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Maria Bamford: The Artist Is a Comedian Bear


There’s a breed of comedy special from experienced comedians in which the hour of stand-up doubles as an argument for what stand-up as an art form should be. Nanetteis the most familiar example from the past several years, while Zainab Johnson’s Hijabs Off is a more unusual version for a debut hour. Marc Maron’s special from earlier this year is a classic of the genre, blending social commentary, autobiographical storytelling, and a clearly articulated set of ideas about the purpose of stand-up, its responsibility to its audience, and how it works at its best. Specials like these are always fascinating and rarely subtle. Thesis statements about the purpose of art aren’t often funny material, and they can be laden with too much sincerity. As a result, the transitions into and out of the “serious,” self-reflective sections tend to be either overt or heavily lampshaded: Isn’t it funny how this part isn’t all that funny?

At first glance, Maria Bamford’s new special, Local Act, does not look much like the artistic-statement-of-purpose comedy special. It lacks the kinds of sweeping statements about humor and humanity that tend to come with this mode. In scope and style, it doesn’t have pretensions of grandeur. But Bamford isn’t interested in broad claims by other comedians about what art should look like, nor does she seem invested in the stylistic choices (the lack of laughter, prestige editing, Rothanielvibes) that may instantly communicate gravitas. Despite all that, Local Act is entirely about the nature of comedy and how Bamford sees herself as a professional comedian. At its core, it’s a beautiful, tender, wildly idiosyncratic artist’s statement from one of the best comedians working, about the things she values and the vitality of the art form.

Much of Local Act is framed as a series of stories about cults, allowing it to dovetail neatly with Bamford’s recent book, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult. There’s overlapping material: Both book and special include a section on the cultish procedures of 12-step programs and the way families act as their own little cults. The special extends the cult material further with a joke about being pressured to go through Catholic confirmation as a child and a story about the bizarre process of being inducted as an honorary member of The Harvard Lampoon. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that the cult stories aren’t the primary frame because so much of the special veers into different territory. Bamford uses a cult-related idea to introduce the section on her parents’ deaths, but it’s clearly the transition, not the central idea. She has a section about an unfortunate medical mistake she experienced that resulted in the removal of her cervix. There’s a long section about suicidal ideation, which pulls in some of Bamford’s cult-related ideas about groupthink and support systems but isn’t chiefly about any of those things. She closes with a perfect section on Richard Scarry’s Busytown that has nothing to do with cults but does imagine the systemic policing agenda keeping Scarry’s tiny mouse cop on the streets.

All of it’s charming, and all of it’s unmistakably Maria Bamford — full of odd little sound effects, swallowed premises, and startling character voices that arrive and depart in seconds. Her physical performance is occasionally so broad that she literally pulls a face and at another point falls into a whole-body collapse that punctuates her awareness of being a cliché. Her jokes are so fast and so full of sound it’s as if they’re being told by a one-woman band holding invisible instruments. But underneath all the energy, the idea that returns again and again is Maria Bamford as a comedian: what her daily life is like, what constitutes success, what she hopes the job can do, what it looks like when she fails. It’s often buried in sidebars or spoken in a silly voice and allowed to stay there, expressed yet unexamined, but jokes and tangents about comedy as a job are omnipresent throughout. “I’m a comedian, as far as I’m concerned,” she says near the beginning of the special. “But if I have to make a bunch of ladies at a nonprofit luncheon in Napa Valley laugh, who books this shit?!” She pauses, then points to herself. “I do.” She has a story about a show at which she berated an audience member she felt was heckling her only to discover the woman had a disability (and was a huge fan). There’s another brief aside about online commenters who accused Bamford of mumbling through an entire show in Fresno, which she reacts to defensively before realizing they were right. (“I listened to the recording, and I refunded everyone their ticket money.”) She describes her sister, a life coach, writing her a new work affirmation: “How is it my fault they hired me?”

