Maria Bamford's Excellent Old Baby Shows How a Joke Is Never the Same Twice

Comedy Reviews Maria Bamford
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Maria Bamford's Excellent <i>Old Baby</i> Shows How a Joke Is Never the Same Twice

She delivers her routine into a mirror. She delivers her routine to her husband. (Nearby, a pug snores.) She delivers her routine to four individuals sitting on a bench outside her house. The bench segues back inside a house. The crowd has grown. There is a merch break. The routine is now being delivered in a corner of a bookstore. There is another merch break.

Such is the framework of Maria Bamford: Old Baby, her latest comedy special. It may contain familiar material for those who have been following Bamford’s work for a while, but is nevertheless an hour of material that delights.

The way in which the special cuts from crowd to crowd—softly, subtly, without making much of a deal about it at all—is wonderful. It serves to illustrate something about Bamford herself and provides aspiring comedians with a valuable lesson of their own, something which they may know instinctively but feel somewhat confused about in practice: a show to four people is just as legitimate a show as a show for thousands. Part of you may be hardwired to think you’re Steve Martin marching through a stadium or Letterman challenging Clint Eastwood to a fight during an episode of Johnny Carson, but what sort of strategy do you have for when that model doesn’t repeat itself, as there’s the very good chance it won’t?

And that’s a lesson worth bearing in mind (and is really nice to see illustrated so starkly) because it is not uncommon for an aspiring comedian to stand up in three different locations and say the same thing three times and see three different results. During the first show, a joke may go over terrifically well; during the second show, a joke might not seem to have any impact at all; and during the third show, a joke may inadvertently cause someone in the audience to cry—to get up and run for the exit with their hands cupped over their mouths. And, again: the joke will be delivered in the exact same way. If the aspiring comedian is interested in control, what will they make of these three reactions?

The format also allows Bamford to showcase what it means to play for a room of one or a crowd of hundreds: she can throw a fast joke to the crowd, as she does when she gawks with surprise about a graveyard being a graveyard, and it lands with an emphatic oomph that would simply be impossible to summon with an audience of three or four. When Bamford is presented with an audience of three or four, Bamford is able to highlight her physicality and control of volume to terrific effect, whether it’s in seeming to cast a Gollum-like creature in Say Yes To The Dress: Atlanta or to pretend to run away from the show in the middle of her set, because why not run away from the show in the middle of the set, and so on. The gearshifts, like the special, and—indeed—like most everything Bamford does, are impressive, and a welcome sight to see.

Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to Paste, he has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.