Forget Amy Schumer. Yes Amy is funny, but she’s becoming a bit of a Johnny One-Note. (Yes, we get it, Amy — you are beautiful even if you’re not a size 4, but how many times do we have to applaud your body and being “brave” about it?).
But for my money, the real edge-y woman of comedy is Mario Bamford.
Which is why I am pleased she is finally getting some credit with her new show:
There’s a great song in the musical “[title of show]” that asserts, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing / Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” For two decades, that’s been Maria Bamford’s brand. She’s played small roles on sitcoms; she was the spokeswoman for Target. But the purest Bamford essence could always be found in her dreamy, destabilizing standup routines, which dealt head on with time spent in mental institutions, struggling with a bipolar II diagnosis and an assortment of crippling O.C.D.-ish compulsions. In her YouTube series “The Maria Bamford Show,” which was set in Duluth, Minnesota, where she’d retreated after a breakdown, Bamford played not only herself but various family members, frenemies, and dates—while crooning to her psychiatrist, “If I keep the ice-cube trays filled, then no one will dieeeeeeeee.” In her self-distributed show, “Special Special Special,” she performed in her living room, with only her parents as an audience.
When I first heard about “Lady Dynamite,” Bamford’s new Netflix series, I felt apprehensive, having been burned, in recent months, by too many floppy, over-extended dramedies produced by streaming neworks, such as “Love” and “Casual.” These shows, like “Lady Dynamite,” often dealt with dysfunctional, single Los Angelenos, often on the fringes of the entertainment world, unable to commit to love. But then I watched the first “Lady Dynamite,” and the second, and the third, and soon the weekend was gone and I had to start watching the show all over again, from scratch. Like “Arrested Development,” whose creator, Mitch Hurwitz, co-produced “Lady Dynamite” with Pam Brady (a longtime collaborator with Matt Stone and Trey Parker), the series is not a dramedy but a true comedy. Despite (or because of) the show’s serious themes, it’s stuffed with jokes, visual and verbal, to the point that it’s like a tottery Jenga game. The pilot leans a bit heavily on the meta-comedy—it features a debate between Bamford and Patton Oswalt about how to structure the series—but after that it becomes a real joyride. In certain ways, “Lady Dynamite” shares ground with the terrific “BoJack Horseman,” another comedy about the difficulty of distinguishing ordinary Hollywood misery from genuine mental illness. But it has a distinct vibe, somehow at once celebratory and melancholic, with a hallucinogenic edge. It performs a small miracle by expanding Bamford’s story just enough to make it feel sitcom-like while still maintaining her voice.
The central plot of “Lady Dynamite” tracks Bamford’s Pilgrim’s Progress toward a balanced life in Hollywood, braiding together three separate timelines, each filmed in a slightly different style. There’s “Past,” a bright-neon era from before her nervous breakdown, when Bamford was doing that high-paying gig for Target (satirized, scathingly, as the union-busting Checkmark) but was also careening through bad friendships and awful relationships, ascending toward full-blown hypomania. There’s the gray-blue “Duluth,” set after Bamford moved back in with her Midwestern parents, having been institutionalized for suicidal depression. And there is “Present,” in which Bamford is medicated, gamely trying to restart her Hollywood career, and dating again, while struggling not to repeat the choices she’s made in the past. Each episode ends with a plaintive strain of Dean Martin, with the resonant lyrics, “I don’t know what I’m doing / More than half of the tiiiime.” As with H.B.O.’s “Enlightened,” “Lady Dynamite” is a show that frequently satirizes New Age and therapy speak but that nonetheless has faith in their bedrock ideals.
None of this complicated blend would work without Bamford’s fascinating, hard-to-describe, explosively brittle performance style. A tiny, tense figure in her forties, Bamford has scared-looking eyes and a pointy nose and straw-like (or, sometimes, crazily permed) blond hair, and she holds her shoulders hunched as if in eternal apology; she’s a bit like a comedic Cindy Sherman, using her unthreatening Hollywood-blonde blankness as a screen to project something that’s far stranger and more out of control. She’s fragile, but her jokes are hard. She’s also a skilled shape-shifter who can perform multiple voices—a sexy rich lady, a shrieking cartoon character—who nonetheless seems trapped in her own spasming physicality. In the tradition of performers like Andy Kaufman and Paul Reubens, she’s constantly wincing and screaming and contorting her face, yet she’s also quite sweet, almost deceptively so. One of the smartest things about “Lady Dynamite” is that it doesn’t rely on a self-pitying portrait of Bamford as a pure victim of those around her. Yes, she is a people-pleaser who gets bullied by false friends and crazy agents. Sure, she gets engaged to a newly divorced stuntman with bad credit. But she is also pathologically passive-aggressive in response to any sign of conflict—during one relationship, she hides in the shower and stuffs a sponge into her mouth so that she can scream after every phony, awful interaction. As the episodes elapse, the show builds a fascinating and nuanced portrait of a woman whose magical gifts aren’t all that inseparable from what makes her a little bit impossible.
Maria simply is a pleasure to watch, simply because of her shape-shifting face. And while she is upfront and honest about her bipolar disorder (bipolar two, she would stress), she doesn’t beat it over the head with the audience. It is a thing she has; it is a thing she deals with. Every day. And she does it with humor and grace and, uh, stress.
Looking forward to season two.
And if you don’t know Maria and her style of comedy, here’s a 2 minute sample: