I have loved Maria Bamford since I was a kid and I first saw her standup on comedy central. The zaniness, the characters, the self-deprecation all rang true for me. That said, I’ve never been the type to follow through with a celebrity or act that I liked and to keep up with them, so when she sort of drew back from the public eye I never really noticed.
A short bit ago she released a show on Netflix, Lady Dynamite. This is… not a review of that show; however, I will say that I absolutely loved it, and I’ll be talking about some of the reasons why here. Lady Dynamite has gotten very positive reviews from critics, but as I sit and watch individuals review it negatively I wonder at it. Apparently some people can’t get behind the breaking of the fourth wall, the time jumps, the zaniness of all of the characters (even the ones playing themselves). These are some of the reasons why I love the show, why the comedy really jives with me, and why I’ve binge watched the entire thing twice and am watching slower a third time (it’s only been out about two weeks).
Lady Dynamite tells the semi-true story of Maria Bamford’s struggle with bipolar disorder in show business as a comedian and as I watched it I saw so much of my own struggles there. One of the best ways to put it is that I never know what sort of day I’m going to have; I am terrified of making plans in advance for this reason, what if I can’t handle the plans that day or what if I forget or get distracted? These are all things that other people relate to, but take them and turn them on their head; not only do I not know what sort of day I’m going to have, I have NO IDEA how I’m going to feel about it. I can go to bed absolutely jazzed and excited and wake up in tears and be unable to move from depression. I can be “stuck” to my chair for hours (or even days) and then suddenly pop up to go for a walk or vigorous exercise. I can be writing a paper at a good clip and then suddenly be incapable of moving my fingers to type with. Mood swings are unpredictable and encompass more than just how I “feel” about something or in general, but a physical quality that is often ignored in media representation of bipolar disorder.
Not so with Lady Dynamite. Maria’s team manages to encapsulate these physical pieces with subtle gags and specific techniques, many of which are the reasons why some folks are complaining about the show. To me, it’s clear that they’re complaining because it’s uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable because they’re being presented with a different perception of reality. A bipolar perception of reality.
I’m going to try to break it down into the things I’ve seen the most complaining about: self-deprecation, zaniness/craziness, time skips, fourth wall breaking. I can’t say that these were intentionally used to elicit these sorts of responses, or to metaphorically illustrate these things, but I believe they effectively did.
Being bipolar I often have a choice: take myself extremely seriously, or take everything very lightly. If I don’t accept some things about myself, I am set up for failure. I’ll talk more about time later, but if I don’t joke about the fact that I’m constantly late or super early then this becomes fuel and fodder for my darker mood swings. If I don’t joke and find humor in the fact that sometimes I literally cannot do some basic things because of my mood swing being too high (so I can’t focus) or too low (so I don’t have the energy), then I will obsess over these things and will find my moods cycling faster.
In one of the episodes Maria talks about her poor boundaries, and we see her again and again fail to assert those boundaries despite the best of intentions (and even practicing the assertion), then screaming into a sponge afterward. This hit so close to home for me; often I will have a plan to say or do something with a specific person and then when the moment comes do exactly the opposite. I don’t know why. It’s like my mind reboots and goes “ah, this thing we were practicing clearly we meant “do this” instead of “don’t do this” so let’s go” and suddenly I’m in a situation that I’ve never wanted to be in. When I am psyching myself up to these moments I begin to put so much effort and emphasis into it that I begin to cycle upwards, and we see this from Maria in the show; she clearly becomes manic, talking a mile a minute and making strange requests and roping strangers into her situation as the moment she’s prepared for gets ever closer.
And then there’s a dramatic drop in her mood afterward; this happens with me as well. How could I just go back on what I’ve been practicing/preparing to do, etc. etc., and this dark depression can last any random length of time.
Dear reader, my point in saying this is that if I find the whole thing funny, humorous, even in a tragic way, I can cushion that depression. I can cull my expectations and put a ceiling on that mania. I can exert some bit of control and order over my otherwise unpredictable and chaotic nature. This sort of humor is so important to me for my own coping. When I see its use in the show it hits so close to home; it’s a hindsight commentary on how Maria could have avoided it getting “this bad” and a reminder to me that without this sense of humor about being bipolar I will consume myself with guilt, shame, and disappointment.
What I see here is a lot of complaints that “life isn’t really like that” and that characters are too one-dimensional around this weird wacky quality.
Bipolar disorder has a way of making you rewrite what’s happening or happened to yourself; you experience reality very differently from more neurotypical people. I think it’s really important to remember that the perspective of the show, here, is Maria looking back or examining what’s happening to herself. Because of this that very one-dimensionality is cued so perfectly; it’s not that characters don’t have and contain an entire breadth of reality (and we even see that in snippets or when the fourth wall is broken), but that this recollection is both imperfect and inevitably modified to make it easier to cope with.
What to most people would be an average day at a restaurant and bar, for example, will take on these wild elements; I DO tend to characterize my bartenders and waitstaff and give them entire backstories and special elements of who they are… even going so far as to imagine them with wacky and inventive mustaches and personalities that they just do not have. Just like Maria seems to do in one episode.
What I’m trying to say here is that we cannot trust Maria’s perception of reality because it is inevitably altered. I cannot trust my initial perception of reality for the same reason; I generally need to take a step back and think about things more than other people. This is a great boon in some respects; I often get the compliment that I’m observant or that I can make really fast connections that other people don’t see initially. On the flip side, it means that I have an intense distrust of who I am and what I perceive; I am constantly seeking validation for these things which is a behavior we see from Maria constantly in the show.
And what’s a way that I deal with this reality? Humor.
