“If you stay alive for no other reason, please do it for spite.”
— Maria Bamford

I personally like my comedy best when it is just spikes of terrifying truth thrown out at you through the darkness. These spikes have to be lobbed by an expert. Not only an expert at observing of these truths, which is a skill in itself, but they then have to be so expertly delivered that they tickle as much as they hurt. It’s not that there shouldn’t be metaphorical blood involved, it’s just that it should leak out through your mouth disguised as laughter, and afterwards you feel almost as good as you do after you cry. It’s a relief. It’s like leech therapy for your psyche. It’s like a deep tissue massage that both relaxes your muscles and painfully reminds you that they are there.

Maria Bamford is the master of this, and I love her for it.

“You only like me when I’m not being myself,” – episode 9 of her web series The Maria Bamford Show.

Maria’s at her best when she’s performing intricate parodies of herself and the people in her life. It resonates precisely because it is so personal to her. It’s not that we’ve all experienced what she’s experienced, it’s that we recognize the honesty of it. It’s an exaggeration that reveals, but doesn’t conceal. She’s pointing out the absurdity of life, and how very difficult it can be to navigate even the most simple things. The voices she does place a necessary distance between herself and the audience, and this searing, potentially bottomless truth she’s trying to get at. We are socialized for small talk, for only light pleasantries. Certain disconcerting facts are hard to contain in a conversation, and certain gushing sentiments are as well. Both the swellings of the heart and mind are difficult to work in. Too much logic, and we can go dry and dark. Too much emotion and we seem unhinged. Our own brains and our own senses can hardly be trusted. We’re animals dressed in strategically torn jeans and tailored suits and sweatshirts with our tribal football team logos on them while we swig complicated cocktails and lattes and vegetable juices out of any number of elaborate vessels. It’s a weird situation to be in. We pretend to know what to do with ourselves.

In one of the last scenes of the 2005 documentary Comedians of Comedy (streaming now on Netflix!) Maria is asked by Patton Oswalt to make a toast and in the same breath is criticized by him for drinking nonalcoholic beer. Maria defends her virgin beverage, and then takes on a voice to give the best toast of the evening, “Everybody’s been so wonderful and this has really been a dream come true for me. It seriously has been, but I can’t say it in a nice way, otherwise everyone will think I’m a p**sy.”

Love itself is hard to show without being awkward and ungainly. We’re told to speak from the heart, but the truth is that when we do we have to have a bit of a practiced act. I’ve been a guileless kid, trying to show my heart like I was told to and getting crickets, or even ridicule. Cracking earnestness may be a little too intense. Our words aren’t even our worst betrayers. Sometimes it’s our eyes. For some people, this social acting is easy to pick up and turn on. I’ve learned my share of it. You have to on without being fake, you have to play the part of yourself somehow. Part of Maria Bamford’s genius is tinkering with what this is – the gap between identity and presentation, between internal worlds and exteriors, between ourselves and everyone else.

In a recent interview with the Austin Statesman, Maria revealed that she’s very close to getting a series on Netflix! While she’s great with guest spots on shows like Arrested Development and Louie, she needs a platform that’s wholly hers to work with. Ideally, Maria Bamford plays all the characters herself.

  • Jeremy Pinkham

    Well, here’s a new Disqus account. Hope I didn’t build up any expectations for my reply being profound by going on about not being able to fit it on Twitter. It was just slightly too long.

    Anyway, what I was going to say is that it has been interesting getting to know Maria as a performer over the course of her career. When I first saw her it was on late night talk shows, I believe, doing those short standup comedy sets that happen on such programs. In that context, I had no idea that the voices she was doing were personally revelatory. I thought she just was an uncanny mimic making fun of certain generic types of people, and enjoyed what she was doing on that level. I then gradually saw the depth in her work as I watched one of her series of web shorts, in which she had moved back in with her parents after some sort of personal life disaster. Suddenly these voices had a context and the vulnerability in what she was doing started to become clear. A major turning point in that regard came with an interview she did with Marc Maron. I think it was recorded as they shared a car trip from a Maximum Fun podcast event. Maria was talking about incredibly personal struggles and traumatic experiences and it really gave me a much fuller perception of the emotional content of her work. (Not that all of it comes from trauma or personal struggle.)

    Now that I’ve typed that all out, I’m not sure it adds up to more than just self-indulgent rambling. Have a pleasant evening, Ms. Cinnamon!