Keeping it weird: A night with Maria Bamford
In her 2009 comedy album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, Maria Bamford prefaces a bit about aging with the following warning: “This joke might fall under the category of something only I enjoy.” This is one of those cases where it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. Though I find Bamford’s work hilarious, playful, darkly intelligent, and fun, I’ve noticed that when I try to share her genius with friends I get a less than enthusiastic response. Think of how people don’t want to try sushi. “Oooh, raw fish? Aah. Huh. Wrapped in seaweed, too, I see. No, no, thanks, but you just eat that yourself.” That face that’s trying to be polite, but disgust is creeping all over their visage. Their head shaking a “no,” their hand gesturing “halt, there will be no sushi in this gullet!” This is oftentimes the reaction I get from sharing Maria’s material. But, to be fair, Bamford (aka The Bammer) isn’t your typical stand-up. If you want simple laughs unpacking the quirky inanity of airplane food, men vs. women, black guys drive like this/white guys drive like this, well, you’ve come to the wrong comedy show.
With Maria you get a cacophony of voices each one populating the world around and inside her. We hear her family, her friends, L.A. rich lady, Mexican neighbor, children at a youth center, the devil, baby Jesus (leaving messages on Mama Bamford’s answering machine), her childish self, her dark self, her anxious self, her feminist self. . . I could go on. Though one could lazily label her silly, just a weird voice lady, or as one radio deejay so inanely misread her, a “schizophrenic,” if you listen closely you might hear how her woman of a million voices act quite brilliantly sketches what it feels like to be Maria — to inhabit her skin, her space, her mind. And if we’re honest, we might find that all her “weird” characters, offbeat thoughts, songs and reactions are pretty familiar to our own experience. You know that you at your core? The one that likes popping zits, eating ice cream for breakfast, narrating the thoughts of your maniacally evil cat in Broadway style with jazz hands and aplomb? Yeah, that’s the self we usually tidy up and edit out and that’s the one that Maria shares with us in public, on stage.
A few weeks ago, I actually had the (strange) fangirl pleasure of seeing Maria live in Ann Arbor, MI and it wasn’t exactly what I expected. First off, I’ve always seen comedians perform in theaters, casino auditoriums, or arenas. The venues seemed to support the idea that the player we came to see was an artist, someone valuable, someone famous, or “big.” However, the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase is a lot more like (or at least trying be like) the comedy clubs you’ve seen intermittently on Seinfeld or Louie. Small cramped quarters. Brick walls. Teeny tiny tables. The audience is ushered in two people to a table and every table is crammed into a semicircular formation around a small spare stage decorated only with a saddish mural of a big city. The cityscape looks like stage dressing for a high school play. I could easily walk up to the stage, take the mic, do a jig if I so desired. There’s none of that spatial separation — none of those markers that suggest that the performer is not like me, is better. This makes me sad for Maria. “She deserves better than this!” my mind screams, and a nervous knot ties in my belly.
I switch seats with my friend Erin — she joining my husband at a table for two, I filling a half seat next to strangers. And then the fun begins. A drunk crew of somebody’s moms and dads out for a wild Ann Arbor night squeeze into the spots next to me. The tipsy star of their band immediately starts chatting me up. A woman “alone” at the comedy club — of course I desire his doting attentions! He entertains, he reads my Facebook phone updates over my shoulder. His wife and friends cheer him on for he’s so funny he should clearly be on stage! Oh, a laugh riot this guy. He wants to know is Maria anything like Paula Poundstone? He likes Paula Poundstone.
Way to know a contemporary female comedian, buddy. I quietly seethe.
“Nooo, she’s not really your typical stand-up. She plays a lot with voice work. . .”
“OH, so she does voices. Can she do Cher? Sylvester Stallone?”
“No. Um, she’s not really an impressionist. She uses the voices to. . .”
“Does she do Arnold Schwarzenegger? Oh, all right, voices! “
“. . . . . . .”
He went on to showcase his devastating display of comedy knowledge referencing everyone from Sam Kinison to. . . well, Paula Poundstone again. I went on to call him stupid on Twitter and then concocted elaborate anxiety fantasies of him heckling Bamford, me sitting next to him mouthing to her, “I’m so sorry!” My stomach at this point was well on its way to cat-o-nine-tails.
The first act was a boring newcomer full of expected and borderline offensive jokes that the old kids sure enjoyed. Second up was Jackie Kashian — a friend of Maria’s and strong comedian. Her work was more story-oriented and built around the ridiculousness of her family, and tales of her nerdish childhood. Kashian’s style is confident, unshakeably so without being arrogant. A fine line to walk but she walked it well and all while sporting her Powell’s Books t-shirt. I liked her. Dr. Comedy next to me was less pleased but still riding his buzz.
Finally, Maria came on and she was all that I hoped she’d be and more. The packed closeness that had inspired claustrophobia was now cushioned by loud shared laughter. The sticky crampedness that built stomach knots gave way into release. Maybe this layout is part of the build up — it provides some of the necessary tension that jokes erupt out of, I pondered. But Maria brought some of this discomfort too. Her voice could be too quiet, I strained to hear, she babbled her weird thoughts, she’d close her eyes rehearsing what she had told us and what she had yet to say. One could possibly think she looked unstable or at least fearful, uncomfortable on stage. There was something true about this but also something that was just part of her performance. I knew she possessed the wherewithal to clean this up, look more “normal” if she wanted to, but she was choosing to show this process as it was. She does not glibly glide from joke to joke, she gets there messily, truthfully.
But beyond this, I can’t really do her justice as her show relies so heavily on voice and intonation. For a taste of her sense of humor here’s a story/joke she relayed about a conversation she and her new neighbor shared:
Maria’s new neighbor: I hope you don’t mind living next to a Mexican — you know we leave stuff on our lawn.
Maria: I hope you don’t mind living next to a white lady, because I’m gonna steal that stuff.
MANIFEST DESTINY! It feels like it’s mine!
Old Kinison to my left did not approve. He was sorry he didn’t get a chance to tell her to her face how badly she sucked.
Erin’s high-pitched laugh squealed behind me. I laughed tearfully. Maybe she didn’t please everyone that night, but she sure punched some of us right in the comedy gut.
Now, for a comedian to be successful, assuming successful means garnering a wide audience, playing huge theaters, arenas, even, their material needs to hit a sweet spot of broad experience. It has to fit into, explain and reflect the thoughts, dreams and fears of a good many people. We tend to mark “the best” by measuring success in this fashion. However, there’s something special about artists like Bamford, performers who refuse to play to the standard and reach every person. There’s something brave, kinda punk, kinda D.Y.I., feminist awesome about how incredibly close she keeps her comedy. Her stories all spin out from her unique self and even when she ventriloquizes and lampoons those around her, she maintains the oddity and complexity of her own voice and perspective. Her show was small, intimate, a little too close and that’s exactly where she’s at home and I felt at home there, too. She might be too unsettling for even my weird friends, she might not be the next comedy sweetheart to sweep the nation, but she’s honest and amazing in her own right. She might not steal your heart, but she may steal your stuff. . . and then tell a small crowd a very good story about it.
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.