Well-rested development: ‘Lady Dynamite’ smashes the fourth wall
by Aaron Sarlo • June 23, 2016
It’s easy in 2016 to gloss over the effect that cultural juggernaut Netflix has had on American entertainment. Future generations will look upon the concept of driving to rent a movie in the same way that we currently remember blimp travel or Anna Nicole Smith, and because of Netflix’s streaming service, American TV watchers have been liberated from the indescribable horror of having to walk 11 steps to the mailbox to retrieve a DVD. Flush with drug lord amounts of cash, Netflix has launched its own production company, and its massive subscriber list affords the behemoth the luxury to take artistic chances with its myriad original projects, crafting shows that appeal not to a least common denominator (as network TV necessarily does), but to specific subsets within its viewership.
Case in point: Maria Bamford’s new series, “Lady Dynamite.” The good people at Netflix Studios saw fit to give Bamford her own show (produced by Mitchell Hurwitz, the genius behind “Arrested Development”), and it was a bold choice. Bamford’s comedic style isn’t for everyone; it’s closer in tone to the metacomedy of an Andy Kaufman than, say, the middle-class observations of an everyman such as Jerry Seinfeld. I wasn’t sure how her brilliant, off-putting edginess could be honed to fit a sitcom-shaped format. But, Netflix is not regulated by the FCC, and has the capital to attract the best and brightest working in entertainment today, so it can do whatever it wants. Thankfully, the studio gave Bamford total creative license to make the show she wanted to make. As a result, “Lady Dynamite” is a triumph of a comedy show, a delicious, sugary blast straight to the brain’s comedy cortex. Based on Bamford’s life and stand-up comedy, the show alternates between her time as a comedian in Los Angeles and her time in a psych ward in her hometown of Duluth, Minn., focusing largely on her growth as a person and as an artist.
While this synopsis may sound trite, from episode one we are assured (by none other than comedic auteur Patton Oswalt) that the show is fully aware of itself, and of the storytelling rules it intends to ridicule. Ten minutes into the first episode, Oswalt’s L.A. bike cop breaks character, causing the show itself to halt, so that he can give some friendly advice to Bamford: “Give your audience some credit. They can deal with form-busting narrative innovations. People can deal with the time jump [from her time in Duluth to her time in L.A. and back]. Just don’t make it jarring.” Bamford responds, “Well, we definitely wouldn’t do it in a way that was jar — ” insert a full-screen-sized placard that reads in starry letters “PAST.” It is a complex joke, delivered as quickly as it is dismissed, making room for 50 more jokes in its immediate wake. The humor in “Lady Dynamite” is lightning fast and relentless.
As if that weren’t enough, “Lady Dynamite” is stuffed with terrific guest stars, including Ana Gasteyer; Mary Kay Place (who has never been better); Ed Begley Jr.; former Supermans Brandon Routh and Dean Cain; Jenny Slate; the Lucas Brothers; Mira Sorvino; Judd Apatow; Sarah Silverman; Tig Notaro … honestly, I could use up the remainder of this article simply listing all of the show’s guest stars. (Did I mention Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath?)
In “Lady Dynamite,” Bamford and her team of writers and producers have delivered an immense tour-de-farce, a convention-stomping love letter to smart viewers of TV (as opposed to smart TV viewers). Fans of intelligent, rapid-fire jokes told by some of the best comedians working today, served on a bed of post-self-referential comedy, will love “Lady Dynamite” more and more with each successive viewing. I’m on my second.