Last year, Maria Bamford’s genius show Lady Dynamite debuted on Netflix. For those unfamiliar with her stand up comedy, it was a great primer to the kinds of jokes to expect from her, and a glimpse into the life of one of the best working comedians today. Now available on Netflix is her new stand up special, Old Baby, and it’s definitely worth your time.
Most stand up specials stick to a familiar format. A comedian stands onstage in a large venue packed with people who are all told about the filming and asked to be extra supportive. Pardon my cynical honesty, I’ve been there. But Bamford adds a charm and creativity that other specials are sorely lacking. If your writing is good enough to carry the standard special, that’s great, but in a saturated market (Netflix releases a new comedy special every week in 2017) Bamford manages to make hers stand out not only with her fresh, raw comedy but also in the format of her shows.
Old Baby takes a modest and quiet journey, beginning with Bamford reciting jokes into the mirror to herself. There’s an open disclaimer here as Bamford recounts her experience watching War Horse, comparing the deadly crawl and discomfort to what some may feel about the comedy they’re about to witness. It’s true – one of the best ways to know someone is to understand their sense of humour, and Bamford’s is not for everyone. From this self-contained, reflective moment, Old Baby slowly grows bigger and bigger, moving from one audience member on a couch to several clustered in a bowling alley, small groups on the street and then, eventually the ultimate venue. Then it winds its way back down to just Bamford again, staring at herself in the mirror and confronting her greatest detractors: other comedians.
Bamford’s honesty through her comedy is absolutely refreshing. She is never afraid to speak frankly about mental health issues – much of her comedy is about her depression, anxiety, and bipolar II disorder. These days mental health is more acceptable conversation, but we’re still lacking open and honest people with a platform who share about their experiences. Bamford speaks about her trips to the psych ward, the effects of her medication on her cognitive skills, and puts on display the kind of strange thoughts that happen in our own minds, the ones we keep shoved down in a gimp suit under extreme lock and key. She does it all, never breaking eye contact with a hypnotic wide-eyed stare in a myriad of voices as she mimics her mother, well-meaning but stupid friends, and the weird guy at the dog park who doesn’t have a dog.
It’s not all stories from crazy-town, though. Bamford’s comedy also touches on following your dreams, vaginismus, the banality of chit-chat and dealing with personal shame after being an epic fuck-up. Perhaps those who have not been touched by the mental illness fairy could find the subject matter depressing and uncomfortable, but it’s so freeing to be able to laugh at it and hear that someone else thinks of dying as often as you do while still managing to keep on living, and in such a beautiful way that brings joy to others.
Old Baby, like Bamford’s other specials (The Special Special Special, filmed in her home with only two audience members–her parents–is also available on Netflix) is filled with tons of big laughs but also some awkward silences, much like life. In particular, her moments spent promoting her merchandise feel awkward but I’ll admit I still looked online to see if I could get those shorts in my size. Mama’s gotta pay those bills with her pancake stress relievers, and it’s a clever way to bring it into the spotlight even if it doesn’t really work.
Bamford is a fitting example of someone who is self-aware but not self-conscious. She knows how she looks and comes across to her audience but never lets it hinder her delivery. She employs quirks generally reserved for male comedians, with heavy use of her face, body, and voice, even working her medication-induced jitteriness and ticks into her physical humour. “This is getting into one-woman show territory, apologies, apologies,” she quips, after taking a joke to a new level of performance. It doesn’t matter, she has a sort of magnetic presence that makes it hard to look away, maybe because you never know what she’s going to do next.
This is a time when every sliver of hope and joy counts. To an outsider, stand up comedy might appear to be a frivolous, even selfish exercise. But today, we need something to bring us together to find laughter and relief. A comedian is an entertainer, a storyteller, even a prophet who helps us find those bright bizarre moments of humour when everything else seems dark. The fact that so many people come out to shows with eager eyes staring, hoping to be distracted or entertained with and by total strangers says a lot. When I watch Bamford, my prevailing thought is always, “Why can’t I do that? Look at her, just doing it.” She moves from a natural place, letting her mouth and her body do what it wants to do, putting her private self on display. If only we could all be so free! As usual, there’s a moment where I cry during her specials. This moment was the climax of her One Big Blob exercise, calling the audience to participate in an uncomfortable but strangely meaningful activity. At the end, when she sneaks in, “and that’s why I love.” I choked out a little sob. We can learn a lot from Bamford. If we could just blob it on a few things, and really stick together, we might be alright.
Featured Image: Netflix