There's a running gag in the first episode of alt-comedian Maria Bamford's new Netflix comedy series Lady Dynamite where guest star Patton Oswalt, ostensibly playing a cop in Bamford's LA neighborhood, keeps breaking character to warn her against doing stand-up on her show, listing all the famous comics who have already done it: “You've got Louie, Seinfeld, Chappelle, Amy Schumer, my two pilots…” Eventually, other comedians – some of whom also did failed shows that featured them performing material from their stage act – turn up to express their own dismay.
But even though Bamford is playing herself and drawing on both her past work and private life, no one who watched Lady Dynamite (executive produced by Bamford, Pam Brady, and Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, it debuts tomorrow) for even a minute would think to mistake it for another Seinfeld knock-off – or even an imitation of Louie, where Bamford has appeared a few times. If it owes to any prior TV tradition, it would be to self-aware sitcoms of the past like It's Garry Shandling's Show or even (if we want to go incredibly old school) The Jack Benny Program, built around comedians who knew they were on a TV show and referenced it constantly.
Yet even in that sub-genre, Lady Dynamite would be the oddest of ducks. It not only frequently notes the artifice of the show and its world – whether Maria is critiquing the color filters used to connote when we're in a flashback, or singing a bastardized version of a Sugar Ray song to Mark McGrath because, “We couldn't afford the melody, and you know it!” – but is deeply, at times painfully personal.
Each episode takes place in three distinct time periods: the present, where Maria is “a 45-year-old woman who's clearly sun-damaged” and struggling to figure out what to do with her life and career with the help of inept manager Bruce (Fred Melamed); an earlier period in LA where she's making money thanks to super-agent Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer, hysterically dialed up to 100) but starting to fall apart emotionally; and a time when she moved back in with her mom (Mary Kay Place) and dad (Ed Begley Jr.) in Duluth to deal with various mental health issues. It is alternately confessional and surreal, where one portion of an episode might feature Maria having a panic attack on stage, while another might have an otherwise normal scene suddenly turn into an R-rated Japanese game show hosted by a bearded woman in a tuxedo.
Though inside-showbiz material is abundant, nearly all of it is weird, and the perspective toggles back and forth between making fun of the industry (Maria is hired to host a misogynist reality show called Locked Up A Broad, where women are put in boxes to be berated by their unhappy boyfriends) and the joke being on Bamford herself (Maria is cast in a sitcom with the Lucas brothers and can't decide if it's racist, she's racist, or both). It takes advantage of Bamford's varied talents, drawing not only on her stand-up career but her work as a voiceover actress: in one episode, she dates a man (Brandon Routh, terrifically deadpan) who's only attracted to her when she's doing a fake oversexed WASP socialite voice, and can't figure out a way to stop because she's a people-pleaser at heart.
All these different time periods and tones don't always fit together comfortably, and the four episodes Netflix made available for review are trying so many different things each time out that some feel like they're from entirely different series. The premiere is so meta that I was stunned Abed from Community didn't poke his head in to ask Maria to take it down a notch, while the Routh episode at times verges on feeling like a conventional (if incredibly profane) episode of TV comedy, give or take the occasional animated interlude or music video. And for all that Maria stresses over color-coding the flashbacks, the three time periods are still in need of some narrative connective tissue that will hopefully arrive in subsequent episodes.
But when Lady Dynamite hits on the right absurd note, it is spectacularly funny and feels original and vibrant. And the Duluth scenes provide a necessary grounding to it all, reminding us of the real person underneath the bizarre jokes about dating a bisexual meth addict or Mira Sorvino stealing candy from the studio's craft services table.
In a Duluth sequence from the fourth episode, Maria has taken a data entry job, where one of her co-workers says, “Hey Maria, I hear that you're a semi-famous stand-up comic. Why don't you tell us a joke?”
Bamford reluctantly performs a bit from her act, which no one understands or laughs at, before they turn back to a colleague whose Borat and Austin Powers impressions they love. They are not the right audience for her, just as many people will not be the right audience for this strange, sad, resoundingly self-aware comedy. But for some audience members like the one you're reading right now, Lady Dynamite very much lives up to the second half of its name.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org