Laughing About Mental Illness With Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford’s new standup show “The Special Special Special” takes an uncomfortably funny approach to a tough topic.

Laughing About Mental Illness With Maria Bamford

The comedian Maria Bamford’s new standup performance lives up to its name: The Special Special Special. It is an hour-long set, released exclusively online for less than $5, and she performs the material in her modest Los Angeles apartment in front of an audience of two, her mom and dad. The set is funny, but as many critics have noted, it’s not the sort of thing you laugh out loud at. It’s deeper and darker than your average chucklefest.


She discusses her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and pushes back against the stigma our culture has about mental illness. People tell the mentally ill that they should just get over it, Bamford points out, but imagine if they said the same thing to people with physical diseases. “You think you’d be able to stop vomiting for me and the kids,” Bamford says, imitating the voice of a harried, resentful mother.

Bamford’s always been known for her impressions, and part of what makes The Special Special Special such a profound and unique performance is that she imitates her mother right to her face. It’s a fascinating audience/performer dynamic and watching her parents giggle uncomfortably at the more difficult parts of Bamford’s routine–like when she was put in the “hoosegow” after a breakdown–is genuinely moving.

We spoke to Bamford about how she decided to perform in front of her progenitors, how she comes up with new material, and why so-called alternative comedy is probably becoming the new hack comedy.

Co.Create: Was the material created solely for this special or had you performed any of it elsewhere before?

Maria Bamford: It is material that I’ve worked on for the last five years since my last CD and has been performed in hothouse flower hipster environments in major metropolitan areas.


Did you pull any punches because you were doing it specifically for your parents?

No. I did give them both a beer before I did my suicide chunk.

Do you talk to them about what’s in the show afterwards with them or process it in any way?

They had seen it at least two times before, so I just let them go back to the Hilton.

I really appreciated the way you handle mental illness in your work. Do you think of your comedy as advocacy or are the laughs more important?

I go for laughs, for sure. But I’m sure a large population of thumbs-down emojis would argue the opposite according to YouTube.


A lot of comedy that’s gaining popularity–I’m thinking you, Tig Notaro’s special where she talks about cancer, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast–isn’t ha ha funny. It’s much deeper and more vulnerable. Do you think there’s a reason this is becoming more mainstream now? Do you think the Internet has something to do with it?

I think the Internet has made it easier for people to connect with things that they really like, as well as provide a more personal experience, of “I found this!” and then you can pass it to friends. I think that the style of comedy called “alternative” will probably (if it already hasn’t already) become the new “hack” with references to unicorns and mustaches and anti-psychotic medications becoming the new airplane food. It feels like we’re in a boom now and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

What’s your process like–how do you do your writing?

I write three pages in the morning and have Joke Machines with other comics–going back and forth with new material, practicing it, or walking and talking. I take a walk and say stuff out loud to myself. I wish I were more prolific. It feels so good to make something and I don’t know why I would avoid it like I avoid any sort of exercise (which also has the same effect).

How do you develop the impressions that you do? Is it something that you practice and refine or is it just something that tumbles out?

I’m a little burned out on my own style. I like doing certain types of people, and I guess it just comes out.


Were the pauses in The Special Special Special real, or put on? Like the fuse going, that sort of thing.

Put on. I think they really provided relief from the weird intensity of watching up-close, no audience, standup.

Were you excited about distributing this online? I know you had a web series already with the Maria Bamford show, but did this feel like something brand new?

Oh yes–it was brand new. With the Maria Bamford show, I don’t think anyone noticed, but for whatever reason ([like having a] professional publicist, Jess Knox) there was a lot more immediate reaction to it and that was satisfying.

A lot of comedians are very into testing material on Twitter. You don’t seem to love it all that much. Why?

I’m sort of shy and Twitter feels like chatting all day with a group. I like to follow people. I’m following Joel Osteen, Steve Martin, and an anonymous purple egg–just to see where they go with it.


About the author

Jessica Grose is a regular contributor to Co.Create. She is a freelance writer and editor who writes about culture, women's issues, family and grizzly bears