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Maria Bamford, Amy Sedaris, and the Transcendent Weirdness of Peak TV

The unprecedented amount of scripted television has led to unexpected—and truly delightful—niche comedy

Maria Bamford and Amy Sedaris Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Among the many opportunities afforded by the confluence of Peak Comedy and Peak TV is the fast track offered to young and hungry talents. The space between Broad City’s earliest incarnation as a web series and a five-season Comedy Central show was a matter of a few years, not the dozen it might have taken with traditional gatekeepers. Rachel Bloom went from singing about dick pics on YouTube to winning a Golden Globe in less than half a decade. Before Issa Rae had a starring vehicle on HBO, she made a vehicle for herself.

But there’s a flip side that’s equally promising: TV as a long-awaited opportunity for creator-stars who are far from undiscovered, but haven’t previously been given the time, budget, or reach that our current scripted ecosystem can afford. These entertainers tend to cluster in comedy, a genre where writing and performing have always gone hand in hand; they’ve usually been working long enough for their perspectives to make the transition from accommodated to openly celebrated. It’s hard to imagine any of these proud eccentrics fronting a watered-down network sitcom, but they feel right at home in the anarchic environs of cable and streaming. In this new reality, “too weird” or “too niche” are no longer the disqualifiers they once were.

The archetypal example of this kind of cult-comedian-turned-TV-star is Maria Bamford, whose effervescent Lady Dynamite returned to Netflix for a second season last Friday. Bamford is perhaps the ultimate comedians’ comedian. Before Lady Dynamite, the casual consumer of pop culture had almost certainly heard her famously elastic voice, whether in a sitcom or a ubiquitous Target commercial, and almost certainly never learned the name of the woman behind it. The reasons Bamford never broke through, despite the likes of Marc Maron regularly referring to her as a “genius,” are rather obvious; this is a performer who once recorded an hour-long stand-up special in front of an audience made up of her parents and only her parents. Bamford still hasn’t gone truly mainstream, nor does she appear to have any desire to; it’s more that TV’s bandwidth has widened to include her brand of so-called “alt” comedy alongside the Stephen Colberts (another devoted fan) of the world.

Lady Dynamite is a deeply personal work, in plot as well as sensibility. Its first batch of episodes chart the buildup, duration, and aftermath of Maria Bamford–the-character’s time in a psych ward, a subject Maria Bamford–the-person has spoken on freely in her public appearances. In the “Before” segment, Maria is in the midst of a manic episode; in the “During,” Bamford is in her home state of Minnesota; in the “Present,” Bamford’s attempting to get her life together. Each third also corresponds to its own radically different aesthetic, making the shifts in Maria’s life stylistic as well as narrative; together, the timelines form such an intricately structured portrait of mental illness that it was difficult to see how its impact could be replicated.

The answer is that Lady Dynamite doesn’t really try for a Season 1 redux. Season 2 — shortened from 12 episodes to eight to accommodate Bamford’s request for “children’s hours” on set, i.e. a reasonable work schedule — keeps the multiple-timeline scaffolding, but lightens the tone across all three. In the present, Maria figures out how to share her life with her now-live-in partner, Scott (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), her first serious relationship. (In real life, Bamford married artist Scott Marvel Cassidy in 2015.) In the “Past,” the 47-year-old Bamford plays her teenage self in a hyper-saturated parody of an ’80s sitcom. And in the “Future,” Maria gets a deal to make a show about her life called Maria Bamford Is Nuts! for a deep-pocketed streaming service, pushing the meta conceit of a comedian-vehicle show to its extreme. “Alt-comedy Twitter will choke on its own jizz!” enthuses her hard-charging agent Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer). Put simply: Lady Dynamite has gone all-in on its goofy side, a mandate that came straight from Bamford herself.

