The new Maria Bamford stand-up comedy release turned out to be quite a surprise. What I expected was a DVD version of her new album, Ask Me About My New God!, recorded in 2012 in my city of residence, Portland, OR. The format was just an assumption of mine, having unexpectedly found Ask Me About My New God! amongst the site's unclaimed screeners. What I received, however, was a CD of the album with a bonus disc featuring two early Bamford half-hours (20 minutes without commercials) recorded for "Comedy Central Presents." A little less than I bargained for, but also a little more.
If you're a Bamford fan, of course, this is a great thing to have, a sampling of the old and of the new. For newbies, it's also great, because if you start with the earliest TV feature, you have a nice entry point into one of the more unique comics in the business.
Summing up a comedian's technique is always a losing proposition. Jokes aren't funny if you have to explain them. Describing Bamford is a bigger challenge, because there really is no one like her. She's just so wonderfully weird. The reduced version is that she's a neurotic eccentric whose absurd observations and near hallucinatory anecdotes are delivered via not just Bamford's own alternating little-girl-lost/deer-in-the-headlights persona, but an endless list of quirky characters and impressions. If the joke is about Bamford's mom, she tells it as her mother. If it's a condescending boss, she adopts his manner and voice. What's kind of ironic is that Bamford is more of an oddball as herself, her impressions show her straightening up, lampooning the "normal" citizens who populate grocery stores and office cubicles. From her POV, they are the weirdoes, and to go along with her narrative is to join her on the other side of the line.
What's fascinating about getting the three different shows is you get to watch Bamford develop her style. From special to special, she becomes more confident in her delivery, and more assured of her own voice. In other words, she gets even stranger and less grounded. Traditional jokes, with set-ups and punchlines, take a back seat to her off-the-wall tangents. On the two video programs, you might hear some stuff you've heard before, on other comedy albums or hither and yon.
On the other hand, Ask Me About My New God! is all new, and it finds Bamford in a dark, aggressively cynical mood. She begins with an extended riff on what a weird city Portland is (which is pretty much expected if you see a comedy show here), but her range of topics after the intro moves from her insular life to jokes about race and how we relate to it, religion, and even suicide. It's no-holds-barred in terms of subject and Bamford doesn't pull any punches in the delivery either. The whole thing works. Brilliantly so. You will laugh at how silly her voices are, and then gasp at how shocking some of the jokes can be, and then she'll mash both things into the same gag. One gets the sense that Maria Bamford has seen some stuff since stepping in front of that Comedy Central camera years ago, and Ask Me About My New God! is the culmination of all that has gotten her to this point.