Few are doing better work right now than Maria Bamford. She has been on a sharp upward trajectory since breaking out with The Comedians of Comedy in the mid-2000s, when Patton Oswalt singled her out as the comic to watch in a group that included himself, Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis. She has honed her overall strangeness and perfected all the little technical details from structure to delivery. She’s also grown more ambitious, from the sketch web series The Maria Bamford Show to her conceptual DVD Plan B to last year’s breathtaking the special special special, filmed in her living room in front of only her parents. Her latest CD, Ask Me About My New God!, is a culmination performed in a traditional stand-up setting.
Fans will recognize a chunk of Ask’s material from special. Part of what made that project extraordinary was the context: Bamford joking about her mental illness and family for her parents, who remained game even if they didn’t always laugh. Removed from that unique circumstance, the repeats still thrive, a testament to Bamford’s ability as a writer. When she talks about how her mother is an expert at “joy whack-a-mole”—a game in which her family takes turns pouring rain on the others’ sunshine—it’s less voyeuristic without seeing her mother’s reaction, but there are laughs of recognition from the audience before Bamford even explains the rules.
Comedians frequently cast themselves as an awkward or incongruent bystander who can’t help but seem out of step with their surroundings. This is especially acute with Bamford. Her material often springs from a place of deep-seated anxiety or obsession, even when it’s outwardly silly. She used to lie on dating profiles to make herself seem more active, asking “Got your helmet? Let’s go parasail-glide-kicking.” In an effort to be more honest, her profile now notes that she can wear the same outfit five days in a row or crouch naked in the shower and get real small.
Coming from any other comedian, Bamford’s chunk about avoiding cooking for herself would still be amusing. But in the context she’s constructed, there is pathos in a woman eating a hot Power Bar straight from the glove compartment or “squeezy cheese on finger” and a “can of wine.” There is even sympathy in her “Paula Deen’s Suicide Note,” which, in light of recent scandals, now seems prescient.
Bamford resists the labels some of this material may place on her. When a radio DJ dismisses her as schizophrenic, she notes, “Schizophrenia is, of course, hearing voices, not doing voices.” When another comedian jokes about a woman being over 40 and never married, Bamford launches into a hilariously distraught overreaction, repeating “Oh no!” until it turns into a squeal. Somehow she manages to communicate both an acceptance of her abnormalities and a rejection of how others judge them.
There are no weak moments on the album, and Bamford has been equally strong in recent live shows. It doesn’t look like she’s going to stop any time soon.