In a different comedian’s hands, stories like those could sound like complaints, self-pity, belligerence, or excuses. For Bamford, they are the strange realities of her life and the bedrock of what she cares about and how she thinks about her job. The most telling story in this vein is her long account of being inducted into The Harvard Lampoon, which she agrees to do without fully understanding what she has gotten herself into. She does voices for the privileged Harvard students, including one kid who appears to want career advice but already has a postgraduation SNL job lined up. She slides back and forth in time, using the conceit of the Lampoon induction questions to describe various lowlights of her career. She tugs on the suspense of the story using her ignorance as the chief source of tension, but she also lets the fool role toggle back and forth between her (the idiot who agreed to this) and these kids (who are engaging in a bizarre ritual and shouting nonsense questions at a woman standing in a pitch-black basement). The story has political undertones with her eventual description of how she views this process as hazing, and it has commentary about the state of pop culture as she adds the voices of other comedians who have completed the initiation. She even gets in some absurdist yelling about Doubletree Hotel cookies and her own love of useless merch.

Taken altogether, it’s a multifaceted tirade about the nature of comedy as both an art form and a business, presented from several angles at once — a glorious, ridiculous collision of comedy snobbery and cultish in-groups, the economics of a creative industry and the falseness of meritocracy, all balanced against Bamford’s own sense of helpless absurdity. There’s no lesson she’s trying to derive from the experience, no big takeaway or indictment when it’s all over beyond her inability to accept what she knows other people would view as a huge opportunity. Instead, there’s a poignant vision of what Bamford would rather be doing with her evening. While she’s stuck in the Harvard basement, she says, her friend and colleague Jackie Kashian is at a nearby comedy open mic in a Chinese restaurant. If Bamford could only leave in time, only exit this pathway to probable career advancement, she could go beg for five minutes of stage time (“Just a five-minute ride on the dragon,” she says in the voice of someone jonesing for a hit), then sit with her friend who has already ordered food for the table. The oasis, for Bamford, is not the secretive collection of privileged young power players who could well be a ticket to money and more fame. It’s what she describes onstage as her favorite place in life: “up here, amplified, lit, monologuing, timed.” As she says earlier in the special, “Why else be alive except to make fun of things that are important to you?”

Bamford’s not trying to crowd out other voices to claim her place, either. At the end of her hour, she announces to the very small crowd that everyone should have their own chance at a comedy special, so anyone who wants to can get up onstage and do a minute of jokes. There’s a short montage of people trying out little bits of material and making one another laugh: Bamford’s husband tells a joke about drinks that taste bad; another audience member says he heard that none of the audio from this would be used in the final special, so he makes nonsense sounds while acting out the rhythms and gestures of jokes. Occasionally, the camera cuts to Bamford sitting in the audience, her face collapsing with laughter. Afterward, she and the whole crowd go outside to eat pizza together, and Bamford hands around a sign-up sheet for anyone who wants to be a “supreme executive producer” on the finished product.

It is an inclusive, warm, personal, micro-scale manifestation of what comedy can and should be for Bamford. She’s free to explore whatever ideas she wants to without checking herself against the current cultural tides of ambition or taboo. Her comedy is forthright about money and bodies and death and fear, and all of it is welcomed by a small supportive audience that is game to go along with her. It’s full of strange, mundane details in a working comedian’s life, but it’s also divorced from any of the enormous, macho, chip-on-the-shoulder markers of cultural significance and economic clout. What she wants, she says at the end of her set, is to be an enormous bear from Scarry’s Busytown labeled with the word comedian. She would wear a huge, colorful wig and a lapel flower that squirts water, and no one would question whether she should be onstage telling jokes. “She’s the comedian,” Bamford says in her bear voice. “She makes the whole fucking town laugh.” This, for her, is the dream. Local Act is proof of how lucky we are when she shares it with the rest of us.

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Kathryn VanArendonk , 2023-12-12 18:38:27

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