What comedian Maria Bamford really wants is the approval of her parents.
That's not armchair analysis.
In the "Special special special!," which she released online at chill.com, Bamford performs an hour of stand-up for her mother and father as they sit on a couch.
Bamford walks into her living room wearing a leather jacket and grabs the microphone, her name in lights behind her. She shouts as if she were trying to reach the rafters in a sold-out arena. Then she shifts seamlessly from grand to intimate, thanking her parents for coming. You see her mom nod pointedly and her dad raise his arms as if to say: No biggie.
It's a scene that is both oddly natural and preposterously bizarre. The same could be said about Bamford.
With her sensible smile, dyed-blond hair and Minnesota accent, she comes off like a soccer mom from a campaign ad. No doubt this is why Target placed her in a series of commercials.
But she has earned a cult following after a decade of accomplished stand-up, daring in form, that involves blunt jokes about depression and her mental-health struggles and a dark David Lynch-like interest in what lies beneath.
Bamford's family has long been an essential part of her act. She tells jokes that rely heavily on her impressions of her sniffling mother, her sister forever biting her nails and her father mumbling robotically. Her voices, shifting with alacrity from high to low pitches, can seem like manic riffs. But these are fleshed-out caricatures she has developed over years.
Her act is less Robin Williams stand-up than Lily Tomlin solo show laced with the satire of classic Steve Martin. One of her jokes about solving problems through baby steps ("Goal 1: Master and defeat death") even echoes a bit by Martin, whose first goal was to be "all-being master of time, space and dimension." But whereas Martin's stand-up only grew larger, Bamford's work has moved in the opposite direction, shrinking in scale, burrowing deeper.
Her crowning achievement is "The Maria Bamford Show," an intimate, low-budget Web series from 2009 that featured her as a multitude of characters speaking directly to the camera. Out of this modest material she translated her stand-up sensibility into a relentlessly funny, elaborately inventive world. Bamford, who somehow didn't get her own TV show after this series, began with the premise that after suffering a nervous breakdown, she moves back in with her parents.
The new special, which includes breaks during which Bamford gives her dog medicine and takes cookies out of the oven, continues the theme of coming home. In it, she explores the meaning of mental illness, which has long been a part of her act.
"I never really thought of myself as depressed so much as paralyzed by hope," is her quintessential one-liner. But she plays with it unexpectedly here, summoning up a more unhinged persona. At times her grin and lowered head seem to evoke, with tongue in cheek, Norman Bates. She talks about being bipolar and having thoughts of suicide. Her parents' chuckling presence assures us that it's OK to laugh.
It also supports a more serious underlying intention: to help normalize mental illness. In the closest she gets to angry, Bamford mocks the mind-over-matter school of thought about depression and makes a funny analogy to cancer to illustrate the different ways we talk about sickness. In her worldview, being petrified of gorillas or of suffocation by balloons is ordinary. It's the world that's crazy.