You had to be there

You had to be there November 26, 2019

Last night my wife and I took our oldest daughter and her boyfriend out to see one of the funniest people in the world, Maria Bamford, at a comedy club here in Philadelphia. It was glorious. A Monday night comedy show meant I was tired all day at work, but that just made me remember why I was so tired and that meant I was happy all day at work, which ain’t bad.

If you’re not familiar with Bamford, she’s kind of hard to explain. I mean, OK, Jackie Kashian opened the show last night and warmed up the audience with a terrific, very funny brief set. Kashian is a very good stand-up comedian. She tells well-crafted and well-delivered jokes linked together in solid bits, interspersed with sharp asides and quick-witted crowd-work and delicious call-backs. She was great. She’s really funny and you should definitely go see her perform if you get the chance.

Driving home, we were repeating some of Jackie Kashian’s punchlines and retelling some of her jokes to enjoy them again, the way one does after seeing a good stand-up comic perform some good stand-up comedy. But that’s … harder to do with the parts of Maria Bamford’s act that had us laughing and cheering last night. Repeating or retelling favorite bits from her show would require somehow imitating the rapid-fire sequences of different voices and expressions and personas that made those bits so memorable and I’m not sure I could pull that off even given several weeks to practice.

Like for instance she told a story about a comedy essay she wrote for an online publication, only to wind up having to turn around to fight to get it taken down after others helped her to see how parts of it were transphobic. Even if I could remember the precise wording of the punchline of that story — something about the pleasure of getting to lecture others for not having learned a lesson she’d only just started learning herself — I couldn’t retell that story/joke because I couldn’t possibly recreate the voice and face and body language of her abrupt transformation into a cluelessly sanctimonious fiend or recapture the disarming way she manages to indict the audience even while always making herself the butt of the joke.

Lili Loofbourow gets at the weird magic of her comedy in this piece from a few years back: “Maria Bamford and the Hard Work of Acting Normal“:

This isn’t just terrific acting; it’s an opportunity to watch an oddball thinking about what her oddity puts an audience — and her family and self — through. What if you could get your family to love you if you just kept pretending to be something you’re not? This is where oddity meets the human condition. We all know what this is like. No one is “normal.” Bamford explores the urge to fit in by perfecting her ability to blend in, before going on to reject it. … The sweet spot of Bamford’s comedy is where effort and artifice authentically meet improvisation and chance — or, to put it another way, where anxiety meets preparation.

Loofbourow is also sharp at focusing on the strange “solitary kindness that flavors much of Bamford’s comedy” — a contagious kindness that is both extended toward and extracted from the audience.

The hard-to-describe aspect of Maria Bamford’s stuff added to my frustration and disappointment that nobody at work understood what I was telling them when I spent the previous week squeeing about how we had gotten Maria Bamford tickets. “Who?” 

But at least that gave me the chance to recommend that they all look her up on YouTube.

Please allow me to do the same for you here. Go watch whatever you can find there and then you might forgive me for writing this, a post that boils down to little more than “You had to be there,” which is perhaps the least meaningful and least interesting thing there is to say about the privilege of experiencing hour and a half of wonderful jokes.

You might want to start with her loosely (but not that loosely) autobiographical series The Maria Bamford Show, which you can watch online for free without having to deal with the comedy club’s two-item minimum.* Here’s the first episode:

You can find the subsequent episodes there on YouTube as well, but you may have to search for them to keep the site’s algorithm from playing them out of order and/or interjecting anti-vaccination Nazi propaganda videos in between them. That first thing, where YouTube auto-loads Part 5 of something instead of Part 3 when you finish watching Part 2, is an annoying, clumsily inept problem for a site that prides itself on having sophisticated engagement algorithms. But the thing about the anti-vaxx Nazi videos is far, far worse.

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* Philly’s Helium club is a great venue, and it’s nice that they give you the option of “two items from the menu” rather than just the usual two-drink minimum. But still, don’t order the nachos. Comedy-club nachos are a mistake on multiple levels.


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