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Maria Bamford: Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome
Among the noteworthy cadre of Los Angeles-based stand-ups who have emerged over the last decade or so, Maria Bamford is a unique comedian. She presents audiences with a individual point of view, drawing inspiration from her own brain troubles (depression and OCD, or as she has put it, being "paralyzed by hope") and the bizarre but common personality types she has encountered. She compresses the mundane craze of them all into perfectly-crafted characters on the edge of sanity that she effortlessly inhabits, sometimes for mere moments at a time. Her comedy is less about blasting the audience with her own thoughts and opinions, than it is about capturing a set of specific personae in our society and lampooning them in their own words and behaviors. The personalities she satirizes comprise an askance view of dominant American cultural attitudes and predictable, middle-of-the-road values.
Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome is Maria Bamford's third solo comedy album, recorded live in August 2008 at L.A.'s Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater. It's presented as a two-disc CD & DVD set. The CD features her act at its most personal, refined, and hilarious. Incorporating some material that had its test-run on her web series The Maria Bamford Show (the entirety of which is included on the DVD), her routines include many references to family, friends, and acquaintances from her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Voicemail from the baby Jesus, an impersonation of God as an incoherent Quasimodo type, along with references to art therapy, the Velveteen Rabbit, and the power of vision boards form the basis of some of the best bits.
Since getting the CD a week ago, it has not been ejected from my car stereo. I have not been this engaged by a stand-up comic in years. Bamford's quick left turns, stable of voices and characters, and hilarious joke-surprises make the album easy to listen to repeatedly, as I continue to do. Her longer bits are complex, involved, and ingenious - to wit, a lengthy in-character description of her job as a "Bajoran" Star Trek character. There is a short, perfect piece about taking painting lessons from "The Wizard of Art" that ends with the ex-hippie instructor ordering Bamford out of the class with constructive, vision quest intensity.
Part of what makes Bamford's performance so enjoyable is a consistent sense of unpredictability and surprise. This comes not just from the voices and personalities at her command, but from her nimble observational and interpretive ability. Her act feels organic, improvised, and natural. Neither contrivance nor phony comedy short-cuts will be found here. We don't have to choke down "bridge" material in order to get into the next bit; Bamford's thought process eschews this kind of cheat because she knows it's dead air. If a bit doesn't "flow" into the next, it doesn't matter, because both bits are funny enough to withstand such cosmetic considerations.
Bamford doesn't cloak her neuroses with jokes; she celebrates what emerges from her brain with blunt honesty. Bamford's thoughts are plain and undisguised, not just set-ups for punchlines. In fact, she sometimes forgoes punchlines entirely, which adds a layer of honesty to her routines - a joke about Alicia Keys from Bamford's previous album (How to WIN!) comes to mind. Alicia Keys is a silly goose, and she's funny in and of her ridiculous self - face it.
Bamford embraces her separateness from mainstream American culture, but doesn't obsess over it or insult her audience with it. She's not angry like George Carlin in his later years, or smug in the way that David Cross can be - her show is far from being that kind of shitshower of petty frustration. Her comedy is not about her views, per se, anyway - it's about being on the outside looking in and finding absurdity at every turn. It's about being amused by the world, and occasionally baffled, while trying to not let it bother you. Our own faults and problems are, more often than not, ridiculous and hilarious, as is our capacity to tell each other it's all okay even though it's not. The problem and the solution are just different outgrowths of human nature - and the sooner we understand that doom and hope are part of the same existence, the easier it is to cut through the bullshit and deal with what we need to deal with.
The DVD contains all twenty episodes of The Maria Bamford Show, originally broadcast (posted? streamed? dibletted?) on SuperDeluxe.com (now defunct). This one-person "sitcom" has Bamford playing a version of herself. The premise is that Maria has moved back into her parents' house in Duluth following an onstage breakdown. After getting her brain meds sorted out, Maria has to rebuild some semblance of her career, all while dealing with relatives and the blinkered townie types she grew up with. There is a lot of snappy, fast, funny stuff here, and the show is a nice record of an artist at work (a lot of this material was later incorporated into her live act). It was produced on the cheap, but the show is a wonderful miniature, and the speed and ease with which the episodes are paced and edited showcases Bamford's diverse characterizations. Episodes dealing with her attempt at a casino performance, moving in with her sister, and the surprisingly moving finale are among the best of this very strong series.
Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome is packaged like a double-CD album, in a card Digipak-style case.
The DVD video is fullscreen. The Maria Bamford Show was a low-budget affair produced for the web, but the picture is still pretty solid. This brightly-lit show looks homemade, which it is, really, and that adds to the personal nature of the material.
The CD and DVD feature vibrant stereo soundtracks that provide good depth when needed.
Maria Bamford is the most creative, intuitive, and funniest comedian currently working. Her characterizations remind us that pretty much everyone has a weird, weird brain that functions inconsistently at best. If you aren't able to see her live, I highly recommend that you seek out Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome.