Most stand-up specials, even some of the most groundbreaking sets like Richard Pryor: Live At The Sunset Strip, have an uninterrupted flow. After maybe a filmed introduction, the comedian tells jokes to a few hundred people for 45 minutes to an hour, then walks off the stage. Big round of applause, credits roll, the viewer or audience member feels sated by cathartic laughs. Meanwhile, with Maria Bamford’s The Special Special Special!, the set is interrupted six minutes in by a timer going off.
The cookies are burning! Maria offers them to the camera crew and to Wayne Federman, the comedian and musician who accompanies her act on piano. 30 minutes: pizza. Then 45 minutes in, the power goes out. The crew follows the comedian as she awkwardly deals with the fuse box. Bamford called this an “anti-special” during an interview. By 2012, I was used to DIY house shows where bands often were composed of your friends and musicians were literally eye to eye with the crowd. But I’d never seen the porousness between audience and performer so nakedly displayed in stand-up comedy, and especially in a filmed show intended for TV and then-fledgling streaming services.
It should be mentioned at this point that the only real audience for Maria Bamford’s set, sitting on the couch, are her parents, Joel and Marilyn.
The Special Special Special! arrived at a strange point in the 2010s. EdTV and The Truman Show were more than 10 years old, but their Foucaultian prophecy of lives shaped by an ever-present viewing audience, of personal privacy being wiped away in favor of almost constant performance, was steadily coming true. Reality television had become a behemoth, the true entertainment medium of the new millennium. The first wave of YouTube stars and social media influencers only confirmed the rhetoric behind these shows. If armed with a camera and a decent narrative hook, you too could become a star, even if only for Warhol’s precious “fifteen minutes.”
The boundary between celebrity and viewer would only break down further in the next decade. This trend entwined with performers selling their own material online by themselves, hopefully making bank by skipping the middle-man. In 2011, you could buy Louis CK’s special for $5 on his own website. Several comedians soon did the same, including Maria Bamford. The comedian sold The Special Special Special! herself through the now-defunct online service Chill Direct.
You can now stream the, uh, special on the multiple streaming services that replaced more experimental media websites like that one. 10 years later, though, The Special Special Special! is still startling to watch. The set’s DIY feeling—Maria jokes nervously that she has chosen her house as the venue because “it is free to perform in your own home”—and cute weirdness are highly specific to this decade of media. But Bamford’s use of her own space, her parents being the main audience, and the inclusion of her beloved pug Burt felt different. Other alt-comedians of her generation, like Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifinakis, were appearing on TV or were outright movie stars at the time. They were now more accessible than ever, but Bamford was offering the viewer, through this performance and her material, intimacy—albeit of a strange and discomforting kind.
The unease inherent to the Special is what makes it thrilling. I couldn’t tell when certain moments, like the power getting cut off just before the last jokes, were staged. Or does it even matter? Bamford confesses that “everything I do is for my parents,” hence why they’re the only audience members, and still gets her dad’s name wrong (or does she?) For their parts, the Bamford parents are good sports. There are jokes about Maria having low self-esteem, about her bipolar disorder, her OCD, and her suicidal ideation. They laugh, often, I suspect, in catharsis. It can be a relief to know or suspect awful things and then hear them said out loud, even if those sentiments are bleak. Their biggest reaction might come from Maria’s gag about vowing to never, ever go on vacation with her family. When the set is over, they applaud, and Maria behaves almost like a child actor basking in parental approval. In a reaction interview, they seem proud of her. They are not used to being on camera.
Rarely has a comedian’s set been so attuned to their environment. Like her underrated Netflix sitcom Lady Dynamite, Bamford’s material plays with the phenomena of masking: when is it necessary for people to “perform” around others, and what is the cost? How do you “just be yourself” when another, non-mentally ill version is what some might prefer? Her incredible range of voices, ranging from a toxic positivity health nut to a deranged, suicidal Paula Deen, illustrate this contradiction in the world around her. Bamford’s haughty, secretly unstable characters become mockeries of neurotypical demands for conformity and comfort, dressed as “normalcy.”
The special asks viewers to wonder about the space between the public and private life, the one that has only shriveled and shrank like a snail in the following decade. Bamford was coming from DIY tradition, but correctly guessed that our future theaters and stages would be our bedrooms and living rooms. A year before The Special Special Special!, Twitch, a spin-off of justin.tv, was launched. Hard to imagine, of course, why a service where you could stream yourself 24/7 to a small, devoted audience would be so popular.
C.M. Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com.