Over the course of her quarter-century comedy career, Maria Bamford has earned her reputation as one of stand-up’s most erratic, dynamic, and altogether strange talents. Known for her cavalcade of cooky characters, wild tangents, and her penchant for the unpredictable, the veteran comic—through her work on stage, considerable cartoon voiceover work, and roles on canonical comedies like Arrested Development and The Comedians Of Comedy—has built a career out of her uncanny ability to both absolutely entertain and utterly alienate audiences. Wednesday night’s surprisingly great Turner Hall turnout was the latest group of people to bear witness to Bamford’s distinctly funny mad genius, as she gave the brimming ballroom a 70-minute glimpse into her inner workings in her first Milwaukee appearance.
Coming out to the West Side Story number “I Feel Pretty”, Bamford ambled around the stage for a few moments before, in a moment of self-awareness, beginning her set with a disclaimer. Noting that some of the hundreds in attendance were brought by friends and possibly unaware of what they were about to see, the headliner warned, “Sometimes friends lead you astray.” She provided proof with an example of her parents dragging her to see War Horse with them. “This may be your War Horse,” she deadpanned.
Warning issued, Bamford settled into doing what she does best: whatever she feels like doing that very moment. She talked about running out of genocide documentaries on Netflix, sang a song about/to her couples therapist Cheryl Hirsham, made drawn out fart noises into the mic, and punctuated a rapid-fire story about trying to convince a friend to open a gourmet deli by rapping half of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for some reason. Confused? So was the crowd. Though perplexed at times, the audience followed her every sharp turn and kept with her ever-alternating pace every step of the way. The Duluth, Minnesota ex-pat keyed Milwaukee in on executive types she’s wont to encounter on a regular basis in her new home of Los Angeles. “I guess you always wanted to be a comedian!” she disingenuously said in her trademark yuppie voice (complete with overly exaggerated smile), before shifting back to her own persona. “I didn’t even want to do this show tonight!”
If she truly didn’t want to be at Turner Hall, it didn’t show. As the addressed the overarching themes of her recent marriage and her ongoing struggle with mental illness, she piled an admirable amount of physicality into bits, complete with wild gestures, face-contorting impersonations, and a cadence that alternated from a speedy whispered mumble to gruff screaming. Employing her spot-on Midwestern accent, she discussed her quirky parents, complete with Bamford acting out a three-character rehashing of an argument about where to put the ceramic piggy bank she painted for her father. As the end drew near, the publicly bipolar II-diagnosed performer delved into some darkly funny corners. “Is anyone thinking of committing suicide?” she asked. “Don’t do it. The season for it is late fall.” Even when openly discussing her extended stay in a psychiatric ward, she managed to pull laughs from a stark story of being told “It gets better” by a toothless, elderly, and disheveled fellow patient. “I…do not believe you,” she responded.
With a career built on being hysterical (both uses of the word), Bamford and her incomparable style of stand-up is impossible to pin down. Few (if any) people at Turner Hall knew what to expect. Just as many left the venue not fully sure of what they’d just seen, but happy they’d seen…whatever it was.