Hilarious, simply hilarious. That’s the aptest description I can give for Maria Bamford’s sidesplitting performance last Monday night. Invited to Stanford as part of The Stanford Storytelling Project series, this rather spindly, 5-foot-6 comedian capitalized on the accessibility of stand-up comedy to recount her life story — namely, her struggles with mental illness and performance.
Just from appearances, you wouldn’t think much of her, but trust me: there’s something exceptional about this quirky, 44-year-old comedian. Maybe it’s the eccentric twinkle in her eye or the slight tremor in her hands — an unfortunate side effect of the Depakote that she takes to stabilize her mood. In any event, Bamford is amply equipped to captivate an audience, and she did just that to a crowd of over 500 people in CEMEX Auditorium.
Jumping into a self-deprecating bit about getting rejected from Stanford, she set the audience roaring with laughter from the get-go — a recurring theme throughout the night. Sporting a charming ungainliness, Bamford elicited huge laughs when she knocked over her water bottle or unintentionally raised the mic stand until it towered awkwardly above her.
Punctuating these moments of comedic genius, Bamford would tell involved jokes that showcased her trademark brand of risqué humor. Her quip about performing anal with her fiancé — “it’s a tight tunnel” — seemed tame compared to her comments on mental illness and depression: “Is anyone thinking of suicide? Don’t do it; it’s not the season for it.” Bamford’s set pushed the envelope of humor, while also challenging boundaries of what is considered polite conversation.
Hinting at this in the Q & A with professor Dan Klein after her performance, Bamford seems intent on bringing topics such as mental illness into popular discourse. Because Bamford suffers from a form of O.C.D. called “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome”— which manifests itself in anxieties about killing her family and committing deviant sexual acts — she has a keen insight into this world of mental illness. Much of Bamford’s humor draws from her own struggles with psychopathy, a struggle that culminated in her admission into a psych ward two years back. It was there that she was further diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, an illness that she jokingly refers to as “the new gladiator sandal.”
Bamford has difficulty relating to those closest to her: a skeptical father, an excessively spirited mother, and a sister who works as a life coach. The patent disconnect between Bamford and her loved ones became the butt of many of her jokes. One such bit that stood out in particular related to the story of a well-meaning friend visiting her in the psych ward, who horrifyingly told Bamford that it might be her time to go, “so I just came to say goodbye.”
Her annoyance at these hopelessly uncomprehending figures, however, is tied up with an even stronger feeling of love towards them. Ultimately, it was this deeply affectionate quality to her humor that made it so endearing and that allowed us to forgive Bamford for any lines that she might have otherwise crossed.
Whether composing a melodious fart-song or doing an uncanny impression in her signature high-pitched, reedy voice, Bamford thrived on the CEMEX stage and left us wondering how much of her act was contrived and how much simply came from her sheer outlandishness. Either way, she succeeded in making her audience members feel that we’re genuinely “never alone.” So, if you find yourself feeling like an outcast, fear not: just buy yourself a ticket to the next Maria Bamford show. Soon enough, you’ll be struggling to breath from laughing so hard and feeling like part of the family.
Contact Ian Anstee at ianstee5 ‘at’ stanford.edu.