When comedians do their first-late night set, they tend to play it safe. They stick with material that is designed to be introductory. The definitive example is Freddie Prinze’s first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1973, which turned him into a superstar overnight. “I come from two backgrounds,” the set starts. “Hungarian and Puerto Rican. I’m a Hungarican.”
Even veteran comics with a few late-night appearances under their belt usually won’t stray far, assuming that anyone watching, especially the tourists in front of them, don’t know who the heck they are. When comedians do push things, other comics take notice. Patton Oswalt praised Gary Gulman for doing his state-abbreviations bit on Conan in 2016, knowing that if the audience did not get it right away, it would be five minutes of silence. Roy Wood Jr. praised Amanda Seales for really talking about race on Late Night With Seth Meyers in 2017.
When it comes to topics audiences are sensitive about, nothing tightens people up like bringing up death at the wrong time. Literally, people clench as if to reflexively protect themselves. You know what might be considered the “wrong time”? While a pandemic that has killed over 6 million people (plus another projected 18 million “excess deaths”) is still killing thousands a day. You know who really wouldn’t want to hear about death? People on probably their first vacation in two years — the pandemic having killed nearly 1 million of their fellow Americans. People who thought a trip to sunny Los Angeles would be chill. People who thought sitting in the audience of The Late Late Show would be innocuous. Just a little obsequiousness before waiting in line for famous, bad hot dogs.
And then, on March 10, James Corden introduced “the delightful Maria Bamford.”
Bamford’s mom, Marilyn, died in late 2020 from lung cancer. Considering that Maria’s impression of Marilyn is a beloved fixture of her act — offering Maria an overly sweet albeit passive-aggressive counterbalance to her, at times, dark material — and considering Maria has always been deeply driven to discuss the hard-to-discuss, of course it has been a major part of the set she’s been working on during the pandemic. I have seen a few Zoom shows she’s performed and, feeling like I knew her mom through her act, I found the material incredibly moving. But to do it on The Late Late Show With James Corden, a show she’s never been on before, to an audience who likely doesn’t know who she is and definitely doesn’t know who her mom is, is such a high level of difficulty. It is like the [insert really complicated athletic or video-game achievement] of stand-up comedy.
The entire set is incredible. But I just want to focus, for a second, on the first 30 seconds and what she does to make the rest of the set work — a set in which she talks exclusively about her mother dying from lung cancer. A set, again, that is on The Late Late Show with goddamned James Corden. “You guys, some people love life,” she starts, already getting laughs at the counterintuitive absurdity. Smiling, she continues, “I’ve always been on the fence about the whole thing.” She speeds through so people laugh but don’t think too deeply as she continues: “I could … go … at … any time.” Medium laugh. Still building, still fairly deadpan. “What I would really like is a sharp blow to the head,” she says before her voice switches to cartoonishly, midwesternly cheerful. “… That I do not see coming!” She laughs maniacally as she gets a big laugh from the tourists. What she does here is find a way to introduce death as not that big of a deal. Death? That old thing. Who cares? Actually, it sounds kinda nice. She talks about it like it is a spontaneous vacation from life. This softens the topic, so, as she continues, the audience doesn’t feel the need to tighten. A lesser comedian might’ve also milked this moment for an applause break, but Bamford knows she needs the momentum.
“My mom loved life,” starts the next joke. Loved. Remember, this audience probably doesn’t know Bamford and almost definitely doesn’t know her mom has died. This is how she tells them: subtly, gently. It’s a phrase you probably hear in 90 percent of eulogies, and this set is a eulogy. She respects the audience’s intelligence enough not to blurt out “MY MOM DIED!” and knows that would just get her performed sympathy. “My mom loved life” brings the audience in, creating a genuine feeling of closeness with Maria. All TV bullshit fades away, and for a moment, so does the horror still happening outside the studio. For the next four minutes, it is just one person telling you what they loved about their mom. And you get it. I laughed until I cried and cried until I laughed.
So many artists fail at talking about loss because they are only able to capture, at best, how it made them feel. Most stand-ups have difficulty talking about other people in their life without it descending into “my nagging wife,” “my idiot husband,” or “my stupid kids.” But Maria Bamford is not most stand-ups. At a time when “challenging” is a word so often used by comics to defend cruelty, Bamford consistently finds ways to take risks, to push herself and the art form, with the goal of bringing people in and together.
And yet I almost completely missed it. (Thankfully, Bamford’s friend and sometimes opener, Jackie Kashian, tweeted the clip on March 16.) It was presented without fanfare. Just another late-night set. “Maria Bamford Stand-up,” the video’s title reads. “Maria Bamford Stand-up.” In around four and a half minutes, it is maybe the best piece of stand-up I’ve seen filmed in the last two years.