On her last album, 2009’s fantastic Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, Maria Bamford used her considerable skill as a comedian (and her always-dexterous voice) to wring jokes from the crippling mental issues she’s endured for most of her life. She also seemed to have a better handle on it than ever; she thanked her doctor in the liner notes, which also beseeched people suffering from mental problems to get help, because it works and no one should endure them alone.
But mental illness continually resists containment, and Bamford found herself struggling even as her career grew more successful. (She had a high-profile stint as a quirky Christmas obsessive for Target.) As she described early this year on a fascinating episode of The Mental Illness Happy Hour, Bamford suffered a serious breakdown that required hospitalization, which almost certainly saved her life.
Her recent troubles inform Ask Me About My New God!, but Bamford mostly references them indirectly. In a funny bit about how she’s stopped lying in her online dating profile, she boasts of her ability to wear the same outfit five days in a row and make herself small by crouching naked in the shower. Another joke’s about how anyone considering suicide should wait, because it’s out of season—late fall is best. (“I think I’m gonna stick around! See how angry people can get at me!”) The most direct reference comes toward the end of the album on “Repetitively Shit Ideas,” where she compares her repetitive thoughts of suicide to other stupid ideas she’s never acted on, like buying day-old raisin bread in bulk. When Bamford says, “I kept thinking, ‘Oh I should kill myself, I should kill myself, I should kill myself,’” she defuses the tension by spitting it out quickly and casually, as if discussing ending her life were no different than repeating a phone number over and over to memorize it. Before the audience has much of chance to linger on the darkness, she hits them with the raisin-bread line, and the dissonance between the two lands perfectly as she shouts, “I’m not gonna follow through on that!” She pivots quickly to another shit idea—going on vacation with family—expertly giving the audience something more familiar and comfortable to laugh at.
Suicide jokes aside, Ask Me About My New God! isn’t overwhelmingly dark, and listeners don’t need to be familiar with her offstage struggles to find it funny. The material is typical Bamford, such as her ongoing resistance to cooking, her attempts to mentor kids in her neighborhood, her dating life, and, as always, her family. As usual, she builds scenes using her impressive ability to change her voice, but Bamford has never relied on her voice’s elasticity to make a bit funny—it simply enhances her material. Much of the material she performed on her web special, Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special!, last year ends up here, only tighter and stronger. Some bits, like the album-closing “Joy Whack-A-Mole” have been in her act for a few years, and anyone who saw her episode of Stand Down will recognize “Creativity.”
That Bamford can comfortably blend more typical stand-up material with dark, deeply personal jokes, and have it all be funny, speaks to her impressive skill as a comedian. Ask Me About My New God! is her most personal work to date—she even lists the medicine she takes and the dosages in the liner notes—but it’s also her best.