How do you solve a problem like Maria Bamford? Tickets sold out months in advance for the US comedian’s first ever London shows – a good omen that might fill another performer with confidence, but you wouldn’t know it from her jittery, apologetic persona.
Taking the stage in a black leather jacket embroidered with flowers, the 47-year-old reminds the audience her "distracting slight tremor" is medical, rather than down to nerves, before immediately adding that it suits her act to a tee (“Weakness is the brand!”).
Bamford has no shortage of influential fans – comedy super-producer Judd Apatow has called her “the funniest woman on earth” – but she seems actively to shy away from success. Her first sitcom, The Maria Bamford Show, was recorded alone in her bedroom. Her 2012 live show was filmed in front of an audience of two – her parents.
After the first series of her fourth-wall-breaking show Lady Dynamite met with rapturous reviews, the second was largely spent attacking Netflix for creating it. (In one scene, her monstrous Hollywood agent roared: “I wanna tell the story of your f--king life in bingeable f--king instalments!”) It was cancelled soon afterwards, though this reportedly had more to do with Bamford’s health concerns than the streaming giant’s pique.
Those health issues are her comic bread and butter; much of her best material draws on her time “squatting in the psych ward”. A few years ago, she was hospitalised three times in the space of 18 months, struggling with suicidal thoughts and a rare, extreme form of OCD.
What’s remarkable is how she refuses to use this experience for sententious messaging, never compromising her goofy, freewheeling style. The closest she comes to self-pity in this show is recalling her annoyance at how heavy medication left her unable to speak ( ‘Oh no!’ Or should I say, ‘Ho onk!’”).
Much of this will be familiar to fans already. Though impeccably performed, her London show draws heavily on her recent Netflix special Old Baby. Apologising for a lack of new mental-health gags, she drolly blames it on “too much contentment”.
That newfound happiness isn’t a problem in itself – her account of married bliss is wickedly funny, particularly a bizarre take on bedroom role-play (“gentrification” and “the living wage” are her ideas for saucy scenarios). But the quantity of old material may disappoint anyone who has already devoured her back-catalogue. Productivity is boring, she tells us. Successful people (“Elon Musk, Oprah, The Muppets”) are all the same. It’s a point of view that helps her come to terms with writing only “three minutes” of comedy a year; those three minutes are usually worth the wait.
Catching her live is a reminder that she is a unique voice in stand-up, not least because her actual voice is so unique. Her natural tone is a husky squeak but she loses it to shift between a dozen characters in her surreal and densely structured anecdotes. (Her phlegmy, snorting father is a highlight.)
Thanks to these vocal gymnastics, even familiar lines feel fresh. Bamford is a blazing comic talent, both because and in spite of her wary attitude towards her own success. Let’s hope this triumphant London debut hasn’t put her off ever coming back.
Until March 23; tickets: 0207 734 2222