I Sat Front Row at Maria Bamford’s Comedy-Special Experiment

Federman with Bamford on The Special Special Special! Photo: Amazon Studios

On October 27, 2012, in Eagle Rock, California, the evolution of the stand-up-comedy special added another dimension when Maria Bamford filmed her Special Special Special! The show was shot, on location, at Maria’s home. There were only two audience members: Maria’s parents, Joel and Marilyn Bamford. There had been nothing like it before. And I had a front-row seat — as the show’s piano player.

I first got to know Maria back in the 1990s while doing free alt-comedy shows in Los Angeles. I recall one night at a bookstore in the San Fernando Valley where we learned there is a thin line between performing comedy and interrupting people trying to shop.

I first heard of the Special Special Special! from its director, Jordan Brady, himself a former comedian, about a month before the shoot. He told me briefly about the concept, and right away I thought that it was a highly risky endeavor. I understand that, in a metaphorical sense, all comedians are performing for their parents. But face-to-face? As the sole audience members? Jesus.

The idea of filming at her home, with her parents on the couch, was all Maria; she also cooked up the title. Jordan and Maria then collaborated on multiple interstitial bits: baking cookies, eye drops for her pug, Bert, a circuit-breaker reset, pizza delivery, pre-show prep in the bathroom, and a postshow interview with the audience.

My job was simple: compose and play two pieces of music. The first was Maria’s intro theme, and the other was lively background music to be played during the breaks. They dressed Maria’s small living room with familiar tropes of the stand-up-special genre: a red curtain, her name in lights, dramatic theatrical lighting. They wanted the look and feel of a mini-nightclub as an ironic counterpoint to the home setting. That’s why I was there as well as Maria’s longtime friend and fellow comedian Jackie Kashian, who warmed up the “crowd.” Of course, a working stage microphone and amplifier were essential to add authenticity and help emphasize Maria’s often whisper-quiet vocalizations.

All the interstitials were shot before the stand-up, and I think we even shot a master take of the set before we brought in her parents for the show. Luckily, I got to speak with both parents beforehand. They were delightful but seemed apprehensive about being on-camera. It’s nerve-wracking enough to sit in the back of the audience and observe your child performing, but quite another thing to be the integral theatrical element of the show. I was also very curious to see how accurate Maria’s impressions were — especially of her mother, Marilyn. Maria really captured her. The accent was slightly elevated, but both the intonation and the attitude were spot-on.

Bamford’s parents at the taping. Photo: Bruce Smith

The basic idea of shooting a comedy special is to make the performer as comfortable as possible and hope to capture the palpable give-and-take that lies at the heart of stand-up. It’s a collaborative art form between performer and audience. But with the Special Special Special!, Maria flips this expectation on its head. With a crowd of just two, there is little opportunity to gain any exciting comedic momentum. In fact, it risks sounding like the comedian is bombing.

But the small crowd was not a problem for Maria. Right from the start, she established a nice rhythm. Jordan wanted a “live” set, which meant the camera operators, sound guy, and myself were allowed to react. It was wild to see Maria do her mom impression to her mom. She referred to Joel and Marilyn as a “loving couple,” and I noticed they began holding hands. That moment was sweet, lovely, and entirely unlike my parents’ dynamic.

Maria is one of the few stand-ups who knows how to survive without laughter waves and applause breaks. She is just built differently. I was not surprised to learn that, in recent years, she has been developing new material performing for just one person at a time.

Maria’s instinct to hire a comedian to direct her special, although not unprecedented, is becoming a much more common practice. Comics understand what it feels like to be onstage searching for laughs. They often provide an extra gear to the process. Back in 1987, ex-comic Robert Townsend directed Eddie Murphy’s Raw (still the largest grossing stand-up film in history). Since then, many comedians, including Mike Binder, Bo Burnham, Neal Brennan, Chris Rock, Tig Notaro, and Jerrod Carmichael, have creatively helmed stand-up specials.

Wayne playing piano during the taping. Photo: Netflix

I was thrilled just to be involved. To many, myself included, Maria is a peerless force in stand-up. Her writing, performance skills, and joke construction are wildly original. Looking back, I see a few parallels to the work, and life, of another comedian: Jonathan Winters. Both Bamford and Winters were raised in the Midwest, inhabit multiple original characters, are uncommonly creative, and spent time recovering in mental hospitals. 

The financing of the Special Special Special! came from a new company called Chill. They built a website that presented a full slate of original stand-up specials, each downloadable for just $4.99. Their business model was triggered by the huge success of Louis C.K.’s 2011 downloadable self-produced and -directed special Live at the Beacon. Eventually Chill went bankrupt, and Maria’s Special Special Special! landed at various streaming platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. Meanwhile, the web address is currently utilized by a CBD-distribution outfit.

At the time of the shoot, I had no idea that this little anti-special experiment would have cultural legs. I think it remains a source of inspiration for three reasons: the sky-high creative risk, the seamless execution, and Maria’s masterful performance. I try not to use the word brave to characterize artistic endeavors, but creating a stand-up comedy special, in front of just your parents, was certainly audacious. Although Maria might disagree. She always claimed that she just wanted to shoot her special as close to her bedroom as possible.

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I Sat Front Row at Maria Bamford’s Comedy-Special Experiment