Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special

Review by Steve Bennett

If there’s a single watchword for post-millennia comedy, it has to be ‘awkward’ – from The Office to Louis CK, big broad jokes are out and the squirming embarrassment of social clumsiness is in.

Awkward is certainly the word to describe Maria Bamford’s latest show, now available as a $5 download, in which she’s had the inspired notion of doing away with the usual audience and instead performed in the intimacy of her own house to the toughest crowd of all – her parents.

Instead of the usual cutaways of guffawing fans, we see the often uncomfortable, often forced, but sometimes genuine laughs of this respectable middle-class couple, self-conscious of the fact they are not just very exposed as the only audience members, but also on camera in glorious close-up. It’s clearly uncomfortable for them when their daughter talks frankly about their behaviour and their religious beliefs as well as her own problems with mental health. She seems determined to challenge their world.

Having been diagnosed as bipolar, Bamford believes, with plenty of justification here’s still some stigma attached to mental health conditions condition, so what more effective way to get it out in the open, even if it means trampling on a few social niceties? The stand-out segments of this show, have her address often patronising attitudes, as well as describing her own suicidal thoughts and treatment in a psychiatric unit.

If that doesn’t all sound cheery... well, it often isn’t, even if her parents sometimes emit a tension-relieving chuckle in the wrong places. But ‘you’ve got to laugh’ is the philosophy, as she makes little distinction between comedy and tragedy.

She generally has a droll approach to her struggles to find happiness or a fulfilling relationship, delivered with her faux-innocent deadpan, combined with characteristic technique of portraying all the characters with cartoon-like voices in an exaggerated hoarse whisper. ‘I’m not schizophrenic,’ she has to point out after one putdown. ‘Schizophrenic is hearing voices, not DOING voices.’

There are well-crafted lines like that throughout, more often than not delivered with quiet, uncertain vulnerability that underplays the mordant humour. Her sentences often drift into absent-minded mumbling ‘...and, yeah, hey, erm, so...’ as she lets the artifice of performing fall away, Though ironically enough, this is just another performance technique – as is her way of relieving some of the tension she builds up by stopping the show to remove her cookies from the oven, take delivery of a pizza, or give her pug Bert his eyedrops.

We need these breaks, as delving into her complex psyche – troubled but with the acute self-awareness that allows her to see the humour in it – can be an intense experience. Even the potentially mainstream opening section, an observational riff on American celebrity chef Paula Reed that will be largely lost on British audiences, becomes a strangely demonic piece.

The Special Special Special is raw, fascinating and personal, even when addressing broader topics such as her view of religion as a comforting artifice, showing how stand-up can be an intimate, artistic expression. There are funnier comedians, but few more daring.

  • Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special is available from for $4.99 (about £3).

Published: 20 Dec 2012

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