Written By: Art Levine, Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly
Consumer Warning: If you think Dane Cook and Chelsea Handler are brilliant comedians, please do not read this article. It is unsafe for you to consume and may make your head explode.
Maria Bamford has emerged over the last year as one of the most critically revered comics — especially among her peers — in the country while bravely addressing the stigma of mental illness as part of her act. About a week ago at the fifth annual Women in Comedy Festival in Boston that she headlined, she also showed why her quirky, innovative comedy has led her to being so loved by her fans.
The Women in Comedy Festival, which showcased more than 300 stand-up comics and improv actors over four days ending March 24th, also demonstrated that there were several other performers who were ready for their moment in the sun, too. These included Bamford’s openers, the exuberant, irrevererent Kelly MacFarland and the brilliant lesbian comic Erin Foley, fresh from her recent Conan debut. She offers smart comedy on politics, culture, sports and commercialism that can appeal to anyone in an urban area or with a college degree, regardless of sexual preference.
Outside of the headliner shows, including Rachel Dratch’s improv star-turn at the 1200-seat Wilbur Theater, the parade of comics at smaller venues served as a reminder that great comedians are even rarer than great musicians. Yet some performers I saw there already had all the gifts, material and charisma necessary for stardom, including Kendra Cunningham with her sex-starved, blue-collar single woman act and improv whirlwindRachel Rosenthal, now drawing laughs regularly with the house team at the People’s Improv Theater in New York.
The Maria Bamford Phenomenom: Comic Genius –or “Benevolent” Cult Leader?
No matter how talented, all the performers at the festival knew that Maria Bamford is a unique presence in comedy. It’s not simply because she shifts effortlessly from her own high-pitched voice to offers quick-change, dead-on impressions of her families and friends, or the way she brings a bizarrely imaginative, unconventional approach to routines on everything from online dating to her experience of being hospitalized for bipolar II disorder. But she also projects a true vulnerability and, yes, “niceness” that is exceedingly rare in either alternative or mainstream comedy today.
There is, though, little in the way of slam-dunk one-liners to quote from her comedy routines to illustrate why she’s so admired, although this one comes close: “I’ve never really thought of myself as depressed as much as paralyzed by hope.” As Austin Ray sought toexplain her uniqueness in a stand-up review in The Spit Take magazine, “She utilizes her eccentricity, honing it into a precisely measured, mesmerizing tone that brings the audience into her world…Bamford is like a temporary, benevolent and harmless cult leader on stage — everything changes when she’s up there.”
All these appealing qualities shine through everything she does. They can be seen in everything from her rave-reviewed, darkly comic The Special Special Special, the $5 downloadable video she filmed at home in front of her parents to the several extended appearances on Comedy Central in her own specials, as a top-billed comic on John Oliver’s New York stand-up series and as a co-star with Patton Oswalt and other alt-comedy stars in the 2006 Comedians of Comedy tour and documentaries that brought what she calls her”quiet, odd joke-stories” to far wider notice. (A sampler of this and her other work can be found at this Metafilter post and at Comedy Central’s video page on her.)
Most Americans, though, if they’ve seen her at all, probably know her best as the crazed “Target” lady during holiday commercials; a smaller portion of the public has seen her in the recent two-story arc in Louie about dating while others will catch her as a recurring minor character in the upcoming reboot of Arrested Development on Netflix.
At the same time, she’s turned the burgeoning growth of comedy podcasting on shows such as Marc Maron’s WTF, The Nerdist, The Mental Illness Happy Hour and Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy program into a sounding board for new routines and an outlet for her stunningly frank and humorous discussions about her struggles with mental illness and showbiz. At the same time, her openness about her sometimes harrowing experiences offers a living example of hope, the prospect she presents of recovery from suicidal depression and disabling mental illness, aided by medication adjustments, that is drawn from her own life. With one in four Americans experiencing some sort of mental disorder in any given year, it’s clear that some of them are glad to have discovered Maria Bamford.
