Instead of fleeing up to the lake cabin I don’t have or sipping cocktails on someone else’s veranda, I spent this past weekend’s sultry evenings in my air-conditioned living room binge-watching Lady Dynamite, Duluth comedienne Maria Bamford’s oddly excellent new television series on Netflix.
Bamford, for those who don’t know, is one of the few comics from Minnesota who has almost made it to the Big Time. She’s been on the cusp of national fame several times (a few years ago she did a surreal series of holiday commercials for Target), and, when she’s working, she’s one of the sharpest veteran standups in the country. Unfortunately, she occasionally succumbs to bouts of depression and ends up spending time in the psych ward, which messes up her touring schedule and makes it difficult for her to come out of her room, let alone work. At some point she re-emerges, however, and when she does, she inevitably brings with her a treasure-trove of new material mined from her psychic spelunking.
Lady Dynamite is her latest creation. It’s a show based on her life, sort of, and her struggles with mental illness, tangentially, and her experiences as a super-nice person in a mean world—all of that. But what it’s really about is the fuzzy line between so-called “normal” behavior and the sort of abnormal behavior that lands people in the psych ward, all jumbled around so that it’s hilariously hard to tell which is which. The show’s subtitle could be psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s famous quote, “The only sane response to an insane world is insanity.”
In Lady Dynamite, Bamford plays herself as a fragile, vulnerable, incurably nice person who is putting her life together after a few successive nervous breakdowns. Because the next breakdown could be just around the corner, Maria is unsure of herself and doesn’t feel like she can trust her own instincts, so she takes her behavioral cues from other people, most of whom are crazier than she is. The perspective of the show is largely through her eyes, however, so she’s the viewer’s anchor to reality. In cinematic terms, this is a Fellini-esque inversion that turns Maria’s world into a surreal string of social miscues and misunderstandings that, it turns, out are also comic gold.
In one extended bit, Maria is trying to get back into the dating scene like a “normal” person, and ends up going out with an extremely handsome and seemingly nice guy named Shane. During dinner, Shane shares his baggage—that he’s a recovering bisexual meth addict who does sexually irresponsible things when he’s high. Maria takes this in stride, noting “It’s funny, but I get in trouble if I don’t take my meds, and you get in trouble of you do [ha ha].” Meanwhile, everything Shane says feels like a lewd double entendre, as if he’s constantly referring to how much he enjoys gay sex. Maria thinks she’s being paranoid, misinterpreting him, until she discovers that she was right all along: Shane, it turns out, is a bonafide idiot who thinks being “bisexual” means everyone around him should be cool with whomever he wants to sleep with. In the end, the instincts Maria doesn’t trust are spot on—she’s the sane one; Shane isn’t. Her battle of conscience then turns into a zany Japanese game show in which the grand prize is her dignity.
The psychological key to the show is provided in the very first scene of the pilot episode. In it, Maria is floating through a peppy shampoo commercial, taking the world around her by storm because she has such fantastic hair. In reality, though, she’s just daydreaming on a street corner, waiting for her show to start. The show itself exists in a world somewhere between this fantasy world and Maria’s reality, only it’s all turned upside down and inside out. In actual reality, Maria has a Neflix show, which is a dream come true—but the show itself is about her other reality, the humdrum parade of disappointments and heartache that make her prefer the fantasies in her head. The problem is, the reality that confronts her every day when she’s taking her meds and going to therapy and trying oh-so-hard to be a normal, functional person, is nuts.
This all sounds impossibly meta, I realize, but it’s not. Like all good comedy, Lady Dynamite works on a variety of levels, including the surface slapstick of straight-up yuks. The show also doesn’t pretend it’s anything but a show, as the actors often break through the so-called “fourth wall” of television to discuss what’s happening and give Maria friendly advice. These intrusions are jarring at first, but after a while they become part of the normal flow of the show.
Lady Dynamite is no Netflix knock-off. In fact, the cast is littered with A-list actors and comedians. Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Price play Maria’s parents in Duluth; Fred Melamed plays her agent; SNL’s Ana Gasteyer plays a competing agent and BFF; and the list of guest appearances goes on forever: Patton Oswalt, Missi Pyle, Mira Sorvino, Judd Apatow, Wendy Malick, Sarah Silverman, etc. Local actors such as Sarah Agnew, Michelle Hutchinson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Peter Hansen make into the mix as well.
So next time you’re sitting around wondering what to do some steamy evening this summer, do yourself a favor and fire up Lady Dynamite. Trust me, Maria Bamford’s world is a great escape from yours, and a surprisingly comfortable balm for the parade of crazy that surrounds us all, each and every day.