Federman with Bamford on The Special Special Special!
Photo: Amazon Studios
On October 27, 2012, in Eagle Rock, California, the Evolution stand-up comedy special added another dimension when Maria Bamford filmed it Special Special Special! The show was filmed on location at Maria’s home. There were only two spectators: Maria’s parents, Joel and Marilyn Bamford. There had been nothing like it before. And I had a front row seat – as the pianist on the show.
I first met Maria in the 1990s while doing free alternative comedy shows in Los Angeles. I remember one night at a bookstore in the San Fernando Valley where we learned there was a thin line between playing a comedy and interrupting people trying to shop.
I heard for the first time of Special Special Special! of its director, Jordan Brady, himself a former actor, about a month before the shooting. He told me briefly about the concept and I immediately thought it was a very risky business. I understand that, in a metaphorical sense, all actors play for their parents. But face to face? As spectators? Jesus.
The idea of filming at home, with her parents on the couch, was all Maria; she also concocted the title. Jordan and Maria then collaborated on several interstitials: baking cookies, eye drops for her pug, Bert, a circuit breaker reset, a pizza delivery, pre-show prep in the bathroom, and a post interview. -show with the public.
My job was simple: compose and perform two pieces of music. One was Maria’s intro theme, and the other was lively background music to play during breaks. They dressed Maria’s parlor in familiar tropes of the special stand-up genre: a red curtain, her name in lights, dramatic theatrical lighting. They wanted the look of a mini-nightclub as an ironic counterpoint to the decor of the house. That’s why I was there, along with Maria’s longtime friend and comedian, Jackie Kashian, who warmed up the “crowd.” Of course, a working microphone and stage amplifier were essential to add authenticity and help emphasize Maria’s often quiet vocalizations.
All of the interstitials were shot before the stand-up, and I think we even shot a main take of the set before bringing in his parents for the show. Fortunately, I was able to speak with both parents beforehand. They were charming but seemed worried about being filmed. It’s pretty nerve-wracking to sit in the back of the audience and watch your child play, but that’s a whole other thing to do. the integral theatrical element of the show. I was also very curious to see how accurate Maria’s impressions were – especially of her mother, Marilyn. Maria really captured it. The accent was slightly high, but the intonation and attitude were perfect.
Bamford’s parents at the check-in.
Photo: Bruce Smith
The basic idea of filming a comedy special is to make the performer as comfortable as possible and hope to capture the palpable concessions that are at the heart of stand-up. It is a collaborative art form between performer and audience. But with the Special Special Special!, Maria reverses this expectation. With a crowd of just two, there’s little opportunity to gain exciting comedic momentum. In fact, it risks giving the impression that the comedian is bombarding.
But the small crowd was no problem for Maria. From the start, she established a nice rhythm. Jordan wanted a “live” set, which meant that the cameramen, the soundman and myself were allowed to react. It was crazy to see Maria do the impression of her mother to his mother. She was talking about Joel and Marilyn as a “love couple” and I noticed they were starting to hold hands. This moment was sweet, charming and totally different from the dynamic of my parents.
Maria is one of the few stand-ups who knows how to survive without waves of laughter or applause breaks. It’s just built differently. I was not surprised to learn that over the past few years she has been developing new material for one person at a time.
Maria’s instinct to hire a comedian to direct her special, while not unprecedented, is becoming much more common practice. Comics understand how it feels likes to be on stage looking for laughs. They often provide an extra gear to the process. In 1987 ex-comedian Robert Townsend directed Eddie Murphy’s Raw (still the highest-grossing stand-up film in history). Since then, many comedians, including Mike Binder, Bo Burnham, Neal Brennan, Chris Rock, Tig Notaro and Jerrod Carmichael, have creatively directed stand-up specials.
Wayne playing the piano during the recording.
I was thrilled just to be involved. For many, myself included, Maria is an unparalleled force in stand-up. His writing, performance skills and joke construction are extremely original. Looking back, I see some parallels with the work and life of another comedian: Jonathan Winters. Both Bamford and Winters grew up in the Midwest, inhabit several quirky characters, are exceptionally creative, and have spent time recovering in mental hospitals.
The financing of the Special Special Special! came from a new company called Chill. They created a website that featured a full list of original stand-up specials, each downloadable for just $4.99. Their business model was sparked by the huge success of Louis CK’s self-produced and directed downloadable TV special in 2011. Living at the Lighthouse. Eventually, Chill went bankrupt and Maria’s Special Special Special! landed on various streaming platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. Meanwhile, the chill.com web address is currently being used by a CBD distribution company.
At the time of filming, I had no idea that this little anti-special experience would have cultural legs. I think it remains inspiring for three reasons: the exorbitant creative risk, the flawless execution, and Maria’s masterful performance. I try not to use the word brave to characterize artistic endeavors, but creating a special stand-up comedy, in front of only your parents, was certainly audacious. Although Maria may disagree. She’s always said she just wanted to shoot her special as close to her bedroom as possible.