All this has helped build a fast-growing, intensely devoted audience, if not Louis CK-style mass following, for the 42-year-old Bamford and her comedy. She’s well aware that she’s not for everyone (even lampooning conventional woman comics in this insider routine), but those on her wavelength can’t get enough of her.
That was made abundantly clear from the moment she was introduced. As she came on stage, looking trim in her leather jacket, tie-dyed shirt, dark skinny jeans and stylish lace-up boots, many of the overwhelmingly young adults in the 230-seat Brattle Theater in Cambridge leapt to their feet, erupting with full-throated cheers and applause than went beyond the usual good-times expectations of laughs ahead to something closer to genuine excitement and adoration. Maria Bamford, with her 82,000 twitter followers, rare East Coast appearances and all her different types of followers, especially those in her audience who have become attached to her in part because of their own struggles with mental illness, was finally live and in person right in front of them.
They were delighted by their good fortune being there. Bamford briefly bowed her head in acknowledgment, smiled coyly, and as she she mumbled and paused her way towards her first routine, she won laughs merely by saying in her soft voice, ” Uh… Great, thank you guys so much for having me to this program.” She opened with a brand-new routine about a ceramic dog bank she made for her father as a gift, mimicking her parents arguing over it to the crowd’s loud laughter. But that also led her, in just a few phrases, to reflect on her struggles to do her best not only for those in her own family but also for her audience — while meeting her high standards for comedy. In a quick display of comedy legerdemain, she was transforming her bit about a not-so-perfect gift into meta-comedy about the routine we just heard. “I love you guys so much,” she whispered into the microphone, “but I’m clearly letting you down right now with this new premise,” garnering new laughs.
She added, “It clearly doesn’t have enough” — she paused to make baby-like motorboat sounds with her lips to indicate oomph — “so I’m going to put in sounds,” making a few more odd noises that are one of the hallmarks of her comedy.
The crowd laughed even more. Bamford, it seemed, was all at once instinctively parodying her own stylistic tics, her hold over her most loyal fans and the challenge of creating new routines for this comedian who slowly adds carefully wrought material over time. Or maybe I’m reading too much into what may have just been a bit of spontaneous tomfoolery by a comic who has said she doesn’t improvise much on stage. Even so, she offered a few more new routines that won loud laughs, but after another new bit — about expressing her deepest feelings by posting a video link to a bonfire outside her home — that the crowd also enjoyed, Bamford’ indicated it didn’t merit her own ready-for-primetime seal of approval. So she went on to say, in an ironically self-deprecating manner, “You’re right: that’s not a joke. It’s a carrot, well ,not a carrot yet, I should put it back in the soil, ” then crouched down to talk the invisible carrot back down into the ground while patting it with her hand. In doing so, she won more deep guffaws with that one bit to “save” the previous joke than most comics hear all night.
Yet with virtually all her brand- new material, and with every single laugh line and vocal intonation of her classic and recent routines, she rocked the audience. All this is a reminder that, despite Bamford’s aura of fragility, she is a consummate professional who expertly uses pacing, the dynamics of her voice, her acting chops and her well-crafted words at exactly the right time for explosive comic effect. Obsessive fans somehow assume that everyone else seeing her live has also already heard her few hours of material; all those routines that can be found on her comedy records; the 20-episode web series where she plays all the characters after a fictional crack-up that brings her home to Duluth; her periodic stand-up appearances on TV or the much-touted new comedy special at chill.com with its unprecedented but ultimately hopeful material on mental illness and suicide.
