Weak House

Ren Ebel on Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite, which aired on Netflix from 2016 to 2017.

ON APRIL FOOL’S DAY, around two weeks into my quarantine in Spain, I attended a comedy show: thirty minutes of new material by Maria Bamford, provisionally titled The New Material Show, broadcast live and for free via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. A couple of hours before showtime, I received an email which began with a caveat that doubled as an enticement: “Instead of comedy, this may feel uncomfortable.”

Bamford is no stranger to discomfort, or to working from home. Her comedy, whose predominant themes are family and mental illness, has often availed itself to a kind of self-imposed house arrest as both form and content, mise-en-scène and scene of the crime. In 2012’s The Special Special Special, for example, she performed a show in her living room for an audience of two: her parents. Artists, writers, and comedians are now struggling to recalibrate themselves to self-isolation, but Bamford has been mining this territory for decades, alchemizing the terrors and stuffiness of home into something that feels limitless and joyfully unhinged. Amid our present circumstances—when the privileged homebound are navigating pressures to either embrace the downtime of quarantine or use the collapse of home-work life to ratchet up their productivity and self-optimize—why not turn to the woman who proclaimed, at the start of her latest stand-up special (recorded pre-pandemic), Weakness Is the Brand, that despite “ongoing negative commentary, I persist at half-steam.”

That may be so, but the precision underlying her seemingly free associative delivery was clear during the virtual show, the first in an ongoing series. The new gags—her parents’ ayahuasca session, her unpublishable Richard Scarry fanfiction—were as nervily existential, earnest, and funny as ever. At one point, she turned the mic over to her husband Scott for a few slightly off-kilter dad jokes before letting the whole operation unravel by unmuting her audience, letting the ambient sound from around 150 computers flood the stream in a screeching crescendo. Less a rehearsed production than the kind of loosely structured set a comic might workshop in front of small club crowds, the show was most compelling in how it offered an up-close view of Bamford’s process, punctuated by her self-correcting stops and starts. She didn’t always seem satisfied: “See, this is how I normally work on this stuff, at home in front of a mirror,” she apologized at one point. 

Weakness Is the Brand ends with Maria and her husband Scott singing a duet entitled “Saturation Point,” an ode to that critical moment during an argument in which you must stop and cool off before you say or do something unforgivable (“You say that’s not funny / I bring up your dead dad / It’s saturation point!”). Like much of Bamford’s past material, these jokes revolve around domestic life, but here, more than ever, she’s trained her sights on her marriage. It’s a portrait of a cooped-up couple, both of them telecommuting and cycling through the different people they are to one another: soulmate, roommate, object of desire, hostile combatant. Like the best practitioners of slapstick, Bamford knows that every pointed finger comes curling back at our sometimes unbearable selves, and has mastered the art of falling down without breaking your neck.

Maria Bamford in The New Material Show.

Bamford’s shoestring-budget, one-person web series The Maria Bamford Show (2007) is by now a bona fide crossover hit between viral video and comedy classic, and like the work of Andy Kaufman or peer Amy Sedaris, at times verges on the unnerving indeterminacy of performance art. In addition, Bamford occupies a place alongside works by female conceptualists—such as Cindy Sherman, Ilene Segalove, Alex Bag, and Stanya Kahn—who’ve similarly turned the camera on themselves to plumb the instabilities of personhood. The show’s eponymous protagonist is a recent Hollywood dropout who moves back in with her parents in Duluth, Minnesota, as she attempts to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. In many ways, the show unfolds like a conventional sitcom—recurring locales, character arcs, serial episodes—except that Bamford plays every role other than that of her canine foil, Blossom: mom, dad, life coach sister, boss, love interest, archnemesis, and a host of recurring Duluthians. Her characters deliver one-liners at an alarming rate, striking poses with in situ decor (microfiber blankets, tasseled throw pillows) brought in to buttress; her gestures are muted and take a backseat to her astonishing voice, which—when not sitting in its default, twangy cartoon baby register—vaults nimbly from her mother’s quivering lamentations, to her father’s phlegmatic befuddlement, to a mellifluous, self-aggrandizing, possibly sociopathic alter ego that Bamford has sometimes referred to as “Diane.”

And though the show is shot entirely within the confines of this one Midwestern home, Bamford depicts suburban Duluth in Flaubertian detail: open mic night at the Pioneer Bar; alternative Christian gatherings in the abandoned Piggly Wiggly; trips to Target; a pair of culottes with a matching stationery set; Skinny Cow ice cream bars; fridgefuls of Diet Coke; heart medication; mood stabilizers; an OCD variant termed Unwanted Thought Syndrome, and tevoed episodes of Survivor. Often these vivid autofictions wind up at a fascinating mise en abyme, where performance smashes back into reality. In the episode “Mother’s Day,” Bamford plays a Hollywood casting agent holding auditions for the role of Maria’s mater. Marilyn Bamford, her real-life mom, plays an amateur actress gunning for the part. And so a situation arises in which Maria coaches Marilyn on how to play herself, doing her own virtuosic impressions of her mother, directly beside her mother. Although our parents and our interpretations of them are not the same thing, they may both be equally true.

But it is with her transparency and self-deprecation that Bamford needles the painful question of what it is to be good. In Weakness Is The Brand, for example, a relatively standard bit about spicing up her marital sex life quickly unfolds into a complicated account of a fantasy role-play scenario whose theme is “intractable social issues” (because, in order to write fantasies, “you really need to know so much about a genre”). A steamy liaison between upper management and wage slave employee. The evicted tenant seduced by his gentrifier to fervid cries of “Yes! In My Backyard.” Expertly back-bending under currents of real fear and anxiety, she dredges from the cramped, private spaces of the mind and home something rare, far-reaching, and ruthlessly funny. Everyone’s here in the dark.