If you're unfamiliar with Maria Bamford, do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself immediately. The standup — who's been working in the business for decades — has a solid following among fellow comics (she's been on Louie and Marc Maron's WTF podcast) and hardcore comedy fans, yet her career has never quite taken off like those of her fellow Comedians of Comedy (Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn). Hopefully, that's all about to change — Bamford has a new webseries in which she shows off her always remarkable character work and a major role in the new season of Arrested Development. Is it possible that we've entered the Age of Bamford? Could we be that lucky?
Bamford's presence and voice in comedy is as unique as it is necessary. She speaks often and openly about her struggles with mental illness (she has bipolar disorder) in a way that's both profound and funny.
From a 2012 interview with Slate:
People get really irritated by mental illness. “Just fucking get it together! Suck it up, man!” I had a breakdown, and a spiritual friend came to visit me in the psych ward. And they said, “You need to get out of here. Because this is the story you’re telling yourself. You know, Patch Adams has this great work-group camp where you can learn how to really celebrate life.”
It’s something people are so powerless over, and so often they want to make it your fault. It’s nobody's fault. I started thinking of suicide when I was 10 years old—I can’t believe that that’s somebody’s fault. Like, “Oh, you’re just an attention getter.” Mental illness isn’t seen as an illness, it’s seen as a choice.
I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental illness the way they do other regular illnesses. “Well, apparently Jeff has cancer. Uh, I have cancer. We all have cancer. You go to chemotherapy you get it taken care of, am I right? You get back to work.” Or: “I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic. You know?”
Perhaps what's most special about Bamford's goofy, surreal and stylized brand of humor is that it doesn't end up seeming stylized at all. At times, she comes off as so intensely fragile and vulnerable that you want to hug her and tell her that everything will be alright. Then, with remarkable skill, she'll flip it around and force you to stare your own reaction in the face — why do you assume that there's something wrong with a person who gets on stage and says something hard and honest? Why should that kind of bravery be perceived as weakness that needs comforting rather than empathy?
Her role in the new season of Arrested Development works similarly. [***Arrested Development spoilers ahead.***] As Debris — the failed actress, methadone addict and new love interest for Tobias — Bamford brings an intense sadness that at times is almost too much to bear, but when you compare her behavior to the Bluths' (or the Bluth- Fünkes'), you have to question the way we determine what's upsetting and what's not. Of course, no one is putting the Bluths up as a prime example of good mental health, but that's sort of the point — their consistant self absorption and inability to empathize with anyone outside of themselves is fairly indicative of how our culture responds to what we deem as abnormal or insignificant. Just think back to Bamford's own story about the friend who visited her in the psych ward. It sounds like something that could come straight from an AD episode.
Fortunately for her audience (which I hope now includes you), Maria Bamford is an expert on turning her struggles into wonderful and hilarious works of art. Inspired by her mental breakdown, she wrote The Maria Bamford Show, a 2009 webseries about moving back home with her family in Minnesota after suffering an onstage breakdown. She played all of the characters herself and it was brilliant. As mentioned before, she's now back with a new webseries called Ask My Mom where she plays her own mother (a familiar character if you've paid attention to her act over the years) as she gives out advice for problems that have been submitted by strangers online.
Hopefully, her most recent work will propel her from niche celebrity/lady that you recognize from the Target commercials to a comic as well known as Patton or Louie. Regardless — because maybe that sort of fame isn't even something that she wants — she's a comedic staple whose skill and years of experience deserve all of the recognition that they can get.
TL;DR? Maria Bamford is the best and it doesn't make sense why we all don't have t-shirts with her face on it.