Calling Maria Bamford “one of a kind” feels cliché in such a staggering way that you can practically hear her strapping on one of her trademark voices—maybe the polished, hoity-toity character evoking a privileged, suburban lady of leisure who never had to left a finger in her life—to mock the very idea of it. It’s true, however. Perhaps the best way of describing her fucking-with-the-form brand of oddball, voice-enhanced humor comes from the liner notes of the limited-edition set of mini-CDs released in 2006 for the second incarnation—Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Bamford and Eugene Mirman—of the Comedians of Comedy tour: “She has a wonderful, clear speaking voice, but that’s just how she sounds when she’s making fun of boring, normal people.”
Bamford is more than just a myriad of voices, though, despite that particular aspect of talent earning her considerable work. Her bits somehow remain coherent despite their seeming readiness to crumble at any moment, but it’s all in the subtleties. For instance, she took to the Laughing Skull stage Thursday night spouting off obvious Atlanta references—Tyler Perry, the city’s notable aquarium, the Braves—in an attempt to warm up the crowd, even though she’d already grabbed the attention of the nerds in the house by wearing a Beards of Comedy t-shirt. Likewise, when she’s cycling through voices during lengthy bits, it’s the way she stares terrifying daggers into the crowd or occasionally breaks just a little (which is rare), lighting up the room with a sly grin or a knowing smirk that really drives the point home.
But she utilizes her eccentricity, honing it into a precisely measured, mesmerizing tone that brings the audience into her world regardless of background or previous familiarity. Bamford gets those people in pocket to the point where a simple riff on too-happy folks and relationship “fights” which amount to “He doesn’t like onions,” totally kills. The line “He doesn’t like onions,” is not funny in and of itself, of course, not even in the context of the joke. It’s a combination of her delivery and the ambience she creates with her very being that makes it work. If that sounds like some hippie shit, it’s because Bamford is like a temporary, benevolent and harmless cult leader on stage—everything changes when she’s up there.
Roughly three-fourths of Bamford’s material was fresh stuff not frequently performed in recent years, and, when mixed with some classic bits she’s been doing for a while, the set flowed nicely. She tore down celebrities like Paula Deen (her voice eventually morphing into some Dark Lord of the Underworld during the bit), Jennifer Aniston (“…a strong, sexy monkey who’s going to tell me where all the bananas are located,”) and The Macho Man (To someone in the front row, whose shirt was Randy Savage-themed: “How’s he doing?”). She shook a finger at the secret, new-wavey Christians in her neighborhood who try to entice her with live music, coffee and youth-center culture, ultimately spurting out in frustration, “Stop lurking behind your Jimi Hendrix font!” But elsewhere she turned the focus on herself, talking about her earlier days as a shaved-head hippie playing music on the streets, eventually agreeing to “work for The Man,” and then, later, saying exactly what The Man tells her to say. Was it a reference to her Target commercials? A particular, unnamed movie of which she’s ashamed? It doesn’t matter, frankly, as long as it pays her bills and keeps her doing stand up.
Another fitting explanation of Bamford’s unique comedic stylings derives from one of her best jokes. While describing how she mentors neighborhood kids without anyone asking her to or even knowing she’s doing so, she detailed a conversation with a young girl:
“My dad said you’re a comedian. Tell me a joke,” the child demands.
“It’s not like that…” Bamford replies, petrified, her voice trailing off.
“How can you be a comedian if you can’t tell me a joke?”
“Call my manager; he’ll explain everything!” Bamford concludes, panicked.
At the risk of getting high-mindedly “What does it all mean?” about the state of comedy, it’s worth reveling in this moment where Bamford basically lays out her modus operandi. This is a veteran comic who has no use for doing one-liners, traditional setup-punchline jokes or even avant-garde bits that only push the envelope slightly. Instead she inhabits her own little plane of comedic existence, and while it’s probably pretty lonely there, the rewards for the people willing to listen are rich and weird, just like anything truly worth doing in life. “I have nothing of value!” she whisper-screamed at a hypothetical suitor in an older bit about her inability to accept people who are interested in her. Hopefully, she’s in on that joke.