Netflix is a go-to site when it comes to streaming the latest movies or watching new, original series. But you might have noticed that Netflix also wants to be your first click when it comes to stand-up comedy: 2017 has already seen the release of two Dave Chappelle specials, a stand up special by Amy Schumer and another by Louis C.K. In the coming months Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and even Jerry Seinfeld will be stacking the service with specials and shows.
The latest funny person to make a home at Netflix is Maria Bamford.
While her name might be unfamiliar alongside Netflix’s heavyweight lineup, Bamford is a timely addition to their roster who made her breakthrough on the Comedians of Comedy tours and specials with contemporary kooks like Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn. While these comics are all very different, they share a self-conscious approach to their material with an emphasis on writerly joke-telling and confessional characterizations. Bamford and her peers arguably defined American stand-up for the early 21st century, and her new special, Old Baby, finds the comic as imaginative, inquisitive, intelligent and intensely idiosyncratic as ever.
Old Baby starts with a cold open that finds Bamford standing in front of a mirror talking to herself while simultaneously warning the audience that this special might not be their cup of tea – she compares it to going to see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse with her parents, insisting that the film is a 14-hour real time documentary of a horse trying to escape from barbed wire. It feels like the kind of short scene that might open any comedy concert before we cut to the funny person taking the stage and making with the yuks. Instead, Old Baby evolves from bit to bit, from Bamford performing for a mirror, to testing material on her husband and dog on a couch, to entertaining a few folks sitting in her front yard. Old Baby is shot on a friend’s patio, in a bowling alley, at a bookstore, and – eventually – in front of a sparkling blue curtain in a concert auditorium. The changing venues symbolize the evolution of Bamford’s special, but also point to the steady evolution of her career, and they highlight the comedienne’s subversive stance with traditional stand-up settings – her The Special Special Special (2012) was performed and filmed in her parents’ house for an audience including only her mom and dad.
Bamford’s main weapon is a seemingly limitless array of silly voices she uses to evoke her husband, her mom, her dad, her psychiatrist or any other character who might wander into one of her rambling stories. These aren’t really impressions necessarily, but each voice is distinct and her vocal talent is one of the most unique elements of a Bamford show. The other thing that separates Bamford from the pack is her ability to confront the darkest aspects of intimacy and relationships with family, friends and lovers in a manner that somehow acknowledges the horrors of rape, domestic abuse, mental illness and suicide while never jumping the rails and losing laughs. It’s a balancing act that’s born from the combination of Bamford’s brilliant writing paired with an almost reckless vulnerability as a performer, and it’s what makes Bamford so exceptional among contemporary cultural commentators.
All of that said – and as Bamford warned at the very beginning of the show – maybe this isn’t for you. This show, its weird settings and Bamford’s off-kilter delivery might prove challenging to the uninitiated, but I’d implore comedy fans to take this ride: Old Baby is a slow burn, but the intensity and hilarity here only increase as Bamford’s audience eventually expands into a sold-out auditorium packed with fervent fans.
Bamford gives us an overarching theme here, demonstrating how talking about the not-politely-talk-aboutable can create a healing communality. The comedienne demonstrates this in an interactive bit which finds the audience joining hands and chanting, “One big blob!” It’s an awkward moment for the audience members who must be a little brave, get closer to a stranger and be willing to give up their personal space and comfort in favor of an imperfect togetherness. Bamford might have called this special “Imperfect Togetherness,” but it also concludes with a chorus of cascading fart noises Bamford makes in the mic while she rolls around on the stage. Old Baby it is.
Maria Bamford’s Old Baby premiered on Netflix May 2.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.