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Maria Bamford thrilling in death-defying Moontower Fest show

Omar Gallaga

Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 25, 2014

The thrill of seeing a magic act, even a highly polished one, is knowing that at any moment something could go wrong. The trick could fail, breaking the illusion, revealing the detailed architecture behind the curtain.

Maria Bamford, who gave a headlining Moontower Comedy Fest performance Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre, is her own multi-level magic act, a singular comic whose work skirts so closely to the edge of danger it always feels like it could go completely off the rails at any moment.

Perhaps it does, but I’ve never seen it. Instead, when Bamford pulls it off, as she did in stunning fashion Thursday night, it becomes clear that her tics, her asides, her real-time meta commentary on her own performance, are as carefully structured and controlled as the tools of any top-tier stand-up comic. Bamford makes edge-of-your-seat art out of appearing far more vulnerable, uncertain and out of control than she actually is.

Early in her career, Bamford was a strange and unexpectedly dark comic who used careening voices (her own, hesitant, high and whispery; everybody else’s, bold and strident) to tell stories about her misunderstanding family and her personal awkwardness in the world. Then she became an ace pitch lady for Target’s holiday ads as a crazed Black Friday shopper. But lately, she’s had much more to talk about: mental illness and her time as an institutionalized patient after suicidal thoughts would not stop circling in her head.

It’s dicey material to turn into laughs for even the most skilled comedian. Somehow Maria Bamford does it with all her comic quirks intact and, most importantly, by delivering razor-edged truths in unexpectedly cutting punchlines and asides.

And funny. In Thursday night’s performance, Bamford’s observations drew blood but somehow didn’t leave marks. Audience members laughed deeply and indulged her in applause breaks even at jokes Bamford herself seemed not to expect would hit so well. At the end of the night, she received a well-deserved standing ovation not only for a truthful, masterful performance but, you suspect, just for being Maria Bamford, brave and flawed observer of the ways we treat the shy and the different.

Did everyone appreciate Bamford’s whiplash style, the cacophony of voices (she points out astutely that she’s not schizophrenic; she does voices, she doesn’t just hearthem in her head), the sudden pitch-black turns to the subjects of suicide, death and pet neglect? It’s hard to say. At one moment, in what she called, “The suicide chunk” of the show, she made an observation about PTSD-afflicted soldiers committing suicide that was so uncomfortably on point that it drew groans instead of laughs. Only a moment later, the context of the observation was revealed, making it OK again. It was a remarkable moment because it only happened once in an hour-long set that was full of painful truths.

Bamford is nothing if not self-aware. She compared what it’s like to be dragged to one of her shows with no prior knowledge to sitting through “War Horse,” which she described as a movie about a horse struggling through barbed wire for two and a half hours. “This could be your ‘War Horse,’ ” she warned audience members early on.

In a random performance bit, she slowly collapsed to the ground while making farting noises; it seemed to be going nowhere until the punchline, in which she evoked the voice of another comedian asking, “Maria, are you even writing anymore?” “Noooo,” she moaned, lying completely still on the stage floor.

It’s not at all true. Bamford’s writing is her secret weapon and it’s the daggers she flings in between the funny voices that get the biggest laughs. She also told the hippest Emoji joke I’ve yet to hear and is capable of Steven Wright-level wit: “I just want to show you how much I love you despite all my words and actions.”

It can feel at times like Bamford’s material is beamed in from another world, but it’s not weird for weird’s sake (and in Austin, she’d be forgiven if it was). Her material is specific, her delivery more controlled than it’s ever been. Her whisper is more than equal to the shouts of other comedians and she has become adept at using her stillness and her deliberate motion on stage to enhance her delivery.

And when she spoke frankly about what depression is like through the eyes of other people, the ways in which it’s stigmatized in ways that, say, cancer is not, the show added another layer to what was already a complex performance. It brought to mind Allie Brosh’s plaintive cartoons on the subject and Tig Notaro’s legendary “I have cancer” set at Largo.

But nobody would confuse the unique brilliance of Maria Bamford for any other stand-up. She’s taken what at one time seemed like an exaggerated character and turned it onto a fully fleshed out, multifacted projection of herself, with all the fear and barely contained rage and disappointment and, mostly, deep love for the audience that takes the material to another level. It was magic.

It certainly didn’t hurt the performance that Bamford was preceded by Erin Foley, a powerhouse comic to watch who didn’t hide the fact that she’s clearly inspired by Bamford’s work. With a similar talent for voices and a talent for pointing out the uncomfortable, Foley cleverly began by ripping into a pre-taped video shown before the performance and an awkward list of announcements made by a local radio personality which bled the show of its momentum before it even began. She made up her own boring announcements (“We’d like to thank the river behind the Radisson…”) before launching into a smart set about gluten and Catholicism, lesbian relationships and home births.

It was a blast of energy that well complemented Bamford’s expert performance.