There’s a momentary blip in Maria Bamford’s new special Weakness Is the Brand. She’s transitioning between jokes, and she flubs the line she’d planned to move from one idea to the next. “Recently,” she says, before trying again: “Also a few … uh, a little while ago.” “‘Yesterday?’ Is that good for comedy?” she cracks. “I’m a liar!” she lands on finally, fully ripping off the Band-Aid of the pretense that any of this happened at all recently. “The important thing about stand-up comedy,” Bamford then says, speaking straight at the camera there to film the special, “is to call whatever you’re doing ‘stand-up comedy.’”
It is a small meltdown in the middle of an otherwise perfectly controlled hour, and it’s amazing how well it illustrates the angles and technique of Bamford’s comedy. Like many great stand-ups, Bamford’s trick is to organize elements of her personality into something that feels disorganized, creating the illusion that the thing happening in front of you is discovered in the moment. It’s not that it seems at all improvised — long, looping sections like the sequence about whether Bamford or her mother is the better Christian are built so that you can feel their internal structures. Bamford gives signposts to help us follow her as she swings through many characters and voices in the service of a single story, like the “ding ding ding” of her boxing-match metaphor, or the explicit “shit sandwich” design of her joke about “sharing and caring.”
Bamford’s imaginative writing manages to liven up even premises that seem obnoxiously well-worn. When she does a short run of Trump material at the opening, it initially seems like all the other Trump material out there, bemoaning the state of the world and then shrugging in exhaustion. Except in Bamford’s version of Trump material, it’s not about making fun of his speech patterns or his hair. It’s not even about his hypocrisy or his lack of intelligence. Bamford cuts straight to: “We cannot physically harm the president of the United States, but it is not illegal to lead him into a bramble,” and then, having dropped this remarkable image, quickly moves along to something else. They are beautifully built jokes.
The thing in Bamford’s comedy that seems more spontaneous is the display of personality, the glimpses of her mind that come flashing out in moments like that one short transition flub. You can see it in the quick cuts between different voices, in the intelligent directness of yelling “I’m a liar!” as the flub reveals how she’s written the act. The elements of herself that she’s built into her act are exactly the same as those that come out when she’s in a brief moment of improvisation, and like the act itself, the funniest thing about “I’m a liar!” is how not seamless it is, how anxious Bamford is to pull back the curtain on herself. It’s even remarkably on theme: As the title states and as Bamford explains early in her set, weakness — like, for instance, turning a small verbal error into a sudden bolt of truth — is the brand.
Bamford’s comedic self comes off as a Herculean effort to keep her own fascinating mind in balance with her obsessive impulse to notice and embody others. It’s the kind of internal struggle that might get shrugged off as “quirky,” and instead adds up to something like a deep need to understand herself and other people. It shows up in nearly every moment of the set. Bamford explains that yes, of course, she does this because she loves the attention, and yes, she has a need to prove that she is better than others, that her worldview is more compassionate and insightful. She doesn’t need to be the best, she says, but definitely better than some people. Better than the Golden State Killer at least.
But then, again and again in her act, her quest to prove her own goodness becomes an insight that she can’t help but turn back against herself. Bamford talks about insisting on getting paid to be an honorary speaker at a graduation, but then feeling so terrible about getting money from a not-for-profit educational institution that she gave her fee away to help students pay off their debt. “That is the only way I am able to do kind things, ” Bamford says, “if it’s in public and it is grandiose.”
A similar twist happens at the end of Bamford’s story about “sharing and caring” with her husband, and again at the end of her description about proving whether she’s a better Christian than her mother. The brand may be weakness, but the brand is also Bamford refusing to slice away at others without also turning the knife back on herself.
One of the more interesting moments like this comes as Bamford tells a story about an essay she wrote called “Letter From the Future.” In it, Bamford made some inept, transphobic jokes about self-identification, and when she realized her obliviousness after publishing, she apologized then requested the publication remove the essay. Telling this story in her act requires admitting a significant, mortifying mistake, and Bamford doesn’t soft-pedal her own ignorance. She is sincere in her apology. And then, to really grind in the message of her own flaw, she explains that when her publisher initially refused to take the essay down, she got to take pleasure from her mistake by, as she explains it, “getting to teach someone a lesson I just learned.” “‘You should be ashamed of yourselves,’” Bamford imagines telling the publisher. It’s a moment that’s strong, funny, and unerringly aimed at herself.
The best thing about this kind of self-effacing comedic impulse is that it may be true. Bamford’s mother may in fact be better because at least she doesn’t use all her interactions with her daughter as fodder onstage. But by performing her flaws as well as she does, Bamford’s still just proving her own greatness.
Weakness Is the Brand is available through Comedy Dynamics on Amazon, Comcast, Apple TV, Vimeo, YouTube, and other VOD platforms.