How to WIN!
ost casual comedy observers likely recognize Maria Bamford as the girl in The Comedians of Comedy, a typecast that I would imagine she both relishes and rejects. As the lone female in a posse of overweight slobs, her wacky outfits, cheerful visage, and precocious Midwestern sensibility enable her to stand out amongst a collective of notoriously brash, confrontational comedians. Likewise, those very same characteristics, and the fact that she is the least recognizable member of the troupe, can become kryptonite for the primarily male audience that attends stand-up shows. Unlike the Hicks-style political ranting of Patton Oswalt, the aggressive audience interaction and Zen-like piano playing of Zach G., and the anxious sarcasm of Brian Posehn, Bamford’s timidity and quaintness are the equivalent of Gillian Gilbert’s role in New Order, adding washes of color to an egoless and ego-driven rock-centric crew.
Though she doubtlessly possesses the stature of her CoC cohorts—all currently riding on crests in their careers thus far—Bamford is perhaps the most invigorating and unusual member. While the majority of comedians tend to either employ cocky, belligerent social commentary or uncomfortable self-deprecation, she is able to do both. Her insecurities are enormous, rivaling even Posehn, but she displays them proudly, cozy in her own quirks. In so doing, she performs a reverse effect, using her own peculiarities to expose the gaping flaws and foibles of nearly everybody else. For that reason, How to WIN! is quite a sharp title, as Bamford frequently recounts the hardships that result from her personal eccentricities, only to adeptly deploy them later as a means of triumphing over her obstacles. To a reductive and near-sighted viewer, this technique empowers women, when in fact it inspirits nerds, who, at their root, most comedians happen to be.
A skillful vocal artist, it’s Bamford’s fluctuating esophagus and wavering larynx that function as her most recognizable and resourceful comedic device. Her primary stage voice is a hybrid of Babe (the pig) and Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher character, as both an aural and dispositional equivalent. Pertaining to Babe, she similarly possesses the character’s well-intentioned naïveté; and as for Gallagher, she’s nervous and occasionally mischievous, with idiosyncrasies rooted in parental misapprehension and roundabout scrutiny. On “Mental Makeup,” her mother informs her “when you don’t wear makeup, you look mentally ill.” But like Gallagher, she turns into gold, applying lipstick to the outer perimeter of her mouth and thick green eye shadow to her lids in order to shakingly ask her belittling mother, “Baby look pretty now mummy?,” boomeranging the insult right back.
When performing under the guises of other characters, the effect is equal to that of her self-interpretation. Her ability to recreate people in her life is startling, primarily because the stereotypical voices she attributes to these characters feel so familiar. The executive running a post-9/11 retreat to Palm Springs on “Giant Corporation” is creepy in her business-obsessed preoccupations, asking the employees, “How do we recreate that grief-stricken, terror-driven productivity and channel it into our day-to-day operation?” Bamford’s impression of her agent recalls every hoarse, frazzled, New Yawk-inflected showbiz yenta, describing her client, “You are superlative! And you are hyperbole! And you’re a polar bear in the jungle! And you are a giant, eating a giant bowl of jello within a giant...GET OUT! Get out of my office!”
At its core, what is ultimately Bamford’s most infectious quality is her inherent and unshakeable youthfulness. When she parties, she “gets all hopped up on Diet Coke and Jolly Ranchers.” On “Self-Employed,” she treats working from home like a child who craves the adulthood and responsibility of their parents, “firing” her “primary employee” and then “hiring her back” when she suggests going to the pizza parlor to play video games. This transportation back to the mind state of a little girl may inevitably conjure comparisons to Gilda Radner, but her personality is as much different as it’s more age-specific. Bamford feels less like a girl pre-adolescence and more like one just encountering it, unable to fully break ties with her childhood while trying desperately to fit in with the adult world. It is this struggle that makes How to WIN! more compelling than many comedy albums, and Bamford one of today’s most unique and exciting comediennes.