On Comedy: Originality’s Trickery in Maria Bamford’s ‘Old Baby’

Part Five

I have always been a bit ambivalent about Maria Bamford’s comedy. In many ways, she fits what I have prescribed (while I hope not programmatically) as the paradigm of “good” comedy. In her best moments she reminds us of the creative potential of the human mind. She’s beyond ambitious as well: her television series, “Lady Dynamite,” is genre breaking, fascinatingly meta-theatrical, and maddeningly inconsistent; her special, “Old Baby,” is equally genre breaking (all the more impressive for standup) and oscillates between brilliant and unfortunate. It’s the comedy equivalent of Kanye West’s “Yeezus.”

At least Bamford is humble enough to acknowledge how polarizing her comedy can be, “I always like to tell audiences preprogram—just in case you were brought here by a friend—sometimes friends lead us astray. I had two very close friends, my parents, invite me to go see a film, I said, ‘of course I’ll go see that movie with you,’ because you love me, why on earth would you want to see me suffer? And then I sat through Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse,’ which if you haven’t seen, as far as I’m concerned, is a 14 hour, real time documentary about a gentle horse struggling, in vain, to escape from barbed wire. This may be your ‘War Horse.’”

I do not know if she is entirely correct. “Old Baby” is like watching “War Horse,” intermittently spliced with footage of a better, more thoughtful, less mind-numbingly empty film. I hope that this reaction is not simply the manifestation of inconsistent comic taste on my behalf. Instead, I would argue that Bamford’s special is emblematic of something fascinating: the inconsistent artistic merit of artistic ambition.

I have tossed around phrases like “ambitious” and “genre breaking” without, perhaps, explaining myself. “Old Baby” transcends a fixed location; its 64 minutes are filmed in front of increasingly large crowds at increasingly traditional venues. The opening monologue, quoted above, is performed while Bamford banters into a mirror. She proceeds to perform (in ascending, non-inclusive order) in front of her husband and two dogs, a small bookstore, a medium sized bowling alley, and finally, a fully filled theater. Interspersed throughout are bizarre scenes featuring Bamford attempting to sell merchandise.

Her approach towards location is aggressively original. It works, dear reader, because it isn’t originality for originality’s sake—instead, it’s a device that lets Bamford illuminate the way in which the audience, not only the performer, crafts stand-up.

In the small opening venues hosting her performance, it sounds as if Bamford is bombing. It is a bit horrifying to watch, but it serves a purpose: As the crowd size increases and the laughs become more frequent (her material and delivery is not radically different throughout), Bamford shows the power of community. It is easier to laugh along with someone, amused reader, than by yourself.

You experience that concept emotionally—from the sheer discomfort of the opening minutes to the later patches of comic brilliance. It’s not an illustration or an idea sterilized on a page. Bamford constructs her thesis—not by telling you about the power of community, but by making you viscerally experience it as an observer. One feels less alone when laughing at her later jokes when laughing along with her recorded audience.

She doesn’t confine this idea to the structure of her special. The closing moments of her special feature her, against her largest audience, trying to make them play “One Big Blob,” a game in which each individual catches the hand of the next individual until everyone is entrapped in the titular blob, rhythmically screaming “one big blob” in unison. She prefaces it by saying, “I’m trying to believe in something [...] something more bigger than myself. And I just, I just can’t, can’t think of anything. But then I remember that there was this game we used to play when we were kids and it's called ‘One Big Blob.’”

That “something bigger” for Bamford is the community of laughs—the scene of a theater full of individuals holding each other’s hands laughing and chanting. (I, however, cannot help but feel the opposite. There is something isolating about witnessing a community that you are not a part of hold hands and chant in unison.) The aesthetic brilliance of Bamford is in the fact that she crafts her theme by unifying form and content; her ideology of a community of laughs is crafted though her approach towards location and the literal language of her speech (as she says, believing in “something more bigger”).

However, even though so much of “Old Baby” is intellectually rationalizable, I can’t shake the feeling that it is oftentimes not particularly good. One must not confuse what is innovative with what is good. More precisely, one must not let innovation obfuscate badness.

If you will excuse my elementary division between “good” and “bad”—a division that critics are too often reticent to make out of some misinformed sense of writing with “complexity” and “nuance”—it appears that Bamford too often uses innovations in form to obscure her bad bits. A large portion of her show is impressions; only some of them are good and only some of them make sense: “[Imitating an unknown sad voice] How do you make it in show business? Do you move to San Diego and disguise yourself as a bush? Moving slowly northward, underneath the cover of dusk.” If I may quote one of Bamford’s fellow comics, “Aren’t you even writing anymore?”

Her closing bit, rolling around on the ground while making fart noises, is the comic equivalent of West’s, “How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up” (“On Sight” from “Yeezus”). The difference is that for West, “not giv[ing] a fuck” one of the central themes in “Yeezus”; for Bamford, it’s a cheap distraction and an unexplored idea.

The thing about innovation, about creativity, is that it needs to enhance the craft. Bamford occasionally uses it as a way to enhance her thematics by providing a unity between form and content. She occasionally uses innovation as a way of masking the worst parts of her comedy. But most damning of all, dear reader, is that she sometimes innovates for the sake of innovating. Her interspersed cuts of scenes of her selling merchandise are unworthy of your time.

I do not want to come across as an intellectual utilitarian—I am not saying that innovation only has a place if it furthers some abstract intellectual thought. Instead, Bamford’s innovation only has merit in the moments when it enhances her comedic message, rather than distracting from temporary bouts of laziness.

So, if I may conclude with a plea, please gentle reader, do not judge art on if it is different or not—judge it its difference on if it contributes anything to the larger whole of the art. Please be thoughtful. Think not of what art is, but of what it does.

—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at aziz.yakub@thecrimson.com.

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