But of course the reality is quite different, especially on a Friday night in a small theater after she’s drawn new interest with more national press attention than ever before — and is the top-billed comic at a Women in Comedy Festival. So the material that originally blew away her fans-turned-acolytes a few years ago — leading many of them on first viewing to wonder who this adorable genius was, why hadn’t they heard of her before and what they might do to spread the word — had the same rollicking effect all over again. Fortunately for me and the other loyal fans at the Brattle that night, she’s so good that even routines that we’ve seen before on videos are transformed in person. Take her pitch-perfect impression of the smooth-talking “Delilah” DJ for the lovelorn comforting a heart-broken woman who can only utter unintelligible yawps of pain, while Delilah tries to soothe her: “You and Matt broke up, that’s tough.” In person, Bamford milks each moment, her final guttural cry of comic despair launched with her head tilted back and her mouth open wide as the strange sounds keep coming, convulsing this Brattle crowd. A sense of this routine’s impact can be gleaned from the opening of her segment on the Craig Ferguson show in 2010.
Her new work is even more powerful, especially because she’s deploying all her comic gifts to not only recreate characters but to challenge the culture’s unaddressed bigotry towards — and stigmatizing of — the mentally ill. There’s really nothing quite like it in popular culture, and critic Marisa Carrol was quite right, in a smart essay in Splitsider on the “Cathartic Comedy of Mental Illness,” to point out: “Her stand-up contains some of the most transformative work being done around mental illness and stigma today.”
She does this most powerfully in a routine about a well-intentioned friend visiting her in the hospital, while Bamford is on suicide watch, blithely repeating New Age hokum: “I just talked to my spiritual adviser who told me that people who want to commit suicide, sometimes it’s time for them to go; it’s time to move on to the next dimension and I want to give you permission to go.” As her character says this, amid all the crowd’s laughter, there’s also a gasp of shock from an audience member that any visitor to a mental health ward could be so blindly thoughtless, a reminder that as with narrow-mindedness of all kinds, people can be alerted through the arts to the harm that it can do. When playing this New Age, self-righteous, privileged airhead, Bamford does something in person you can’t quite catch in the at-home concert film: Instant Method Acting, as her body carriage shifts, her eyes take on a steely arrogance and Bamford’s own chiseled Midwestern good looks and dyed blonde hair suddenly assume a harder, more forbidding air. It’s a ferociously satiric portrayal fueled no doubt by some deep wells of anger that surface largely in certain characters she inhabits on stage.
Then she’s back to playing the defenseless Maria, trembling with misery in the hospital, and telling her visitor with all the weakened outrage she can muster, “You are horrible,” but adding in a plea for companionship, “And please come visit me tomorrow.” With that line, the audience bursts into more laughter, followed by applause for both the artistry they’ve just seen and the protest message behind Bamford’s creation of the scene.
What’s especially remarkable is how Bamford has managed to find a way to dig deeper than most comics do into the darkest, most painful parts of her life — in a way not seen, perhaps, since Richard Pryor, despite their obvious difference in styles — and somehow emerge with comedy that’s cathartic for her, funny and potentially helpful to the rest of us.
In the video special and on stage, she transforms the most traumatizing event she’s faced in recent years — the death of her beloved pug Blossom in 2011 due to her own absent-mindedness in moving a ramp — into an impression of her dog’s point of view and our own broader failings. It’s hardly traditional comedy but there’s still a comedic punch to her bittersweet truths:
She ended her set with a new routine — complete with a mock impassioned reference to creating a “nude clown opera” — that makes the case for following your own artistic vision, no matter how weird. It’s a philosophy she’s followed with great success in her own career by steadily building the sort of audience that found its way to two sold-out shows at the Brattle Theater and was now giving her a tumultuous standing ovation. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, famed for his indie film of his monologue Sleepwalk With Me, had tweeted following another recent performance: “Saw [Maria Bamford] tonight at Caroline’s. I’ve never seen a comedian who made me want to give 25 standing ovations in one set.” That captures some of the thrill of seeing a great comedian like Maria Bamford come into her own.
