Conventional wisdom would have it that crippling mental illness isn't a good subject for a sitcom. But there's nothing conventional about Maria Bamford's brand of comedy. Fans of her stand-up and such through-the-rabbit hole projects like 2012's Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — in which the 45-year-old comedian performs a taped set for just her parents in their living room — know that she isn't afraid to tap into very dark, very personal places in her work. So when Bamford announced she was developing a sitcom for Netflix that would touch on her career struggles in Hollywood and stints in psychiatric hospitals to treat a bipolar disorder, you expected something different. And Lady Dynamite, which toggles between our heroine trying to land acting gigs in Hollywood and her time in a mental hospital in her real-life hometown of Duluth, Minnesota (and premieres in full tomorrow night on the streaming service), could not be a better introduction to her ability to slide between sunny absurdity and depressive reality in a blink.
"I wanted to tell a story of a psychiatric breakdown, but also not bring it down so much," Bamford explained of the premise, which she co-conceived Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Pam Brady (South Park). "I wanted to show how depressing those wards are in a very funny way ... just the underfundedness of it. I've been in some facilities where the furniture is broken; there's maybe a puzzle, but half the pieces are gone. They chop down the trees in case somebody tries to hang themselves. So the only place you have to walk around is an industrial cigarette bucket next to a schizophrenic man. And you're both agitated so you're both walking around it very quickly.
"I don't know how healthy that is," she admits. "But in retrospect, it's so funny!"
The show also isn't afraid to pick apart the structure of a sitcom about a comedian's life while also simultanesously being exactly that type of show. Her best friends (Bridgett Everett and Lennon Parham) are more likely to feed into her self-hate rather than the typical TV sidekick job of propping her up. Fellow Comedians of Comedy veterans Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn show up as bike cops, only to drop character and advise Bamford not to do her stand-up act. ["Louis [C.K.] is going to throw a fit," Oswalt says when someone wheels out a fake-brick-wall set.) Showbiz types from the weary, sad-sack manager to the shark-like alpha-agent — played here, respectively, by A Serious Man's Fred Melamed and SNL veteran Ana Gasteyer — are both recognizable clichés and send-up of their own caricatures. Fourth walls are regularly broken; at one point, our heroine frets over which color filter would be appropriately dour-looking for a scene in the psych ward. After perusing her choices, she immediately switches all of her flashbacks to blue.
Though fans of Bamford will recognize that the show is very much in her voice — unflinchingly strange, brutally honest and optimistic in spite of it all — she wasn't directly involved in the writing process. "I'd maybe come in two to four hours a week, eat an ice cream sandwich and wander around the table laughing and spouting off, putting in ideas, answering questions," she recalls. "The writers' room is like a little family, you know? It's a safe space. So I didn't want to come in there and be like, 'Guess what. Over the weekend I had some ideas.' It was a group collaboration, so I hope some of the voices of other people get heard."
"Everybody on the show is hilarious. It's a treasure trove of inside baseball comedy," says Gasteyer. "And [Karen] is just a fantastic, delicious character actor's dream part — mean and funny in all the right ways. We've all met a Karen in our lives. Any male-driven industry where women have had to grow balls, that's basically where she comes from."
The L.A. portions of Lady Dynamite train a lens on the idea that Hollywood can be just as alienating and strange as the inside of a mental ward — especially if you're trying to make it in the business as a woman or a minority. "I'm a 45-year-old woman who's clearly sun-damaged!" Maria announces brightly to the camera in the first episode. "And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity."
"It's always really fulfilling to have anyone call out the blatant biases," says Gasteyer. "Things are slowly changing, and we're seeing more and more opportunity for honest, hilarious female-driven comedy. I'm a huge fan of Maria's. She's super smart, and she's an incredibly honest and offbeat original brand of comedy. And she's really, really fun to play against."
"I wanted to tell a story of a psychiatric breakdown, but also not bring it down so much. I wanted to show how depressing those wards are in a very funny way."
Another real-life thing that Bamford adapted for the show: A few years ago, she installed a park bench on a median across from her house in L.A., with the idea of fostering a sense of community in a city where it isn't easy to get to know your neighbors. It doesn't turn out so hot for the fictional Maria, but Bamford's real-world bench is still going strong.
"It brings everyone together! It's a true reflection of our neighborhood," Bamford enthuses. "There are methamphetamine users who sit on it and use meth, and then sometimes it's teenage couples making out or smoking pot, or sometimes it's a baby using sidewalk chalk. If you give people a place to sit, they will use it. I like sit by the window and go, 'Who's out there?' And then if I have the courage I go out and say hello. It's like bird watching."
Though it's tempting to compare the Los-Angeles-hates-itself vibe and frank treatment of mental instability with FXX's current-comedy favorite You're the Worst — or lump the show in with similar semi-autobiographical shows born out of stand-up routines, from Louis to Aziz Ansari's Netflix hit Master of None — Lady Dynamite manages to distinguish itself thanks to the sui generis weirdness and sunny-side-of-the-street disposition of its creator. Lots of TV shows do, in fact, attempt to balance moments of hilarity with existential despair; few would have the guts to try that sort of tightrope walk while also seriously exploring the ramifications of a nervous breakdowns and slapping a faux-Blaxploitation credits sequence on the whole thing. It's easily one of the most unique, dynamic shows of the year so far even without the IRL meta-aspects. But above all, Bamford hopes that, with all the high highs and low lows that the show portrays, Lady Dynamite ultimately handles its subject matter with equal parts respect and irreverence. And if not, she's very, very sorry in advance.
"I had wanted to go very dark for the dark moments. Just, you know, minutes of silence passing. That's how it truly is — these unbearable moments. But who knows if that makes for good television," she says with a laugh. "I mean, people die from illnesses like these. I was a little worried about that, so I hope it turned out to be respectful as well [as funny]. And if it isn't, I apologize, I apologize, I apologize. I apologize right up front for everything I've done and will do."