing, lifelike characters you can manipulate at will, and the ability to handle anything that might happen during a live performance and use it to your advantage. These are the skills necessary to make excruciating emotions enjoyable, and Maria Bamford has mastered them all.

In Maria Bamford’s Stand-up, Facing Nightmares Is Fun