Laughing at Mental Illness

Photo by Natalie Bransington
Maria Bamford
Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA
September 16, 2016

The last decade and a half has seen an interesting shift in popular stand up comedy styles. While all styles of stand up offer at least some representatives every decade, even the unfortunate genres of prop and insult comedy, there are particularly popular styles and tones that can define a generation. All through the nineteen seventies almost up to the end of the last millennium, many of our legendary comics like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, & Bill Hicks were filled with righteous indignation, poignantly attacking society's ills in an aggressive, outward manner from their own personal perspectives. Many of today's popular comics continue to speak out against those same human and societal flaws, but the manner of attack has shifted: instead of pointing the finger of blame outward, they partially point it at themselves.

They have been labeled Alternative Comedians but are so popular and prominent on today's stages and films that it's hard not to see them as potentially establishing a new normal. Comedians like Patton Oswald, Mike Birbiglia, and Brian Posehn are quick to include themselves as being part of the problem and have a far more inward-aimed anger with comic shades of self-loathing mixed in with their frustrations with the world at large. Even Louis CK has a foot in this world while maintaining the other in the outward anger of decades past, but comedian Maria Bamford is firmly rooted with booth feet in the style of today and her comedy is fueled largely by her own flaws.

Maria Bamford recently became more of a household name due to her original Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, which first aired this year, but she has been making her mark on comedy for close to twenty years. She first came to the attention of this reviewer in the 2005 Comedy Central series Comedians of Comedy where she showcased her innovative, theatrical style in indie rock venues across the U.S. But if you haven't caught that show then you may still know her by her voice acting through which she has made regular appearances on such cartoon classics as Hey Arnold! and Adventure Time and this many faceted career has always been punctuated with the live stand up performances that make up the core of her art.

Presently still on tour, Bamford made a stop in Seattle on September 17th at the Moore Theater. After an entertaining and very appropriately paired opening performance from Jackie Kashian, Bamford made a characteristically casual entrance, devoid of pomp and pretension, though it still took over a couple minutes for the crowd to calm and for her set to begin.

Bamford has one of the most unique and idiosyncratic stand up acts out there today. With a strong resemblance to performance art, Bamford doesn't follow many traditional formulas and has a well defined style all her own. Peppering her act with the voices of people and types of people from her life she structures her performance with a series of vignettes, like plays within her overlapping play. Shamelessly making reference to her struggles with mental illness and the ensuing socially awkward interactions, Bamford successfully executes the duties of a true comic by transmuting tragedies and suffering into things that can be laughed at. Her stage presence is relaxed to an uncanny degree, exuding the atmosphere of being in a friends cozy living room as she imparts a funny thing that recently happened to her rather than the formal division that usually exists between audience and actor. She doesn't tell jokes, she tells stories and cleverly allows the humor to reveal itself and she is brilliantly funny in the process.

Bamford rounded off her performance at the Moore by commenting on her present station in life and how arrived at this position of success, which she humbly chalked up to luck and an initial financing from her parents. This sort of non self-aggrandizing acknowledgment has become more common over the image of the strutting, self-confident comic that we have become used to and Bamford is yet another master in the continuous comic quest to chisel away at whatever truths lie at the core of humanity.