The Weird, Sweet Comedy of Lady Dynamite
Maria Bamford’s autobiographical series on Netflix manages to break the fourth wall in new and unusual ways.
On paper, Lady Dynamite fits the same mold as countless other self-referential shows about a comedian’s life, from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Louie, blending autobiographical stories with heightened sitcom material and an impressive cavalcade of guests. But the show’s star Maria Bamford and its co-creators Mitch Hurwitz and Pam Brady have taken that well-worn formula and turned it into a uniquely bizarre comedy for Netflix—one that manages to tap into dark, emotional territory while remaining a cheerful, unconventional delight.
Bamford has explored the medium of stand-up comedy in fascinating ways throughout her career. In her act, she’s long been candid about her struggles with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, but she also wrings laughs from her heartfelt impressions of her family and friends from childhood, which she fleshed out in her cult web series The Maria Bamford Show. Her wonderful 2012 stand-up film The Special Special Special saw her perform for an audience of two: her parents. Lady Dynamite plays with form in a similar way, breaking the fourth wall when it needs to, but always maintaining its focus on its star—who keeps one foot in the real world and her tough personal story, and the other in the laugh-out-loud comedy show she’s trying to deliver.
Lady Dynamite begins with Bamford caught in the reverie of a ’70s-style hair commercial before cutting sharply between various points in time—her past as an up-and-coming comedy star in Hollywood; her recovery at a mental-health clinic in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, surrounded by her (mostly) supportive family; and her new life back in L.A. in the present day, trying to avoid old pitfalls. The effect is a strange, staccato narrative rhythm that takes a little while to adjust to (but one that Bamford-as-herself is keenly aware of).
In the first episode, Bamford wonders whether her return to stand-up should be part of the series, as it is for so many similar autobiographical comedies, worrying that it won’t fit with the many storytelling elements already present. Her longtime friend Patton Oswalt, ostensibly playing a bike cop in one scene, suddenly breaks character and starts counseling her against the move, warning that it’s something so many comedians have tried that it can no longer be effective. As a brick wall background is set up behind them for a future scene, Oswalt tuts that “Louis [C.K.] is going to throw a fit.” Later, the comedian John Mulaney (who tried the same autobiographical stand-up gimmick on his Fox sitcom Mulaney, only to earn unfair comparisons to Seinfeld), shows up as extra and squints disapprovingly.
This kind of self-referentiality can be tough for a comedy to pull off, but Bamford has a pro in her corner: Hurwitz, best known as the creator of Arrested Development and a seasoned sitcom writer with decades of genre-busting work under his belt. In the ’90s, he helped define the metatextual sitcom with his work on The John Laroquette Show, which played with that star’s grumpy persona in comedy scenarios that veered wildly between light and dark. Hurwitz collaborated on that series with Brady, who later became a key contributor to South Park before working on Lady Dynamite with him.
Together, they’ve found an anarchic format for Bamford that doesn’t stifle her voice, but instead plays off it in unusual ways. An ongoing theme in Lady Dynamite is Bamford’s serial passivity—a result of her polite upbringing and own internal anxieties—which helps unify the show despite its time-skipping structure. As we lurch between her sunny Hollywood past, bleak Minnesota recovery, and uneasy show-biz future, we see how Bamford’s lack of confidence became her undoing, and the stakes for the series become clear: whether she can confront (and change) her own worst habits. If she fails, it’s still funny, but whenever she succeeds, it feels especially triumphant.
Bamford takes advantage of her years in Hollywood to bring together a deep bench of supporting actors, a necessary shift from the glory days of her web series (where she played basically every character herself). Fred Melamed is Maria’s wonderfully obsequious, incompetent manager; Ana Gasteyer is an obnoxious Hollywood agent from Bamford’s past; and Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. turn in subtle, rewardingly sweet performances as her often-confused parents.
More than anything, Lady Dynamite shows what a boon Netflix has been to the world of alternative comedy, even more so than the TV drama. Its loose formatting and lack of ad breaks lets Hurwitz, Brady, and Bamford experiment with the form however they see fit (episode running times range between 25 and 35 minutes), while the autobiographical story fits well with the binge-watch model (the first season consists of 12 episodes, four of which were provided to critics). The show is a singular accomplishment that asks its viewers to buy in from its first dream sequence on—but for those who do, the ensuing laughs make it quickly worth the investment.