Maria Bamford: Baby look pretty now?!

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Somewhere in Maria Bamford's clip file is a Nightly cover story by Joan Freese in the Minnesota Daily (January 13, 2004 in the archive) that I edited--and I remember her coming in for the photo shoot. The Duluth native with a punk haircut and violin was my age, working the Twin Cities theater scene and breaking into Los Angeles comedy clubs. Thirteen-odd years later I didn't recognize her at first in Comedy Central's Comedians of Comedy documentary/reality series/spinoff concert special, where she somehow burned more brightly and weirdly than her more seemingly assured and relied-upon male compadres Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis, who each got more screen time. Her "Old McDonald had a pterodactyl" bit (she sings, "E-I-E-I-O, with a"--and then lets out an extended Jurassic Park-sounding screech) became my answering machine message for a year.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week she launched her latest national tour from Minneapolis at ACME Comedy Company, reportedly making an appearance Wednesday at Grumpy's Death Comedy Jam, promoting a new CD on the the Twin Cities-based label Stand Up! Records (I wrote some about them here, and there's more before and since in City Pages). There was some publicity--City Pages ran a Q&A--but while I only went to her official show Wednesday, it still had the feel of an underground event, maybe two-thirds full and not entirely eager to be pleased, no free passes or the bachelorette parties she so convincingly imitates. A search of her Youtube archive fills in some biography by way of gags about her trying to break into show business in Hollywood and not exactly "succeeding," though success in comedy seems relative. The punk-like route of Comedians of Comedy (along with her production of homemade webisodes) seems to suit her lightly dark comedy of attitudes and animal impersonations, though I gather she's got a part in a TV series that's been picked up by Fox (click her name at the top for more). I suspect she'll be more like the comedic equivalent of Slug (who incidentally was shooting a video for "You" Wednesday night in a house on Como) or Mark Mallman, whose got something like her crazed innocence.

For most of her show Wednesday, Bamford was on the edge of killing. After some warmup by B96's Miss Shannon (who knew she did comedy?) and ACME regular Tommy Ryman (fresh as usual), and another featured comic, she came out and was soon staring into the audience, doing her impression of herself leaving phone messages for her mom from the baby Jesus, a voice that sounded like a combination of Bride of Chucky and Donald Duck. She did a piece about wearing makeup that I'd seen on youtube but still cracked me up helplessly. Her Minnesota voices have the quality of being inherently funny, but her comments on local culture might go over best here--like how she was in the debating society in high school, but because she's from Minnesota she'd keep saying, "Oh, good point."

Her most universal material is her sort of broad, impressionist takes of how various types of people act and behave, filtered through her own playtime sensibility, like Gilda Radner playing a little girl imitating a monster. At one point she did her impression of the entire world, going from region to region and summing each up in her whispery, flashlight-under-the-covers voice. She rendered a cold office co-worker as a startlingly authentic-sounding desert wind--she can seem almost parrot-like in her complete changes of voice. And then she killed. When she drops her high, scratchy speaking voice to Kathleen Turner huskiness, it's always disconcerting and funny--you wonder which is her "real" voice. But her impression of the glamorous, easy-laughs, girlie-girl comedienne she never became (never wanted to become, never could become) had the extra edge of hate that, to her credit, Bamford usually keeps sheathed, or just under her belt, so that it makes more of an impression when she really wields it. "I'm an empty husk!" she said as an aside to an imagined asinine comedy bit. "I can't feel my hands!"

I think the mass audience might be more mean-spirited than Bamford ever lets herself be, but that's to her credit.

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