In some ways, she represents the polar opposite of some of the most dispiriting trends in mass-cult comedy, as embodied by the wildly successful Chelsea Handler. Handler has an influential TV show, best-selling books and fills arenas with comedy that is pedestrian, crude, obvious, unfunny and needlessly vulgar while being beloved by millions of fans — and being despised by smart comedians who don’t need to curry her favor. (Her fans believe that all her critics are just prigs who are jealous of her beauty, wealth and fame.) Some of that industry loathing can be found in an amusing best-of podcast edition of Hollywood Babylon, co-hosted by radio host Ralph Garman and director Kevin Smith — but even Kevin Smith had to go on her show to promote a new film. At one point, Garman, when not fuming with obscenities aimed at Handler, quotes comedian Daniel Tosh as saying, “Comedy is hard. If it were easy, Chelsea Handler would be doing it.”
Bamford has never attacked Handler and presumably travels in different circles in Los Angeles, but Bamford’s growing success is a sign that there is an indeed a potentially large market for intelligent, heartfelt and thoughtful comedy.
There will be a potentially huge audience waiting for Erin Foley, once the rest of America catches up with those in women’s comedy circles who already treat her like a superstar. Foley was the featured comic who preceded Bamford, and she quickly established that she’s a first-tier comedian and actress who deserves to be seen more often in movies and on TV.
It’s not as if she’s had no major national exposure, of course: She has a 2009 Comedy Central special under her belt, had a guest slot on Curb Your Enthusiasm, appeared in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, released a comedy album in 2011, and headlined in TV Guide’s series Stand-Up in Stilettos and Comedy Central’s Mash-Up. She has long been cracking up crowds at New York’s most prestigious comedy clubs before heading to Los Angeles recently to seek wider renown in TV and films. After I just discovered her acting reel, including national TV commercials, it seems to me she shows more comic flair in 30-second commercials (see her Nature Made slot) and short films than anyone in Two Broke Girls has demonstrated in two seasons.
But I had never seen her videos or her stage show before last week, and so she was a revelation. She was simply magnetic striding on stage. A tall woman in a dark shirt and blue jeans, with cobalt blue eyes and long brown hair, she had a loose-limbed goofy charm drawn from her days as an improv actor that only supplemented her fiercely intelligent, well-observed comedy. Her hilarious opening routine was on depressing book stores featuring such books as Vegan Cooking for One, a bit that hit home with this educated audience in Cambridge. But when she turned to the absurdities of right-wing politics andPorltlandia-syle cultural and political correctness, she was entering new territory that most other left-wing comics can’t match. That’s because of her comedic acting skills, and the routines she writes that keep building more laughs with each added detail along with their ramped-up intensity. She ended her set by lampooning the irrelevance of the Bible to the debate on gay marriage by reading aloud, as if she were a Congressman in a debate, from a scene from the Harry Potter series. It showed an Andy Kaufman-like sense of absurdity blended with political awareness, and it killed. She got a rousing standing ovation, and left this comedy fan wanting to see more of Erin Foley. Special note to the popular Stephanie Miller Sexy Liberal Show: add Foley in some guest opening segments.
As these video clips from an appearance at the Gotham Comedy Club show, you don’t have to be a lesbian to love Erin Foley.
Her recent Conan appearance, below, gives a brief sense of what she can do but downplays her biting political humor. But it’s striking that despite a Comedy Central special in 2009, rave reviews wherever she appears and a great album in 2011, it took until last year for her to land a major network late-night comedy slot. She doesn’t need any special pleading from me, but it’s seems likely that her reputation as a “lesbian comic” who hosts shows such as the Gays R Us improv show in Los Angeles and plays lesbian cruises — even though it’s been years since Ellen came out of the closet — seems to have somewhat limited her earlier opportunities in major TV shows and movies. Maybe it’s because some of her material openly addresses the fact that she has a girlfriend. So what? But with the universal appeal of her humor and the rapid changes in the culture at large — seen the latest polls on 81 percent support for gay marriage among young people? — there’s little doubt that we will in fact be seeing far more of Erin Foley: