“I always like to make an announcement before beginning a show,” Maria Bamford says to the audience on her new album 20% by way of introduction. “I’m sure most of you know what you’ve come to see, but sometimes you’ve been brought here by a friend. And friends can sometimes lead us astray.” Bamford’s “warning” feels analogous to a Parental Advisory sticker, that is if such stickers were less about expletive-laden material and more about content that challenges expectations. The self-deprecating moment releases whatever tension might result from the fact that, if anyone didn’t know it by now, Bamford does things a little differently. Scratch that—a lot differently.
Bamford’s evolution as a comic has been an exciting one to watch. She started out with a fairly standard act, one that would’ve made her seem like many other comics on late-night talk shows, their best material reduced and sometimes even flat lined to five minutes. Over time she became one of the most unique comedians in the business, though, with jokes about religion, coworkers and her strained relationship with her sister eventually giving way to material that felt more idiosyncratically her own because she didn’t shy away from being brutally, awkwardly honest.
Following her critically acclaimed Netflix series Lady Dynamite, which debuted earlier this year, 20% seems like it could have easily been an extension of the mental health subjects she tackled in the series. Instead, Bamford explores being newly married, as well as her parents’ marriage, her curious new mother-in-law and how Los Angeles has transformed her into a violently positive person. It’s not that Bamford completely avoids her bipolar II diagnosis. Far from it. But she references it in ways that allow her to focus on other developments in her life while couching these new experiences through the frame of her mental health. In other words, she’s once again constructed her material to extrapolate for listeners, even momentarily, what it feels like to live with such a diagnosis.
So how exactly has one of the more eccentric comics been adjusting to marriage? She’s the first to pull the self-deprecating punch, admitting that she was an older bride (in her mid-40s) when she wed. “What is that? A specter from the attic?” she says, aghast, in the over-articulated style she sometimes leans upon to punctuate her wording with a particular rhythm—a move that makes her form as equally funny as her content. Rather than spend too much time discussing marital bliss, Bamford instead recounts the frustration she often felt being single, and delivers perhaps the most honest reaction from anyone who is completely over the experience. “Oh, I’m sorry if you’re bored WITH YOUR MIRACLE!” she shouts at couples everywhere who answered her “How did you meet?” question with a trite, empty response. As much as she won’t take her relationship for granted, she also won’t let it warp her stand-up into anything contrived.
From her new marital bliss, she jumps to her parents’ marriage, which has managed to stand the test of time but not without a few meaningless battles about, say, the décor. In the track “Ceramic Dog Bank,” Bamford shares how she painted just that for her dad at Color Me Mine in order to cause a fight between her parents about displaying her art. She segues the explanation into an extended fight, replete with voices, between her father Joel and her mother Marilyn. And as mundane as “LOL” now seems in today’s lexicon, it’s a truly laugh out loud moment.
Besides her voice work—creating characters out of thin air with a mere shift of her tone—Bamford’s greatest strength is her writing. She extracts words from the past in order to plop them in the present, and in doing so adds to her quirky sensibility about the human experience. Case in point: Bamford describes friendship as “The rich broth of intimacy,” and shines a fresh light on that kind of relationship as a result. She doesn’t stop there, though. Her take on sex with her husband begins with a series of words that seem laden with innuendo—“fudging and wedging and lotions and potions”—but she leaves that logic behind as she transforms the joke into spoken word poetry of sorts crossed with a grocery list. Her voice grows in energy and excitement, mimicking sex even while her words seem to go in an entirely different direction. “Nothing’s been consummated,” she says at the end, lowering her voice to a whisper. “But we’ve been doing some furious hand holding, and our palms are raw with desire.”
20% may be, by her own admission, the comic giving it only 20% as a result of medication that makes her extremely tired, but she proves that even when life offers upswings—marriage, a successful Netflix show—she will always look askance at such successes and bestow her unconventional take.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.