Making a Case For Dark Comedy: Maria Bamford
I am a big fan of comedy. I love standup, sketches, comedic films, and of course sitcoms. Growing up, other than ice cream, music, and worshipping God, the next thing that got me through rough times (and there were a lot of them) was comedy. Sitting down and watching Seinfeld everyday with my mom and sometimes my with brother are some of the best memories I have of being a teenager, despite the craziness of the show (and it was pretty crazy for a primetime sitcom if you think about it). Laughing (like singing a good melody or savoring the creamy sweetness of ice cream) was something I craved on a daily basis.
But here is what I have come to see: that even though laughing by nature makes us happy, undergirding nearly all of what comedians and comedic writers do is a lot of pain and dark subject matter. The farther you get into the comedic realm, the more you realize that most comedians (but not all) are deeply wounded people and that somehow their comedy serves to bring themselves healing. And on top of making people laugh it would seem like one of their larger goals is to impute a kind of justice into their own worlds, and in turn do the same for their audiences.
I have spent many hours listening to comedians in conversation with each other (mostly here, but also, here, here, here, and of course here) and usually some of the nicest and even most "clean" comedians develop their material out of very dark and disturbing real life material (I am especially thinking about Jim Gaffigan--one of the sweetest comedians around--who has some fascinating things to say about the morose origins of comedy on a couple of episodes of Pete Holmes' podcast.)
But for me minute by minute there's no one who couples darkness with humor better than Maria Bamford. She goes to places I have never heard comedians (or should I say comediennes?) go before. Her comedy is deeply personally, exposing aspects of her life that ordinary people work very hard to keep hidden. From her struggles with mental illness, to religion, aging, relationships, not having kids, and her complex relationship with her family Bamford, unflinchingly exposes her pain in a way we cannot help but laugh at. But her material is never shocking or disturbing for the sake of titillation. There is a real sense that in finding humor in her pain she is righting some of the wrongs of her life. That by shedding light on and bringing humor to her tragedies she is actually taking away the oppressive grip they have on her life. Let me be clear: this is not "message" comedy, there is no heart to heart speech at the end of her act; the "message" is simply embedded into the material left there for the audience to take or leave. This is what all great comedy does, especially when it is not overt in its intentions.
Comedians have long been called "clowns", which I interpret to mean their role in life is to put on a song and dance routine and illicit some laughs from the masses, thus relieving the tensions of everyday life in the same way a violent spectacle can. "Make me laugh, but don't make me think about my life," could be the status quo audience's call, and sometimes this might be enough. Perhaps just getting people to laugh is enough of a healing act in and of itself. But I would posit that true comedy cuts to something deeper, ripping open and exposing more painful aspects of our lives by way of laughter; the kind of laughter where people anxiously look around at each other asking with their eyes "Can you believe I'm laughing at this? Is this even appropriate?" But they keep on laughing because they know the comedian is shedding light on something that we all wanted to keep hidden, something that has brought us all great pain, but something that we are all now laughing at, dismantling it through mocking it, and thus gaining power over it. Currently, Louis C.K. is the king of this, but Maria Bamford is the queen.
So, I would like to share some of her comedy with you. Watch and think about the wrongs she is righting, the lies she is exposing, and the hurts she is trying to heal. And it is OK to laugh too.
(Please note these clips contain either somewhat disturbing or very disturbing material, and it is also not "clean" comedy.)
Just last week Bamford released her latest comedy album Ask Me About My New God, which can be purchased here.
Here's a link to where you can download her latest special: The Special Special Special
Here is an interview mixed with some of her standup:
Here's some more of her act.
Here is one of the Target commercials she did (from which she got some notoriety):
Here is an interview she did that delves into mental illness:
And here are two of her web shows (these are my favorites):