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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

Bo Burnham's Comedy Heroes—Part 3: Bo and Maria Bamford (published on 7/23/22)

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Today's new deep-dive thread with the #boburnhamhistorian will be a discussion of Bo's relationship with female comedians, starting with one of his favorites in 2010, Maria Bamford!

So going back to Bo's comedian list, he includes a full paragraph about only one woman—Maria:


where have all the women been? are you sexist, bo?! i think one of the worst things about comedy is the lack of women. and whenever i see a brilliant female stand-up, i realize how masculine and restricted most comedy is – and how the spectrum of it could be doubled if we told little girls that people would like them for being funny instead of telling them to go to the tanning booth while the boys work on their dick jokes. but guess what? all that gender talk is irrelevant when talking about maria bamford! because i'm not even sure that she's human, let alone female. one of my favorite comics around today.

Bo also included this wonderful clip of Maria pretending to be a "typical" female comic—hysterical!

Bo brought up Maria in his first AMA as well about how she's one of the best female comics out there:

So, if you don't know Maria and her stand-up comedy, I'm almost certain you would recognize her voice if you've watched any cartoons in the past decade.

My personal favorite is her understated performance as Kelsey Jannings on BoJack Horseman!

But it's her stand-up style that really influenced Bo and his career.

I would say there are four major ways Maria affected Bo: her voices, her risk-taking attitude toward comedy, her focus on mental health issues, and her mix of sadness and happiness in her act.

Let's dive in!

1. Maria and her voices

If you've never watched Maria before, you'll quickly note she mimics people...and is EXCELLENT at observing and depicting those nuances.

Some of her characters are her parents, her sister, and slimy LA business people.

Similarly, a popular aspect of Bo's comedy is his blisteringly accurate imitations from the three voices in We Think We Know You to a Social Brand Consultant concerned about racism, in theory (my favorite bit in Inside!)

Another example of Bo switching voices seamlessly is in his old YT video for Rehab Center for Fictional Characters.

His ability to jump from Santa to an Irish leprechaun to Tony the Tiger and finally a drugged-up Easter Bunny would make Maria proud lol

Bo included a few more masterful character depictions in The Inside Outtakes: the podcast comedy bros, the depressed YouTuber making a PB sandwich, and the Content Con speakers in That Feeling.

2. Maria's risk-taking

One aspect of performance that Bo continually champions is being adventurous and trying something new.

Maria has this in spades—she is known as a fearless performer who will go to any extreme for a laugh, similar to her idol Steve Martin (see Part 2).

One of Maria's biggest risks that paid off is The Special Special Special, which was filmed entirely in her living room with an audience of two: her mother and father.

There is no doubt in my mind that this innovative setup for a comedy special influenced Bo in creating Inside!

“The reason I decided to do the special here,” she deadpans, “is because it’s free to perform in your home.”

She hit the nail on the head there! Haha

Here is a wonderful article by the piano player who witnessed the entire show, Wayne Federman. Wayne is also the esteemed comedy author who wrote The History of Stand-Up.

Obviously, Bo assumed all of the roles Maria had crew members help with (lighting, sound, directing), but this 2012 Netflix special built the foundation for Inside.

Or as the kids say, The Special Special Special walked so that Inside could run!

In a similar vein, Maria put out a different special in 2017, Old Baby, that starts with an audience of none and then slowly builds until she's at a packed venue...really fascinating to watch!

Fun fact: This comedy special literally begins with her talking to herself in a mirror (sound familiar? lol)

3. Mental health awareness

Long before Bo was talking about his anxiety and panic attacks while performing, Maria was out there incorporating explicit references to her mental health issues into her comedy act since her public breakdown in 2010.

This article specifically brings up Bo's praise for her:

"The eccentric comedian, actor and writer is a comic’s comic through and through: she’s almost painfully funny, and Judd Apatow, Bo Burnham, Stephen Colbert and countless other titans of the industry have all sung her praises as one of the most talented people working today."

"Suicidal ideation, trauma, 12-step programs and personal failure aren’t the easiest topics to work into an hour-long comedy set, but she’s one of the greats..."
"every comedian aims to make an audience laugh so hard they cry, but Maria Bamford is one of the few who can also make them cry so hard they laugh."

Her Netflix show Lady Dynamite also depicts her mental decline and how she was diagnosed as having OCD and bipolar II.

And Maria's made a difference in people's lives by being candid about her mental health:

"She talks about the skeletons in your closet, the ones you try not to think about yourself; she opens the door, shuffles them around a little, shows you that hers don’t look too different."

Maria also specifically explains how audiences react to her:

I’ve had people go, “Well, aren’t you afraid to be looked at as a sad clown?” And that’s kind of like the same thing as people saying, “That crazy, psycho bitch.” If that’s how you think about women who have mental health issues, that’s a whole other issue.

A sad clown, eh? ;)

In being vulnerable and talking openly about personal mental health struggles, both Bo and Maria help people feel less alone.

Maria even included her meds (and doses!) in the liner notes of her 2009 comedy album, while Bo made a joke about anti-anxiety meds during the Twitch bit.

4. Mixing tragedy with comedy

All great comedians are able to find hilarity in the bleak reality of life.

What makes Maria a genius, though, is how she plays with and manipulates the audience in subtle ways to find humor in the darkest of topics.

“It’s like, ‘I’ve tried [to kill myself]! Listen, it’s not like I haven’t put in the effort.’” It’s a typical Bamford joke – delivered breezily, but so pitch-black I’m not quite sure if I’m allowed to laugh, until I realise it’s too late: I already am.

Recently, Maria did a set on James Corden's show about her mom dying from Stage 4 lung cancer.

Not a funny topic, right?

Jesse David Fox of Vulture and the Good One podcast explains how she wrings comedy gold from this devastating experience.

"She talks about [death] like it is a spontaneous vacation from life. This softens the topic, so, as she continues, the audience doesn’t feel the need to tighten. A lesser comedian might’ve also milked this moment for an applause break, but Bamford knows she needs the momentum."
She respects the audience’s intelligence enough not to blurt out “MY MOM DIED!” and knows that would just get her performed sympathy. “My mom loved life” brings the audience in, creating a genuine feeling of closeness with Maria.

This respect for the audience's intelligence and not spoon-feeding them information is something Bo does brilliantly as well and—I believe—makes both comics so rewatchable and entertaining.

And with the success of Inside and Rothaniel, that mix of exuberance and depression seems particularly popular with millennials and Gen Z.

Case in point: My fellow elder millennial husband and I had the GREAT pleasure of seeing Maria perform on July 21 in Philadelphia!

The venue was PACKED with people, and we all cheered on Maria's stories about her family and her late mom (she did do the dildo heirloom joke from the Corden set, and it obviously killed!)

Afterward, I stood in line with other fervent fans, and I got to shake hands with one of my comedy idols whom I have followed since her Comedy Central Presents aired in 2001!

Then I told her how much I LOVED her voice acting, particularly on BoJack (my husband thought she really enjoyed hearing about that role) and that my kids knew her from shows like WordGirl (incredible PBS show full of alt comics—highly recommended!)

Finally, I got to take a picture with her...I was on cloud nine and could hardly believe my luck! Haha

In conclusion, Bo thinks Maria is a brilliant comic, and you should too!

If you get a chance, I urge you to make the effort to see her perform in person—you will NOT regret it, trust me!

My next thread will focus on another significant female comedian in Bo's life—the incredible Kate Berlant, whom Maria has called "a delight" in interviews, so you know Kate HAS to be amazing.

Stay tuned!

For a complete list of Bo's comedic influences, please click here.

For 10 fun facts about Maria, please click here.


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