In the opening of Old Baby, Maria Bamford suggests to an imagined audience member uncomfortable with her distinctive comic voice, “Take a lap outside. Get yourself a treat!” Even Bamford is ostensibly uncomfortable with her material, which delivers fearless truth about mental illness, family trauma, and incontinent dogs in a torrent of idiosyncratic impressions, heartfelt stories, and sheer absurdity. In a move she describes as “full-body peekaboo,” Bamford scampers off the ad hoc stage of her front lawn, sing-songing to the tiny audience, “But what if I didn’t come back?” But Maria Bamford always comes back, and with Old Baby, she’s back in unsurprisingly strong form.
That’s right: an imagined audience and a stand-up set in her yard. Expanding on the reputation for choosing unconventional venues that Bamford built in The Special Special Special, Old Baby presents her act (the September 2016 album 20%) as one continuous set pieced together from performances in a series of venues. The set is interrupted only by vignettes of Bamford half-heartedly pitching merch (all proceeds going to a psychiatric care foundation in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota) from a card table or the trunk of her car.
“I like a structured communication à la stand-up. I like a hard out,” Bamford tells her audience, but that characteristic self-effacement is belied by the location: on a friend’s brick patio, traffic passing by on the street behind her. She revels in breaking the structures within which most comedy performances operate, and she makes it look easy. Her experimentation with form—in The Special Special Special, in The Maria Bamford Show, in the gleefully self-aware Lady Dynamite—never sacrifices comedy or the characterizations embodied in her endless repertoire of voices, and Old Baby’s constantly shifting setting is much more than a gimmick. It’s a natural extension of those experiments.
Director Jessica Yu (who also directed Bamford in the pivotal Lady Dynamite episode “Mein Ramp”) makes effortless transitions from home to public spaces to velvet-curtained stages. It’s entirely possible to watch Old Baby as a simple stand-up special seamlessly embellished by location changes, but the ever-escalating settings also function as a metaphor for Bamford’s flourishing confidence, well-being, and career. The size of the audience increases as her onstage persona expands, so that her practice before a mirror or to an audience of her husband and two dogs is quieter and more restrained than the performance for a handful of people seated on the bench she installed in front of her house or the group watching her from the seats of a bowling alley. But as the venues grow—a patio filled with tables, the arts section of a bookstore, a cozy theater, an auditorium—the intimacy established in those first humble settings lingers.
Intimacy, and the awkwardness it can create, is a hallmark of Maria Bamford’s work, as is her mercurial combination of optimism and an embrace of life’s darkest thoughts. Talking about the similarities between striving to find a happy relationship or success in Hollywood—and the sometimes seemingly daunting odds of both—Bamford issues a faux-scornful dismissal of people lucky enough to grow blasé over their happiness. “Oh! I’m sorry if you’re bored with your miracle!” Never backing away from her painfully public ups and downs, Bamford treats those troubles as the normal human events they are. In Old Baby, she sandwiches the aftermath of a breakdown or a tragic family history between observations about noisy neighbors, Facebook likes, and Hollywood insincerity.
Throughout the special, in every venue, Bamford plays peekaboo with the notion of abandoning her spot on the stage, her audience, her hopes, her art. But for all her insistence on her own diffidence and distance, her candor and irrepressible enthusiasm for exploring sensitive subjects are unifying, not isolating, as Old Baby’s touching climax demonstrates. Maria Bamford’s unique ability to meld angst, annoyance, joy, and giddy good will into an exhilarating, buoyant whole is a miracle of its own, and it never gets boring.