WASHINGTON: What on earth could be funny about contemplating suicide? Or suffering from bipolar disorder or OCD?
Lots, says American comedian Maria Bamford, who’s been there, is still fighting and draws on her ordeal to make people laugh.
Part of her mission is to break taboos and test limits as she pokes fun at her experience with problems normally discussed in whispers if at all.
Bamford, a petite 45-year-old blond with a high-pitched, squeaky voice, also wants to show that even in the nadir of a person’s life there’s humor in there, somewhere.
She’s no household name but has developed a cult following in America, both among standup comedy fans and fellow comedians. In 2014, she was named America’s best club comic.
For Bamford, nothing is off limits: thinking about killing herself, life lived on meds, her family’s well-meaning but sometimes clumsy efforts to understand and help her, the times she’s suffered meltdowns and ended up in a psych ward.
“Go in and the chairs are broken and the puzzles are only half there. You know, half the puzzle pieces are lost,” Bamford said of her experience, in a recent conference call with news outlets.
Bamford spoke to discuss a new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, in which she stars and plays herself—a mediumly successful Los Angeles comic trying to get back on her feet after suffering a breakdown and spending six months living with her parents in Minnesota.
The pace of the show is frantic, with rapid fire, chirpy dialogue suggestive of a mind running on overdrive. The scenes are rendered in bright, in-your-face colors. It sometimes turns surreal.
In one of the early episodes, Bamford is on a blind date with a bisexual man who is recovering from a meth addiction, misses getting high and is puzzled by his longing.
“That’s not weird at all. I miss the energy of mania. I may have been contemplating suicide 18 hours a day, but my baseboards were spotless,” Bamford’s character says.
“It’s funny because I get in trouble if I don’t take my meds, but you get in trouble if you do!” she adds with a toothy smile.
Comedians harvesting their foibles or woes for material or stretching the limits of comedy are nothing new. The late Richard Pryor used to make jokes about how he grew up in a brothel owned by his grandmother and where his mother worked as a prostitute.
Louis C.K., one of the top US comics these days, did a riff on Saturday Night Live last year about child molesters. He got a big, albeit nervous, laugh, but also drew criticism.
“That comedians now see fit to shock people by toying with dead-serious things is a reflection of a society in which everybody shares pretty much everything on social media anyway,” said Gil Greengross, an evolutionary psychologist who specializes in humor.
And the link between creativity—in comedians, writers, painters and other artists—and mental disorders has been the subject of much study and forms part of our cultural lore. Consider the image of the “mad scientist,” or ranting brainiac, he said.
One theory suggests the link is largely about genes, said Greengross, who teaches at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
People have a certain gene or genes that help them be creative, but it depends how the genes express themselves.
“Sometimes if they express themselves in just the right way, you can be a genius or very smart,” Greengross said in an interview. But if you get a bad mutation of that gene or it expresses itself wrong, the result can be mental illness.
“These two are actually much more connected than people realize in a lot of cases. And you can sometimes have both of them in the same person,” Greengross said.
Bamford, seemingly agreeing, put it this way: “I do feel genuinely that, you know, your greatest weakness can be your greatest gift.”
She reckons people laugh at her stuff because the shattering of a taboo provides a release. “It creates laughter because you go, ‘I can’t believe someone is saying this’.”
Her brand of comedy is not for everyone. Bamford once did a half-hour set on suicide for a conference of therapists in Washington.
“I bombed so terribly with my suicide chunk,” she said. “It did not go well with the therapy crowd.”
But her show Lady Dynamite is getting very good reviews.
“What makes Maria Bamford stand out is that she deals with her real-life struggles with bipolar disorder by forcing you to experience the world from inside her troubled mind,” Entertainment Weekly TV critic Melissa Maerz said.
“With its bright colors, rat-a-tat dialogue, and relentless cheeriness, Lady Dynamite is mania brought to life,” she added.
Bamford said another goal of hers is to create the feeling that people who are somehow suffering are not alone, that everybody at some time has been broken down on some level.
In one segment of a low-budget, much-acclaimed Web series called The Maria Bamford Show, released in 2009, Bamford sings about depression and anxiety in a soft, almost girlish voice to the cheerful sound of a banjo.
“Don’t be afraid of the dark. Reach out your hand, you’ll hit someone like you. Everyone’s here in the dark. You might not see me, but I’m out here, too.”