Austin — Maria Bamford is a woman of range. Insightful, even heart stopping, material on depression and suicide brought the Thursday night audience at Moontower Comedy Festival to a point of awe-struck silence. Yet another section had her lying on the stage floor faux-farting profusely while imagining criticism from fellow comics: “Geez, Maria, are you even writing any more?”
Because with Bamford, the internal observer of herself will always have commentary to share. You go to a Bamford show to watch a breathy confessional of her brain at work, often dealing with, as her CD title asserts, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome. She doesn’t avoid discomfort. She brings out her worst fears for dinner and gnaws on them like a hungry dog devours a bone. Even if obsessive thoughts have edged her at times toward self-annihilation: “Just because you have crap ideas doesn’t mean you have to act on them. Like buying day-old raisin bread in bulk and freezing it. Or vacations with family.”
Bamford’s a comedian who’s not all that comfortable on stage, something she announced with a sweeping bow at the beginning of the show. Her latest, Maria Bamford: the special, special, special, was taped in 2013 with only her mom and dad present in the family’s Minnesota living room. It airs on Netflix beginning May 15. More at ease before the camera, look for her super memorable turn as Tobias Fünke’s new love interest, Debrie Bardeaux, in the latest round of Arrested Development.
Once she got over her initial jitters Thursday, Bamford was a captivating and intimate live performer. Nobody does voices better, and with each voice came facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Even speaking more or less normally as herself, she got laughs just out of a wide-eyed description of a gas-station muffin as “huuuuge.” inflating the word with breathiness. As someone who wrestles daily with her OCD, she knows constant petty frustrations so well that the big ones are a breeze to talk about: “We’d all like to believe in something. I believe God is a wizard in an 18-story mountain who never lets me win.” More on that in her new CD Ask Me About My New God!
But it was her “suicide chunk” that truly stunned, using the art of humor to tackle the awful way that most Americans see mental illness as a choice or weakness. Why, Bamford asked, do we ooh and ahh over people with cancer, but are nasty to those whose minds are afflicted? She speaks often about her bipolar disorder and obsessive thoughts that have pushed her beyond the edge. The daughter of a Navy doctor, a catch in her voice was evident in her bit about soldier suicides that concluded with “More of them die here than over there.” Yet through extreme comical frustration, she made it all funny.
A comedian to the core, Bamford always returned to the joke. She related how a radio deejay told her: “ ‘I thought you were supposed to be funny. Frankly, you just seem schizophrenic.’ I tell him, “Silly, schizophrenia is hearing voices, not doing voices. ‘ ” She confronted the topic head on in The Maria Bamford Show, a web series also screened at the Museum of Art + Design in New York. The internal-reality show based on her deeply held terrors has Bamford enduring a nervous breakdown on stage and fleeing to the attic of her childhood home.
Ultimately, Thursday’s performance was all about love and empathy. She spoke about her boyfriend of one year and their cozy home in Hispanic-dominated Eagle Rock, California, where she is accepted in all her insecurity and lack of pretension, and shared a heart-breaking story about absent-mindedly moving a porch ramp used by her elderly pug Blossom, who didn’t notice and plummeted four feet to its death.
“If you Google, ‘I killed my loved one by accident,’ you will find many stories of people who have left their babies in hot cars. I mean, everyone’s doing the best they can, but sometimes that’s not very good.” In spite of her fears, Bamford fearlessly navigates the terrain of relationships and “letting people love me in spite of my words and actions.”
Check out Maria Bamford’s interview with Slate.com on mental illness and stand-up comedy, here.
» Here's Maria Bamford on John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show:
» Our chief comedy critic Amy Martin is at Moontower Comedy Festival this week. Keep watching TheaterJones for interviews, reports, reviews and more.