The first thing that really happens on Maria Bamford’s fourth album is an audience member shouts out “I love Blossom,” referencing one of Bamford’s beloved pugs. The first big laugh comes when Bamford responds “Oh my gosh, I love Blossom too! That’s so crazy, so crazy.” There are comedians that rely almost entirely on their writing, and performers that can sell even middling material with their stage presence. What makes Bamford one of the best stand-up comics working right now is that she absolutely kills at both. Jim Gaffigan (justly) gets praised for the way he auto-critiques his own routines with his little nagging subconscious voice, but Bamford can slip in and out of different voices within the same sentence, not always so much depicting different characters as giving voices to the competing emotional impulses ping-ponging away inside most of us. Plenty of comedians would use a line like “I moved to Los Angeles, and I lost 10 pounds because they take away the food before you’re done,” but only Bamford can immediately follow it up with the waitress cheerily intoning “you’re done” and then slide into muted, goonish sobbing in a way that multiplies the effect of the joke. To take just one example from her other work, there’s a reason half of the background characters in Adventure Time are funny despite only getting a line or two, and that’s because Bamford is voicing them.
As funny as Bamford’s performance is, and tracks like “Paula Deen’s Suicide Note” show she is more than capable of causing the kind of laughter that leaves you unable to speak just from her amazing voice skills, her writing is at least as good. Her own mental health, relationship with her family (as always, her mother, father, and sister sound like they’re on stage with her), and lack of romantic stability are perennial topics for Bamford, and here she covers everything from religion and healthy eating to the self-righteousness of her Portland audience and creativity. As always Bamford is as much making fun of herself, in her stand-up a barely-functioning naif full of goofy good intentions, as she is the absurdity of the world. When she eases into her soulless, rich white woman voice to spout diet platitudes after suggesting replacing carrot cake with a carrot in a cake pan, the joke is as much about her own preference for garbage food from gas stations as it is on the kind of person who thinks you look good after you’ve lost weight thanks to the stomach flu.
Ask Me About My New God! moves fluidly from topic to topic (at least 33 of them, going by the track listing) over the course of nearly an hour, pausing only briefly on “Confidence” when a woman who’s been laughing noticeably loudly for the preceding 20 tracks loses it halfway through a line and throws Bamford off a little, although she’s practiced enough she’s able to incorporate it in a way that’s appreciative of the support and still entertaining for the listener. Some of the material here will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Maria Bamford Special Special Special! but this album makes up for losing the visual part of Bamford’s comedy (her face is nearly as elastic as her voice) with some exceptional new material and a pacing and flow all its own. As always, she skillfully mixes the serious and the silly. At her darkest here she makes a joke about the high suicide rate among veterans that’s both bruising and funny and then immediately pivots to a killer line about burritos that’s funny for nearly opposite reasons but in a way that feels completely natural. That segment shows off, in a microcosm, the precise control and masterful skill of a comic as hilarious speaking gibberish in pretend Spanish or imagining being a depressed rabbit handing out fudge as she is savagely dismantling the language of online dating profiles or making incisive points about the irrationality of suicidal thoughts. Not only is Bamford one of the finest comics we have right now, she has a much broader array of tools at her disposal than most of her peers and uses them in a completely seamless way. To most of us, she’s just really funny, especially when she makes funny voices.