Maria Bamford’s The Special Special Special is a downloadable video, available for $4.99 at Chill.com.
Self-consciously “edgy” comedians often have an obnoxious habit of repeatedly calling attention to their purported outrageousness. Of late, Ricky Gervais is particularly guilty of this: In his stand-up, Gervais simultaneously pats himself on the back and gives himself a playful little spank for being such a naughty, button-pushing little bad boy, when all he really does is take easy shots at vulnerable targets. There is none of that self-congratulatory nonsense in the stand-up of Maria Bamford, whose comedy is all the more daring for not constantly calling attention to how daring it is. Bamford doesn’t flatter her audience or herself for their courage in plunging headfirst into some of the deepest, darkest waters in all of comedy, stand-up or otherwise. She trusts her audience to follow her down whatever stormy paths her muse takes her.
In Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special, the eccentric comic’s muse leads her back to the source of her angst and dysfunction: her parents, an incongruously proper, respectable-looking WASP couple who somehow gave birth to a rampaging, un-tethered id of a daughter they clearly love and admire, even if they don’t quite understand. The special’s audacious, uncomfortably intimate conceit has Bamford performing in her own home before an audience of two: her mom and dad. All entertainers, on some primal level, seek the approval and validation of the people who created them; Special Special Special takes this to its voyeuristic extreme.
Reaction shots in comedy specials generally reek of self-congratulation—Look at how hilarious I am! The audience can’t stop guffawing!—but here, the sometimes pained, sometimes ambiguous, and often generous and empathetic responses of Bamford’s parents take on enormous significance. They’re key players in Bamford’s homespun psychodrama, even if their role is largely limited to reacting as she exorcises her demons in the comfort of her own living room. This is the rare stand-up special where the audience is as central to the overall experience as the comedian.
Bamford doesn’t cater her material to her parents, never holding back to put them at ease. On the contrary, Bamford seems more concerned with challenging than placating them. Special Special Special begins dark—even a bit about professional glutton Paula Deen quickly takes a sinister, despairing turn—and grows progressively darker until Bamford is baring her psychological scars in a heartbreaking closing segment that transforms a prolonged, public battle with suicidal depression, compulsive thinking, anxiety, and institutionalization in a nightmarish mental hospital into cathartic, pitch-black comedy. Bamford lays it all out here, addressing the horrors of aging in a culture and a business that worships youth, the paralyzing fear of dying alone or never finding anyone, and most profoundly, the agony of mental illness. Special is particularly scathing and righteous when attacking the double standards of a society that refuses to afford the mentally ill the same concern it affords people afflicted with other forms of illness. She’s uncharacteristically blunt when taking on the stigma still associated with diseases of the mind rather than the body.
On Special Special Special, Bamford stares into a black cosmic void with such unflinching intensity that the void is too intimidated to stare back. Special Special Special doesn’t delineate between comedy and tragedy, between the raw, ragged pain of existence and Bamford’s genius for alchemizing that pain into laughter. Her delivery appears random, spontaneous, mumbly, and stream-of-consciousness, a comedy Tower Of Babel where the voices inside and outside of Bamford’s head battle it out for supremacy. But there’s a deceptive level of craft behind Bamford’s manic zigzagging among voices, characters, and ideas. Bamford can take her audience into uncharted territory because she’s mastered the fundamentals of comedy: timing and delivery. Bamford wouldn’t be such a fearless and important truth-teller if se she wasn’t also a fine stand-up comedian with a command of the basics.
Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special is equal parts family drama, after-midnight confession, and ballsy conceptual stunt. It’s also one of the most fearless and bracingly dark explorations of mental illness in recent memory. But since the special is the product of Bamford’s beautifully tormented mind, it has the benefit of being consistently hilarious. If it weren’t so funny, it would be unbearably sad.