If I can step back and laugh at my life, it helps me to really notice what I may be blowing out of proportion or what I may be forgetting altogether. This affects me no matter where my mood is at; even at the ever-coveted “baseline,” where I’m not in a wide mania or depression, I will still have these absolutely wacky days where things seem to all go wrong or really right and randomly. It’s pretty natural for neurotypical people to “color” days as bad or good but when a bipolar person falls into this behavior we go over the top; the universe is against us or propping us up on a pedestal that day. And the difference is that for neurotypical people? It happens and they go on with their life. For us? One day like this (even fallaciously remembered this way) and it can send us into a cycle for days that leaves us confused, and at war with ourselves.
I hesitate to use the word “crazy” or “craziness” here, not because of its negative implications, but because the truth is that yes my recollection of these events may be “crazy,” however that doesn’t accurately depict what’s going on. Still. This is the word that most people who are criticizing the show for this aspect keep using. Whether it’s Maria being randomly replaced with a lamb in part of a scene, or hiring a “loaf coach” to help her learn how to relax, needing to have sex before midnight, randomly looking into the camera and thanking a hair care products line, speaking nonsense in her “Diane voice” or any other aspect, these are all about how she recalls what happened, how she sees and is rewriting what she’s done. It’s less for us to laugh at the weirdness and more a really dark critique on the fact that she makes it weird because otherwise she may not be able to cope with what actually happened.
I don’t recall if I’ve ever talked about my truly horrific relationship with time here before, dear readers, but let me do so now. I am consistently and constantly late or early. This goes with deadlines, appointments, dates, visits with friends, waking up, any number of things. This is not because I want to be or choose to be early or late. This is because my perception of time changes so wildly and randomly it is impossible for me to conceive of it in a linear fashion, let alone in a consistent fashion. If you ask me in a hypermania to measure the course of a minute you will likely find that I see a minute as anywhere between 25 to 40 seconds. In a hypomania, it becomes something more like 90 to 120 seconds. In a depression somewhere like 70-80 seconds. Even at baseline I still seem to measure between 40-50 seconds. If you have me listen to the same audio track in different moods I experience the tempo differently. I can’t go to movies when I’m hypomanic because I get so tired and drained by the experience; they just take so long!
Even further than just this experience of time literally changing based on mood, sometimes I “wake up” and it’s a few hours later. Sometimes I re-experience a memory randomly (often not attached to any triggers related to the memory) and lose time because I’m in the “past.” Especially during a hypermania I will do what’s called “hyperfocus” where the entire world disappears as I focus on one task, usually for upwards of four hours, forgetting to eat, sleep, drink, or even about appointments or other things that I have going on. Those hours become seconds to my biological clock. I “wake up” at the end of a hyperfocus and suddenly my body rushes me with all of these other stimuli, literal hours worth, and I’m overwhelmed.
These time jumps in the show so mirror that, I can’t help but be convinced that this was an intentional illustration of this phenomenon. At any point that a time skip forward, a flashback, or whatever seems to be nonsensical I can guarantee you that it hit home for me. If we remember, again, the positioning of the show as Maria’s recollection of it, this becomes more salient; for many bipolar folks (myself included) time isn’t experienced linearly. We experience it with these weird skips back and forth and the same activity taking up different amounts of time (despite a clock saying otherwise).
And if I didn’t laugh about this I would fall into a depression so heavy I might never be able to come out of it; I’d just cycle between depression and hypomania forever. And it’s so weird to me how others DON’T experience time this way that even the idea of it being jarring becomes a bit offensive before I remind myself that they aren’t bipolar.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
This is probably, to me, one of the aspects of the show I love the most. I have a very dry sense of humor in the first place, so self-aware and self-deprecating comedy makes me giggle on its own. Add in that it’s making fun of itself for being self-aware and self-deprecating and I’m gonna howl with laughter.
But this, as well, is being used as an illustration of a bipolar or otherwise neuroatypical experience. Often we will feel like we’re putting on a show, like our entire life is an entertainment piece and our entire purpose is to be entertaining damnit. Does this happen to neurotypical people? Sure, but it’s a different scale.
In clinical psychology psychosis is a term that is used for when an individual loses touch with reality, generally as measured by neurotypical standards; it can be present and caused on its own, or comorbid with other mental differences. While many things may cause psychosis, we see it often in bipolar disorder as someone “cycles out” into a really deep depression or high mania.
So what I’m saying is that while neurotypical people often get a sense of ennui or that they’re dancing at the end of puppet strings for some sort of cosmic entertainment, it’s possible that a bipolar person actually incorporates this into their daily belief and existence; it’s possible that a bipolar person is hyper aware of what they conceive of as a “fact” and, even when alone, act to be as entertaining as possible. When Maria breaks the fourth wall, I don’t just see her doing something silly and being self-conscious about her show, I see her trying to take direction from these cosmic influences (in this case presented as her fellow actors, friends, and the audience) to create the best “product” (her show) that she can to entertain them in a meaningful way.
I’m not being very articulate about it; it’s a tough thing to explain especially because many people will claim to understand and stop listening to how it’s different than what they’re claiming to understand.
What I’m saying is that this belief isn’t translated only to when I’m super manic or depressed; it’s this tiny little seed that’s ever present. Even now as I’m writing this at my desk, just in case my purpose really is to entertain or be watched by some other entity, I’m sitting in a very specific way, I am cognizant of how I look, and even occasionally I’ll talk “to nothing” or to my computer screen. I do this not just because it’s a quirk, but because deep down some part of me really does believe that this is possibly the reason I’m here.
And if I don’t find humor in that, I’d find an existential crisis instead. So I put my chin up, grin, and laugh at myself and the absurdity of life, because I’d rather laugh with whatever’s on the other side of that fourth-dimensional wall than let it laugh at me.