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The compassionate, cockeyed comedy of Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford comes to the Wilbur Sunday.Robyn Von Swank

Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford is perhaps not for everybody, a point she sometimes raises in her act. She specializes in an entirely original mixture of joy, darkness, humility, and embrace of the absurd.

“I have a 20-year-old pug named Betty,” she says in her 2020 special “Weakness Is the Brand.” “She’s blind and deaf so she can no longer find the doggy door. So if we leave her for any amount of time, when we come home, she’ll be wedged between the stove and the kitchen cabinet, covered in her own fecal matter, crying. . . . That’s where I’m at. Hopeless, looking for leadership, and I wouldn’t turn down a biscuit.”


Bamford, 51, who comes to the Wilbur on Sunday, hails from Duluth, Minn., but is based in Los Angeles. Bamford began her stand-up career as a student at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine. The Bates debate team was her comedic starting point, which she later realized was a mistake. “I thought that was going to be more like stand-up,” she says, on the phone from LA. “‘Wait a minute — I have to argue something I don’t care about?’ Then they had the serious theater department, where blood was involved.”

Despite that aversion, her act has a lot of acting — her facial expressions, points of view, and character voices are unfailingly honest and convincing. Interspersed are beautifully crafted jokes. In “Weakness Is the Brand,” Bamford jokes about the particular irony of including the suicide hotline number at the end of some obituaries. “I know it’s helpful,” she says, holding up a hand. “It’s helped me. I’ve called it myself. But . . . it just seems like, you know, having an obituary for someone who died of drowning and then there’s an ad for a raft.”


Bamford’s struggles with mental health make up much of her act, which has gained her a loyal following among comedy fans and fellow comedians.

Boston stand-up Tooky Kavanagh, who will open for Bamford at the Wilbur, says that “Maria’s comedy is genuine art. She’s unafraid to walk the tightrope between the harsh truths of life and the things that make you laugh.”

Comedian Tig Notaro, who calls Bamford “[her] favorite comedian on planet Earth,” says, “Maria masterfully and effortlessly combines honesty and depth with sheer and utter ridiculousness. She inspires me every single time, while simultaneously making me never want to do stand-up ever again.”

Notaro was a guest on “What’s Your Ailment?,” Bamford’s recent Web talk show. Like much of Bamford’s work, the show treats mental health as comedic fodder and an opportunity for connection. That focus is important to her, and one that felt like a natural fit as she was developing her style.

“I keep talking about it because it’s interesting to me,” she says. “It’s also something that makes me feel useful. I know if I heard someone talking about intrusive thoughts and OCD, I would have felt . . . like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not on my own. This is a thing.’ I like the idea that somebody wouldn’t feel alone. Probably more selfishly, I don’t feel more alone.”

The pandemic, of course, has been taxing on many people’s mental health, a notion with which Bamford sympathizes, but she says she also found COVID’s early months to be strangely freeing. Like many comedians, she did shows over Zoom and took some well-needed time off. “It was OK,” she says. “I’m an introvert anyways. The Zoom shows were not a problem. It was not a stretch for me to perform for a silent laptop. I had some of the largest shows I ever had during quarantine because it could be worldwide.”


One painful aspect of the early pandemic was her mom’s death from lung cancer. Over the years, a caricature of Marilyn Bamford became a mainstay of Bamford’s act. Bamford’s ability to uncannily shift her voice into different registers has made Marilyn — loving, passive aggressive, and charmingly lacking self-awareness — Bamford’s signature character. (In 2020, Bamford spoke about her death in a moving and funny set on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” which Vulture comedy writer Jesse David Fox called “the best piece of stand-up I’ve seen filmed in the last two years.”)

Lockdown gave Bamford the opportunity to spend time with Marilyn during her final months, for which she is grateful.

“She was so great about talking about death,” says Bamford, “and I was so super scared at the time. She said, ‘You’re going to be OK. Here’s a list of women your father should date.’ I don’t believe in God or spiritual presences, but I do believe in the physics of memory. She’s here in my head.”

Before we end our conversation, Bamford makes sure to plug Kavanagh, her opener in Boston, going so far as to read her bio out loud. This act of generosity is typical of Bamford, a comedian who values human connection as much as she’s fascinated by the emotional obstacles that often separate us.


“If you talk to anybody on a Southwest Airlines flight, they’ll bring up something weird,” she says. “Like so many human experiences, it’s nice when we tell each other what’s going on.”


At the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St. July 24 at 7 p.m. $29-$39.