Lady Dynamite has been a long time coming and, it’s funny. Maria Bamford’s new semi-autobiographical Netflix series is well crafted, and about as fun as anything you’ve ever seen on television. It won’t be experienced by as many people as saw Trainwreck this year, and that’s a shame, because it’s not only fun and funny, it’s also silly and poignant, and even important.
There’s a time-honored point in a stand-up’s career when, if successful, they’re given the chance to create their own show. Those shows are sometimes about the comedian in their life as a comedian; sometimes not. It’s a tradition spanning back to “The Bob Newhart Show” with new incarnations constantly spawning. Shows as commercially explosive as “The Cosby Show” and “Seinfeld” belong to this subspecies of television and shows as forgotten (but glorious) as “The Sarah Silverman Program” does, too. Some of these shows transcend the genre, like “Louie”. Some implode upon their embracing of the genre. Mostly “Mulaney”. A true bummer for all of us.
It’s a fixture in harvesting talent and there’s been a trend recently with these talent-driven comedy projects. As far as narrative comedies go, the two categories seem to be the worn road of autobiographical shows and the newer protrusion that is the absurd. Streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix line up behind these projects like they’re choosing kickball teams in gym class. So you’ve got “Love”, which is way too much about living in LA and peripherally being in the entertainment industry and then “Man Seeking Woman” where Eric Andre is air humping a branzino and men go on dates with literal trolls. One can be human and relatable and predictable and trite, the other is fascinating but risks becoming gimmicky with no emotional through line. Neither is better and both are fun. They’re as separate and analogous as breasts dangling beside each other, nipples occasionally winking at each other.
The plots of Lady Dynamite squish the aforementioned sub-genres together, like tits until tits consume each other and form a weirdly sexual Venn diagram. Not that Lady Dynamite is weirdly sexual, it’s not. It’s this metaphor that got all messed up. But there is a great episode about Maria’s discomfort around sex you should check out. Watch the other episodes first. Anyway…
Bamford’s show intertwines three parts of her life: when things were too good to be true professionally, when she was broken-down emotionally, and the present, when maybe she can be healthy and successful but it’s rough. She disposes of the fourth wall early. It takes place midway in the pilot after recognizable comedians have been playing characters. Patton Oswalt breaks from being a cop to being Maria’s friend Patton and he warns her against using stand-up as a series device. The wall becomes further decimated when Steve Agee rolls up as another cop and Oswalt derides what a bad job wardrobe did dressing him, since he only has a childish paper badge. “Lady Dynamite” is self-aware like old school “30 Rock” but not second season “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”’s derivative where characters talk like caricatures of themselves and bungle topical issues.
To backtrack, that first more traditional type of comedy is typically the one riper for emotional moments. But so much more than the generic café-to-stage formula of an autobiographical show about having a show, “Lady Dynamite” hurts. It more visceral than “Man Seeking Women” where Josh and his chipper girlfriend Rachel elect to become surgically attached. It hurts so much more than every part of “Bojack” where you’re supposed to be pensive. It hurts to see Maria doubt that she’s worthy of love in the present more than it does when she’s officially “crazy”. So it’s even more rewarding when she boldly faces her fears.
The show absolutely follows the bullet points of her life. For a long-time fan familiar with her stand-up, she covers the same topics of mental health that her stand up hits, and uses some familiar bits from her specials. She even covers herself covering those topics with a cutaway to two faraway Sudanese men when her unwanted t-shirts are overnight shipped to the country.
While she’s not nearly as ubiquitous as Amy Schumer or as broadly accessible as a Daniel Tosh or Anthony Jeselnik, Bamford has a devoted, awed following. It’s easy for one of these awed devotees to complain that she deserved this show ages ago. Then I remind myself that episodes of “The Maria Bamford Show” are still up on YouTube and I still have friends I to show it to. Maria herself addresses that she’s much older than the typical comedian getting their first show. And there’s an inherent bonus in being older– Bamford’s been being herself, and doing that boldly for so much longer than other comics who were given series. She’s had a long time to stew and ruminate on what she would do given the chance and just how she’d do it.
Well written, unique and hilarious,Lady Dynamite is as silly as anything and all the while packs an emotional punch.