The standup comedian Maria Bamford sat down in a Brooklyn coffee shop and waited for someone with the Twitter handle @nugget_queen_ to join her. “I’m always terrified to meet the person,” she said. “I look at their Twitter feed and I think, Oh, boy, I don’t know. Because you cannot tell from someone’s social media what they’re going to be like in person. You just can’t.”
Bamford, who was in town for four shows at the Bell House, is known for her jittery, surreal monologues about mental illness, and suffers from a combination of self-proclaimed laziness and performance anxiety, which can make it difficult for her to rehearse. In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. The previous evening, she had posted such an invitation, noting, “As always, there will be victual and bev.”
A young woman waved furiously at Bamford through the window. “Oh, hi!” Bamford called. @nugget_queen_ was Lena Ceretto, who had described herself in her response as a “twenty-two year old nanny slash NYU dropout.” She had been making a collage when she saw Bamford’s tweet. (Bamford almost always selects the first person to reply. “Except once, in Florida, it was somebody who was ‘Go Trump’ and ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” she said. “I know we’re all human beings, but I felt like that would be a hard one.”)
Ceretto had brought two Polaroid cameras. “Can I hug you?” she asked Bamford. “I was almost on time, but then I forgot my psych meds.”
She ordered a croissant, and Bamford started her set. “So, uh . . . hello, Brooklyn!” she began. The espresso machine shrieked.
When Bamford is addressing one person, her comedic style—a childlike speaking voice intercut with squawks, growls, and a sultry baritone—both softens and intensifies. She taped her 2012 comedy special, “The Special Special Special!,” with only her parents for an audience, in her living room. A 2017 documentary, “Old Baby,” follows her as she does her act before audiences of gradually increasing size: first to her reflection in a mirror, then to her husband, then to a group of neighbors on a sidewalk bench, and, finally, to a packed theatre. At the Brooklyn coffee shop, she occasionally directed her rapid-fire patter into the middle distance. Outside the window, a family in matching puffer coats peered at her.
Bamford was wearing a velour sweater and big sparkly earrings, her blond hair streaked with pink highlights. Because of the medications she takes, she has a tremor. (“Weakness is the brand!” she shouted during her show the next evening, holding out her quivering fingers.) Eight years ago, when Bamford was forty-one, she suffered a series of breakdowns and hospitalizations. Afterward, she wasn’t sure if she’d work again. She’d previously made comedy about the difficulty of maintaining equilibrium on the psychological margins; a 2007 scripted Web series, “The Maria Bamford Show,” depicted her, after a fictional breakdown, moving back in with her parents in Duluth. “It was my worst fear,” she said. “Then it ended up happening.”
In her latest sets, she treats the stability that she’s found since then as a kind of Pyrrhic victory. “I don’t have any new stuff” about mental illness, she tells her audiences. “I thought maybe I should worry about that. But then I remembered: I’m on antipsychotics, and it’s no longer possible for me! To! Worry!”
The run-through concluded with a warbling song about coping with loved ones. (“We’re all menopausal! We just had tequila! Let’s change the subject!”) Ceretto applauded.
Bamford explained that the one-person coffee-shop show was not all that different from online dating. (Before meeting her husband, in 2012, she went on “at least seventy” online dates.) Dating apps, she said, “kind of helped me go, ‘Oh, people are just going to show up and be pleasant.’ ” Generally, the volunteers’ reactions have been positive. “I did have one where the guy noticeably did not laugh at all,” she said. “But he himself was nice.”
Ceretto confided to Bamford that she wanted to try standup comedy herself. “I have jokes written down in my notes app,” she said. “It’s O.K. if I do just, like, five to seven minutes, right?”
“Oh, they won’t let you do more than three,” Bamford said.
“I feel like we’re going to do that thing where we talk and talk and never say goodbye,” Ceretto said.
“Oh, no, we’re good,” Bamford said, and stood up. ?