Dark Yet Light

Her D in Biology notwithstanding, Maria Bamford is a genius at making dark comedy funny

Dark Yet Light

In Maria Bamford's most recent comedy special, The Special Special Special!, she performs for an audience of two: her parents, Joel and Marilyn Bamford. Given the often brutally honest and playfully dark tone to much of her work, some might find that strange. But any real unease lies with us, the eavesdropping home-viewer. Bamford described the opportunity to entertain her folks as "awesome" and assures me they were eager to participate. "I also paid them," she joked.

For the fourth year in a row, Bamford will headline her awkward hilarity at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. Her performances span the length of the fest, including a Thursday night appearance on Dr. Katz Live, Jonathan Katz's stage version of his animated series, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. In an email interview, she said she hopes to include about a quarter new material in her stand-up performances, and that could rattle anyone – even a veteran comedian who serves audience members pizza moments before joking about suicide. "The only thing I worry about," Bamford says, "is that as I move out of material that people really like, will they like the new stuff? And I think that's a common concern for many people. Subway is always coming out with new sandwiches, but what if people won't want the new line: 'Hold the bread!'?"

Bamford has struggled with mental illness in the past, and it's a topic that surfaces in her comedy. In particular, she has bits about people judging mental illness in a manner they don't judge other illness. (If you're a fan of Hyperbole and a Half, think Allie Brosh's writings on the same topic.) But Bamford does believe that public opinion on that is shifting. "I think there's a huge wave of new acceptance, and I've definitely been a beneficiary of that," says Bamford. "It's not as big a deal." For that, she credits the work of spokespeople like Demi Lovato and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Along with performing material on mental illness, Bamford jokes openly about all things uncomfortable: previous job terminations (aka her "burning bridges tour"), white privilege, and her relationship with her family. A talented voice actress, she does impersonations of her sister and father and, perhaps most notably, her mom. In a recent web series, Ask My Mom, Bamford answers faux questions supposedly submitted via the Internet as her mother. Her actual mom is a good sport about it. "[My mom] is always supportive," says Bamford. "If she has any anxieties about it, as soon as someone says they like it, she doesn't seem to mind. She's very gracious about the whole deal." Fittingly, her mom did offer advice in real life for a while. As a licensed clinical social worker, Marilyn Bamford fielded serious questions about mental illness and some other more casual inquiries, like how to make a good salad. Pro tip from the Bamfords: Combine "protein, nuts, greens, fresh fruit, dried fruit, avocado, a little egg, and cheese. Toss with dressing."

While Bamford approaches dark comedy with a uniquely lighthearted spirit (sprinkling it with pug anecdotes, salad jokes, and short, one-woman sketches), much of comedy has a dark side to it. And of course, there's the self-deprecation and crowd heckling that all comedians seem to face on a fairly consistent basis. Along with a handful of other top comics, Bamford discusses this in Kevin Pollak's new film, Misery Loves Comedy. When asked about the relationship between suffering and comedy, Bamford had this to say: "If laughter is a physical process where tension is built up and then released by surprise, then maybe that's why things that are sad or creepy or dark can be so funny," adding, "I got a D in biology."

As far as current projects go, Bamford says she's not working on a new web series at the moment. But she did tease a "possible series in development at Netflix that's autobiographical." (Netflix: Do whatever it takes to make that happen!) A new series would fit in well in a body of work that already runs the gamut of live and recorded content. "I'm glad to perform in any medium. All of them are great [and] (usually) involve a free bag of chips and a beer or, at the very least, bottled water," says Bamford. "My favorite is when people laugh."


Maria Bamford appears at Moontower April 23-25: Thursday, April 23, 7:30 & 9:30pm at the Stateside, 719 Congress; Friday, April 24, 9:30pm at the Stateside; and Saturday, April 25, 7:30pm at the Stateside. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival
Moontower Comedian Lauren Lapkus, Tube Raider
Moontower Comedian Lauren Lapkus, Tube Raider
The comedian and actress digs up the good, the bad, and the cheesy of pre-Y2K television in the podcast Raised by TV

Ashley Moreno, April 20, 2018

Making Tragedy Funny Again at Moontower Comedy
Making Tragedy Funny Again at Moontower Comedy
Stand-ups pull punch lines out of personal traumas

Sean L. Malin, April 21, 2017

More by Ashley Moreno
SXSW Comedy: The Laugh Button Live!
The Laugh Button Live!
Kathy Griffin ignited a late-night set full of high energy

March 13, 2019

Frank Oz on Muppets, Disney, and Being Puppies at SXSW
Featured Session: Frank Oz
The great director gets candid at the fest

March 13, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, Maria Bamford, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Jonathan Katz, Kevin Pollak, Misery Loves Comedy, Ask My Mom!, Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half, Moontower Comedy 2015

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle