Maria Bamford’s ‘Crowd Pleaser’ Is This Year’s Smartest, Funniest Comedy Album
Reviewing comedy specials is harder than you might think. Only a few are laugh-out-loud funny, but they're seldomly outright terrible. Most are just … fine. Solid bits, pro delivery, a rehash of everyday life experiences run through the set-up/punchline machine to fill an hour of Netflix programming. So it was surprising, even startling, to listen to Maria Bamford’s new comedy album, Crowd Pleaser, and find myself continually bursting into laughter. Faith in comedy humanity restored! Thanks, Maria Bamford!
The album kicks off with Bamford ingratiating herself to her Chicago comedy club audience, rattling off local references designed to endear her to the crowd. “Hot dog. Wind. Pizza, architecture, improv. C’mon, everybody!” It’s a throwaway bit of goofy meta-comedy that deconstructs hacky crowd work, somehow poking fun at both herself and America’s second city before she even gets started. The entire night will be just as smart.
A lot of the material likely echoes what we’ll find in Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Health and the Quest to Belong Anywhere, Bamford’s upcoming book about show biz and mental health. There are bits about the rigidity and sometimes ridiculousness of 12-step programs, several of which she’s been a “not-so-great member.” The groups’ insistence on anonymity and privacy (“Nothing says ‘safety’ more than secrets”) doesn’t come easily to Bamford. “That’s impossible for me!” she protests. “I tell everybody everything! It’s preventative honesty!” By oversharing through comedy, Bamford always has a fallback position. “I believe I was very clear,” she growls in a threatening whisper, “in my second album, THIRD TRACK!”
There’s an extended bit about Bamford receiving an honor from the Harvard Lampoon, a prestigious recognition for any comic that of course devolved into disaster. She unspools a short retelling in this conversation with Mike Birbiglia.
But trust me, you’ll want the long version. There are castles and hidden rooms where centuries-old college rituals, as frightening as they are hilarious, are inflicted upon the comedian. “What is the Harvard Lampoon?” demands an undergrad once Bamford has been secreted away into a covert underground chamber.
“They didn’t tell you?” she asks, with something approaching actual terror. She’d much rather be at a nearby comedy open mic with her friend, comic Jackie Kashian. Why an open mic? “It is six to nine hours of three-minute timed segments of people shouting their extremely limited world view to a largely disinterested crowd,” she says. “It is so good.”
Instead, she endures the miserable Harvard Lampoon honor, an experience her fellow comics have relished. “Yet again,” she says, “I have translated what most people would find to be an enormous, joyful opportunity into a hall of horrors where I am the victim.”
The album’s most bittersweet tracks tell stories of Bamford’s mom, who has been a regular character in her stand-up from the beginning. (“My first cult was my family,” she confesses.) The impression, so specific and endearing, carries extra emotional weight after Marilyn Bamford’s passing in late 2020. In previous routines, she’s always been a counterpoint to Maria’s despair, a cheery woman who “loved life” in the face of circumstances that weren’t always favorable and didn’t always make sense. “My mother could squeeze joy out of an AT&T customer service call.”
Bamford sings the praises of hospice, “America’s best health care” as she takes us on the journey of her mother’s final days. It’s not surprising to know that even while Marilyn was afraid, she remained positive until the end. “You know, the great thing about this whole thing is, this is the first time in my life I’ve been below goal weight on Weight Watchers.” After her death, Maria’s father distributed her ashes to each of his children. In her mother’s honor, Bamford brings the ashes to Nordstrom’s shoe departments all across the country. To screams of laughter from the audience, the comic assures us: “It’s where she felt most at peace.”
It’s just the latest example of how Bamford can turn life’s darkest moments into an unlikely Crowd Pleaser.
(Crowd Pleaser is available for pre-order now. It is available on July 14th.)