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Maria Bamford does 'Special Special Special' for her parents

Comedian Maria Bamford's 'Special Special Special!,' recorded at home in front of her parents, is a $4.99 download that delves deep into her mental health.

December 04, 2012|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • Comedian Maria Bamford, with her dogs Bert and Blueberry, filmed her latest comedy special in her living room for her parents.
Comedian Maria Bamford, with her dogs Bert and Blueberry, filmed her latest… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Maria Bamford shuffles across her Eagle Rock kitchen, shoulders hunched and arms slack at her sides, as a video crew of nearly two dozen mills about.

"'Scuse me, 'scuse, um, 'scuse …" comes her meek, trembling voice.

The sink is piled high with dirty dishes, the floor strewn with empty pizza boxes, script notes and a mess of filmmaking equipment. Bamford's blind pug, Bert, scurries by just as a smoke alarm goes off. The scent of freshly burnt cookies fills the room.

Just a few days before Halloween, Bamford is shooting her newest comedy special, an hour of stand-up in her living room for a rapt audience of two: her parents.

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"She's the most unique, bizarre, imaginative comedian out there right now," says filmmaker Judd Apatow, a longtime fan who says he hopes to cast Bamford soon in one of his projects. "She makes me laugh hard. Out loud."

Apatow may still be searching for the right role for Bamford, but she's already the centerpiece of the new video service Chill Direct, launched last week on the L.A.-based social media site,

Marc Hustvedt, Chill's head of entertainment partnerships and an executive producer of Bamford's new special, says that she was the perfect comedian to launch the new platform, which he and others at Chill call "Pinterest for video."

"We're trying to establish a new way of distributing comedy, and Maria is so untraditional and quirky," Hustvedt says. "What works on the Internet is when the audience feels an authentic voice coming from the comedian. Maria is so personal; she puts all of herself into it."

Bamford's first two stand-up specials aired on Comedy Central, but for "Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special!" she's taking a chance on Chill Direct. Other comedians have bypassed more traditional cable outlets and taken distribution into their own hands; but rather than release her latest special as a $5 download on her personal website — as Louis C.K. successfully did in 2011 followed by Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan and Rob Delaney earlier this year — Bamford is using Chill Direct to help her market the special as a $4.99 download. The service allows comedians, filmmakers and other entertainers to sell their content directly to their fans.

Less than one week after the release of Bamford's special, Hustvedt says: "It's exceeded our expectations. It's selling like crazy. It's already profitable."

Directed by Jordan Brady, "The Special Special Special!" pushes the DIY concept so far — Bamford's living room is set up like a homespun nightclub, with a makeshift stage, red velvet curtain as backdrop and her best friend, Jackie Kashian, as opening act — that it's almost a parody of the self-distribution trend she's embracing.

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Bamford calls it an "anti-special"; and one of the show's executive producers, Bruce Smith of OmniPop, says that it's meant "to show all the exposed wires behind the scenes of a comedy special — the tech problems, warm-ups and interruptions." It's as meta as it gets.

Bamford, with her second pug Blueberry nestled beside her on the living room couch not long before the special's release, is more humble about her reasons for sticking so close to home. "It's cheaper. There's a degree of laziness in it," she jokes. "And really, on some level, everything I do is for my parents anyway, so why get a theater and 400 people involved when I can just cut to the source?"

Suddenly she perks up and waves jerkily at the big picture window, her blond, loopy curls bopping up and down. A figure has appeared on the front lawn of her 1920s bungalow. "Oh, hi," she says, "that's the flier guy."

There's a sweet, 1950s "Leave It to Bamford" quality about the scene, punctuated by the framed, vintage maps and muted landscape paintings that dot her shabby-chic living room walls. A lawn mower groans in the background. "Yeah, where were we?"

That sort of gentle, disjointed thought stream characterizes Bamford's comedy. But it's no stage persona. The frequent nail-biting and high-pitched voice come out even in the privacy of her home. That cohesion of identity gives her routines a personal edge that can feel so raw and honest — as if her ego were short-circuiting on stage — it can be hard at times to watch.

Then there are the bottomless well of characters she channels through many voices on stage, including Food Network's Paula Deen, her mother, a bratty high school nemesis, a pterodactyl, and even her own self-esteem (a pinched, somewhat disappointed sound). She's lent her vocal acrobatics to a host of animated shows, including "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness" and "Adventure Time."

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