On paper, Lady Dynamite has a premise that’s a drop in an ocean of overflowing DVR queues: a not-even-veiled autobiography of the ups and downs of a Hollywood career. In practice, however, Lady Dynamite transcends the solipsism of its agent-versus-manager jokes through the thrill of its absurdity and the depth of its humanism. Lady Dynamite is the latest phase of a multi-decade career, much of which Bamford has spent under labels like The Comedians of Comedy, an early-aughts tour turned documentary of alt-comedy veterans who’ve since broken out — including Zach Galifianakis, whose Baskets is a similarly uncompromising showcase of his vision. Bamford has long shared her distinctive outlook on the world with her audience, but it’s a joy to watch her animate and populate it with psychedelic roller-rink accidents, two talking pugs, and a prodigious amount of projectile vomiting.

The namesake of At Home With Amy Sedaris has a lot in common with Bamford: Though her preferred medium is character-based sketch work, she’s also a versatile actress with a devoted fan base. She lacks A-list stardom but has no intention to pursue it. Though she’s done everything from write books to stage plays to become a fixture on David Letterman’s Late Show, Sedaris’s most recognizable calling card is Strangers With Candy, the cult Comedy Central series and after-school-special spoof she created with Chicago-scene pals Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. There, she created Jerri Blank, a self-described “junkie whore” and the most iconic of Sedaris’s roster of grotesques.

At Home’s grotesquerie is more intentionally ironic. The new series on truTV, home to such personality-driven comedian shows as Adam Ruins Everything, is like a demented, funhouse-mirror version of a Sandra Lee or Paula Deen show, with Sedaris as both host and occasional guest; Amy’s “neighbor,” Patty Hogg, sports a hairspray helmet and speaks with a garbled accent sourced directly from Sedaris’s North Carolina upbringing. Comedian colleagues like Cole Escola and Scott Adsit stop by to debut new characters. Segments dedicated to crafting and kitchen skills are played uncannily, uncomfortably deadpan. There’s a hefty dose of John Waters kitsch at work here, plus an intimate knowledge of the genre’s conventions that’s all Sedaris’s own. Unlike an actual Food Network series, it’s difficult to watch At Home as background noise. Its jokes aren’t barbed one-liners; rather, they’re subtle perversions of atmosphere — a mispronounced word here, a smile held too forcefully or for too long there. Sedaris’s perfect hostess is determined not to let real life get in the way of her domestic fantasy.

Like Lady Dynamite, At Home is a realization of some long-held and publicly documented interests of its creator. Sedaris has published multiple satirical books about homemaking, including I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence and, four years later, Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People. The At Home set is partially modeled after Sedaris’s own West Village apartment. Sedaris is as fascinated by the Lynchian horror of repressed perfection, particularly as it relates to women, as she is by Jerri Blank’s irrepressible oddity.

More than its themes, however, At Home has been on Sedaris’s mind for a surprisingly long time. In a wonderful 2004 interview with The Believer, Sedaris goes in-depth on her dream of hosting a “hospitality show” inspired by a local North Carolina show called At Home With Peggy Mann as much as Deen or Martha Stewart. “It was in black and white, and it was just this woman sitting on her couch and talking about her life. It was really depressing,” she laughs. “I just like the idea of a hospitality show for single people. How to cook for one, how to save leftovers for the following day. … I’d probably do it in a Southern character. And each week I’d have an obstacle to overcome” (the first episode of At Home With Amy Sedaris is called “Cooking for One”). When the interviewer asks if Sedaris would ever pitch this hypothetical hospitality show to a network, she responds, “They’d never touch it.”

They didn’t — and wouldn’t have — until now. Neither Bamford nor Sedaris has lacked for a long and fulfilling career, but there’s something especially vindicating about the platform and autonomy this moment has afforded them. Lady Dynamite and At Home With Amy Sedaris each represent a best-case scenario for Peak TV’s wide-open field: Rather than forcing voices to dial down their strangeness, television has broadened itself to the point where maximum distinction is a virtue, not a deal breaker. What better way to stand out from the crowd than to shove your foot into a baked potato?