Maria Bamford’s Old Baby: A Very Special Special

I want you, I need you, Old Baby, Old Baby

Most people try and play it pretty straight when meeting new people. I, on the other hand, turn the weirdness factor way up. Like, off that charts strange. Lately, I’ve been considering an attempt to stray from this approach, especially in job interviews, since it has never once proven to be successful. But after watching Maria Bamford’s new special, Old Baby, I’m reminded why it’s so fantastic to be a real freaky-deaky. Saying Maria Bamford’s onstage persona is weird is a bit of an understatement, but her bizarreness is what makes her wonderful. So I’ll get right to it: this special is undeniably really fucking good.

In fact, I think it almost impossible to not enjoy Old Baby. I laughed a lot, (and though it pains me to use the hackneyed abbreviation, but it’s unavoidable in this instance), I’m talking real-life LOLing. And yet, I also felt super warm and fuzzy inside, similar to watching someone get a scalp massage like in those YouTube ASMR videos (oh, only I watch those? No, that can’t be, there’s thousands of videos like that, they can’t all be just for me). Maria Bamford is so skilled in her performance and so endearingly genuine, it is mesmerizing. But this special is so far from the ordinary set-up, punchline routine that almost every comic does, it is indeed a very special special.

This special is so far from the ordinary set-up punchline routine that almost every comic does, it is indeed a very special special.

Old Baby sees Bamford performing in a number of different spaces throughout the special- for four people on a park bench (probably in front of her house if the first episode of Lady Dynamite is any indication), a bunch of people in someone’s living room, a group in a crowded bookstore, in front of the lanes at a bowling alley, and more. But Bamford’s unconventionality goes way beyond her choice of venue. If you’ve seen Lady Dynamite, the semi-autobiographical, amazing Netflix show that Bamford stars in, you get a sense of her comedy: surreal, almost dreamlike, taking on serious subjects like mental illness, candidly, but silly at the same time.

Bamford is one of very few, if not the only, comedians who candidly talks about her struggles with mental health. Her stints in psychiatric units and also her diagnosis of Type-II Bipolar are featured in both Lady Dynamite and her stand-up, and her openness about it lends itself to a vulnerability that is rare, yet so key to Bamford’s act. She begins the special speaking into a mirror, “I always like to tell audiences pre-program, just in case they were brought here by a friend, that sometimes friends lead us astray,” hinting at a the self-doubt that is surely feigned, but just as certainly based in reality, showing just how keenly aware she is that her unique brand of comedy might not be everyone’s bag (though it should be, in my mind). She then details her experience seeing Steven Spielberg’s War Horse at the urging of her parents, and her subsequent surprise that they, being the loving parents that they are, would make her suffer through what she describes as a “14 hour real-time documentary about a gentle horse struggling in vain to escape from barbed wire. This may be your War Horse,” she warns. And that’s about where your typical, run-of-the-mill stand up comedy ends.

She goes on to mention the little-known fact that one can actually run out of genocide-related documentaries on Netflix, and how the streaming service then suggested she watch Say Yes to the Dress. She slips seamlessly between these unrelated, though apparently somehow linked in Netflix’s suggestion algorithm subjects as she switches up her voice, from deep and husky to express what she sees as the similarity between the two genres:  “No one is learning from history,” to a soft and lilting Southern accent to mimic the bride, expressing, “This is my day, it’s the most important day in a woman’s life,” and “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Note: That’s the best I could do. I cannot explain that more clearly. Maria Bamford is endlessly captivating, but impossible to describe. Watch the special and you’ll understand).

And shortly after that, we realize that she is now in a living room, performing for one man and two Pugs (a bit of googling reveals that it is her husband). But quickly, we’re outside performing for those four people on a bench, and these abrupt transitions perfectly mirror her style. She offers very few transitions between ideas, and zigzags through her routine of essentially monologues and one-person skits as she quickly shifts between her natural voice, which is high, light and almost trembling, over-articulated and rhythmic despite the quavering and halting, and the various voices she mimics and emotions she displays. She’s constantly twisting her face, alternatively whispering and screaming, and hunching over as if constantly embarrassed by her awkward earnestness. All of this works only because she does it all so well: her timing is impeccable, her delivery is outstanding, and her unique style is just as funny as the content. And this unusual stage presence makes the at times uncomfortable material, with its honest portrayal of mental illness, all the more striking,

But she does stray from merely talking about her struggles with mental health (though her impersonation of her mom’s distressed and stuttering counsel to “somehow get to the airport, go to Delta priority and tell them you are Gold Medallion!” in order to get home during a breakdown is so funny). She talks about her friend who is always trying to get her to do stuff, asking her to go swing dancing – she’ll “go for three years, but THAT IS IT!” or to a fitness boot camp – she’ll “go for five days, and on day five, Tonya, and I know it’s going to be Tonya who is going to say ‘Come on, Maria, I want to see you push it!’ and I am never going to go again.” But will she forget to cancel to automatic debit coming from her checking account and pay for it for the next year and a half, her friend asks in her comedically over-eager voice. “Of course I will,” in a whispered deadpan delivery.

I will admit that a good portion of this special is material I’ve seen her do before. But that is likely only because I watch YouTube videos for the entirety of my waking life. So some of this material has been performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or This is Not Happening. But hearing it twice did not diminish its power at all. And you likely haven’t seen it anyway. No one can watch YouTube like I can watch YouTube. All in all, I cannot urge you enough to watch Old Baby when it arrives. And pray that Netflix never stops making Lady Dynamite. And that Maria Bamford blesses us with her gifts for a long, long time.

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