When Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite premiered last year, the series stood out for its loopy, fragmented structure: Bamford plays a version of herself, a comedian struggling with her career and her history of mental illness, and the series jumps back and forth throughout different periods in her life. It’s a show about a nervous breakdown, and it kind of feels like one, too.
Bamford’s excellent new standup special, Old Baby, streaming on Netflix as of yesterday, is similarly spastic. Over the course of an hour, she performs for an audience of one in a modest living room; in front of a foursome (including the comedian Rhea Butcher) seated on a park bench outside her house; in the crowded aisle of a local bookstore; and in the lane of a bowling alley. At the very top of her set, she’s facing a mirror, talking to herself. It feels strange to call Old Baby a standup special; it’s more like a deconstruction of a standup special.
Like Lady Dynamite, Old Baby demands your full attention — blink and you’ll lose the thread of Bamford’s set, which tumbles out of her in a stream of consciousness. Like an expert driver navigating a windy mountain road, Bamford steers between remarks on getting married in her 40s (“What is that, a specter from the attic?”) to comparisons between the odds of falling in love and making it in show business to jokes about the similarity between Say Yes to the Dress and a documentary about genocide (“No one is learning from history!”). All the while, director Jessica Yu nimbly stitches together several recorded sets in various locations without missing a beat. It’s like if your kid decided to put on a play and you had to humor her as she meandered from one room to another — except in this scenario, your kid is a comic genius.
That’s another reason you need to stay alert: The show’s format would overwhelm the content if it weren’t so funny. Much of the fun of Old Baby, particularly its first half, is following its various twists and turns, its visual and conceptual punchlines on top of the jokes themselves. At one point, when she’s performing in front of the park bench outside her house, Bamford talks about her realization that a big part of being in a relationship is just showing up. “The fact that we all still have the free will to abandon each other at any given moment,” she begins, slowly beginning to turn away from her miniscule audience, “makes it all the more compelling.” She hides behind a bush then darts back out, peekaboo style; suddenly, we cut to a living room, where she’s performing the same bit for a different audience, popping in and out of the front door.
Another recurring gag finds Bamford shilling her own fittingly weird merch: gym shorts that read, “SHY!”; pencils that read “HOPE” (so you can slowly grind it down); a stress reliever in the shape of a stack of pancakes that read, “Meds are more effective”; a hat that reads “I’m hiding!” A sign on the table explains that all proceeds go to Miller-Dwan, a psychiatric hospital in Bamford’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota.
Despite the attention-stealing format, the jokes in Old Baby are some of Bamford’s best. “It is so hard to love people nowadays,” she laments. “There is so much to keep track of. ‘You didn’t like my Facebook event!’ I’m fucking here! You want me to Helen Keller a thumbs-up into your palm?” Later, she describes “letting herself go” as “going full Detroit, abandoning all infrastructure…. People used to come here!”
As delightful as the special’s choose-your-own-adventure layout is, the second half, in which Bamford mostly performs in mid-sized theaters, might be even stronger than the first half. A veteran voice actor, Bamford doesn’t need more than a microphone to dazzle us with her gloriously specific impressions of the people in her life, or just random people one might encounter. With her vast arsenal of voices and her fierce, almost scary commitment to whatever “character” she’s playing at any given moment, Bamford is truly a one-woman show.
Her rapid-fire yet hushed delivery makes her sound more than a little manic, which is presumably the intended effect; it’s as if she’s talking to herself, like someone whom you’d most definitely avoid eye contact with if you came across her on the street. “If ever I start talking too fast about wanting to get in touch with the Pope or some other ethical authority, you’re gonna want to put me in a purple van and drive me to doggy day care, because I need to be boarded for the weekend,” she says, describing the general warning she gives potential suitors. Although she always seems fully in command of her performance, there are times when you could almost convince yourself you’re watching not a comedy routine but an actual nervous breakdown.
But then, the best comedians never let you feel totally safe. Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj gave a fine performance at the White House Correspondent’s Press Dinner over the weekend, full of great jokes. But he played it so straight, the set began to sag halfway through; there was something a little too buttoned-up about his delivery, an assurance that nothing was going to get too out of hand.
With Bamford, that’s never a guarantee. “I’m not very good with chit-chat,” she confesses, but that’s kind of what her standup is like: chit-chat with your weirdest, funniest friend, the one that sometimes scares you a little but definitely makes life more interesting.
Maria Bamford: Old Baby is now streaming on Netflix.