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