My Favourite Comedian is Minnesota’s Maria Bamford.
She’s a stand up comic whom I love for her uniquely philosophical style of comedy which she performs using her extensive range of vocal skills. If UK readers aren’t familiar with her at first, it may be because it’s her voice rather than her appearance that has been given airtime thus far in the many animated movie characters she plays. However it is the brilliance of her stand up and in particular how she embodies the best of US and UK comedy that I want to tell people about.
For the uninitiated, Bamford is a comedian who positions herself as an unknowing wide-eyed child quizzically probing the attempts made by people she encounters to wield power over her. A talented mimic, she expertly savages the fake empathy of the world of daytime TV and makeover shows. Mental illness is a subject she has direct experience of and which she speaks about in an emotionally intelligent way that neither glorifies nor trivializes. However in owning her weaknesses, Bamford wrongfoots those who idolise bluster and bravado in favour more sustainable ways of feeling secure in themselves. And all while impersonating the voicemails that baby Jesus leaves for her mother.
The U.S.A. is of course the home of stand up comedy and has produced the best of our genre. It has a style that is bombastic and opinionated exemplified by such icons as Hicks, Bruce and Carlin. Enjoyable as that is however, my own preference is for stand up that does not sacrifice sensitivity in favour of a high moral stance. Bamford does this to great effect. For me, she places herself over the others in that she eschews bravado in favour of a much more ambitious performance strategy often used the U.K. - silliness. By not having to be the expert in the room she frees us, her audience, of the demand to be admired and we love her for it. It’s as close to a spiritual experience as can be had while hearing a fart noise every few seconds.
This isn’t to say that Bamford’s work is not political. It is in that it deals with inter-personal power dynamics. However because she mostly chooses not to explicitly talk about politicians by name she probably doesn’t get the credit for how much she says in her work. Her way of talking politics is to mock the smug attitudes that surrounds us which to me is a more effective and potent catalyst for change than having a go at Donald Trump’s hair.
At every point when Bamford could have gone big and bombastic, she has chosen a more self-effacing route. When filming a comedy special in a big theatre in front of a sold out crowd became the career choice for debut American stand ups, Bamford made hers in her own living room, with an audience of just her mom and dad. In a time when Netflix is overrun with comedy in the category “Controversial Comedy”, Bamford keeps the genre “Offbeat and Absurd” alive almost on her own. Every time the world takes as step in the direction of pomposity, Bamford ups the ante in the opposite direction, by lowering her status.
There are aspects of Bamford’s stand up comedy however that are uniquely American and are the better for it. Stand up comedy in the U.S. is also a TV-based industry so many fledgling comics spend their early years crafting the sets for late night talk shows like Conan or Fallon. Such a pressure leads to an ideas-dense style of stand up that is extremely economic with words. Combining this ruthless approach with her insightful world view leads Bamford to create jokes that emerge almost as tiny hilarious zen poems that only live in the moment of her telling them.
Things that are beautiful are rarely funny but Bamford’s jokes are both. Her wordings are so elegant and precise I feel students study them on the A-Level English course could learn a lot from them. Bamford shows that the most evolved person in the room is not the one who no longer makes fart noises but the one who deploys them with precision and to maximum effect.
Eleanor Tiernan brings her show Enjoying the Spotlight Responsibly to the PBH, Banshee Labyrinth as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 3rd – 25th August (excl 13th) at 2.20pm. More info and tickets available at eleanortiernan.com
Tagged in Comedy