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'Lady Dynamite' Is the Boldest and Most Subversive Comedy on TV

We spoke with co-creator Pam Brady about the comedy that is surprisingly deft about mental illness, race issues, and white feminism.
16.6.16
All images courtesy of Netflix Originals

Lady Dynamite is a beautiful mess of a show. The latest critical darling from Netflix features talking pugs, bisexual meth heads, lectures about Hannah Arendt, and at the center of it all, Maria Bamford. With her quivering physicality and constant self-doubt, the Minnesota-born comic has gained a devoted following, partly for not shying from talking about her psychological condition (she is diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, or "the new gladiator sandal," as she has quipped). She's apologetic and neurotic to an endearing fault, the type of person to install a bench in front of her house to facilitate community togetherness, as her character does in the show, and as Bamford actually did in her life.

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The series—not written by Bamford—pulls liberally from her experiences, particularly her morally fraught run as an unlikely, relentlessly cheerful Target spokeswoman and her time spent in a psych ward. In so doing, Lady Dynamite is surprisingly deft at handling the mass of issues that have become the bane of showrunners looking for a hit: race (episode three), outrage culture (episode 11), and white feminism (throughout) all get alluded to in refreshing ways. The show goes to extremes, setting Maria up to believe she can solve the biggest problems of the day, and then we watch our ultra-sensitive heroine fail. Lady Dynamite does this in a style that has reviewers dazzled by the breadth of shows it echoes: zany and dense with wordplay like Arrested Development, Louie-like in its experimentation and pathos, and shot through with the ghost of Strangers with Candy, arguably the only show in recent memory with a female lead character as unnerving to watch.

I recently chatted with Pam Brady, the South Park and Team America writer who co-created Lady Dynamite (along with Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz). We talked about the show's canniness on subjects that have thwarted other TV offerings, and why Maria's struggles make her the perfect narrator for our mad times.

VICE: Let's talk about the "race episode." "White Trash" has been praised for how it discusses race in this shape-shifting way. One minute, the setup seems to be leading to a big point about racism, and the next everyone's complicit in racism, Maria most of all. How did you decide on such an ambiguous approach?
Pam Brady: We weren't sure if it would work, to the point that we were worried even in post-production. The kernel of this idea of the episode really comes from Maria. She works so hard on everything. I mean, she has workbooks. She's the kind of person who doesn't trust her gut. She's set up this intellectual grid to understand the world. Race is one of those things everybody wants to be enlightened about it, but is not sure how.

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And so Maria's character visits a "white support group" in the episode. It's basically a case study in unintentional racism, down to how white supremacist its acronym is: People United for Racial Equality, or PURE.
So Maria actually went to a couple of meetings of a similar group. It had a hilarious acronym that really sounded Klannish. I can't remember it now. But it was the same idea: white people who need to get together with other white people and not bother other minorities with what our issues are. When Maria told us about it, [the writers were like,] "I think that's a white supremacist group, Maria." The more she described it, the more it seemed that way.

That tension defines the episode. I'm thinking of the conflicted note the episode ends on, of Maria thinking she's "solved" racism on the set of "White Trash" when actually, she's just sidelined the only black actors there.
The joke of the episode is: What did we think we were going to accomplish? It's so complicated. It's so layered that, you know, in twenty-eight minutes you're not going to wrap it up. All you can do—and I think, the thing that's worthwhile—is say, "Let's acknowledge it." I think that is an act of bravery, to say this matters to us.

So failure is inevitable, and yet so is the "race episode." It feels like there always has to be a race episode, which is another sort of meta-joke written in. Do you feel, as a writer, that there is an imperative to tackle race on every thinking American show?
I think there was for Maria. It's sort of her road to wellness. She was engaging in everything that she found to be tricky in life. She's the kind of person who did actually once go to Mexico [as she does in episode seven, "Touch the Children"] thinking it was for an outreach, just to help local people learn English and better themselves and get an education. She learned at the end that she was prepping them for a factory.

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The most beautiful thing about Maria Bamford is she is so well-meaning, and the world lets her down. So she overcorrects. Any show with her is going to tackle these issues because these are things she thinks about.

Fans on the internet have started developing theories about Gabriel, the black guy Maria sees everywhere at the start of the "White Trash" episode. One theory is that he's symbolic of the fact that only a handful of black actors get roles, so each one starts to feel ubiquitous.
That was not intentional, but I love that people make us seem smarter than we are. We were really just trying to serialize it. Because he was the boyfriend [of Maria's bisexual date] in the episode before. He was the one person actually giving good advice. Even her best friends give her crappy advice. We kind of conceived Gabriel as having a larger arc and being Maria's buddy. Talking animals and things took over. The fact that we are doing absurdism kind of leaves things open.

And yet it sounds like so much of the show is taken literally from Maria's life.
Absolutely. She would come in, and we would just kind of grill her with questions. It started with her huge experience, when she was a spokeswoman for Target. That was a big part of her life. That was what I found fascinating. When she was at her most mentally ill was when Hollywood was like, "There's a star! We love your energy!" But she was melting down. She had the guts to write letters to the New York Times [about Target] and quit that job. She's still convinced that Target doesn't give health insurance, that they should be more responsible as a corporation.

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The bisexual meth boyfriend [too]: She was set up with a bunch of guys that were really not for her, but her whole attitude was, "Who am I to judge?" She overcorrected, which is the most likable comedy conceit. She's trying. I love people who try. And she really doesn't judge people.

"She is being so badass to confront her demons."

How did the writing process go from there?
A lot of our stories had a kernel of Maria. But then we did the judging. "No Friend Left Behind" is a great example. Because of her bipolar condition, it is tough to stay friends with people. She, in her real life, came up with this program [NFLB] and tried it on the one friend that as a group, the writers thought she should have left behind.

Can you imagine how you would navigate the world if you can't trust your instincts? It's such an amazing achievement that she has done it successfully. I find her completely heroic. I always think that in the realm of the emotional and psychological, she is Iron Man.

That makes me think of the final episode, when she sort of hallucinates herself as a Power Ranger–like figure. I'm not sure if that was actually her in the suit, but watching I was struck by how strong and graceful she suddenly looked.
She turns into Ultra-Maria. It really is the representation of her interior self, you know, where that's what's going on inside. It's so much easier to punch someone in the face but to do that kind of work on herself, I think it's so much more heroic. That's what's so funny. Even our opening titles, which are taken from Roxy Brown, take this woman who takes naps and loves her pugs and turn her into an action hero. To us, that is what she's doing. She is being so badass to confront her demons.

The show to me is surprisingly deft about really current ideas, given that Maria herself seems pretty much an offline creature. I know she's not big on tweeting. But the way you handled that video that goes viral—of the kid army inspired by her—struck me as canny. You acknowledged outrage culture and how easy it is to do or say the "wrong" thing without being totally black-and-white about it. I was reminded of the episode in Kimmy Schmidt about outrage culture and how aggrieved and defensive that was, in contrast.
I don't think for us it comes from a personal grievance place. Maria doesn't have grievances.

She's the opposite. She's like, "Sure, I did it. I'm bad!"
Exactly. If she were on Twitter and the tide turned, I think she would turn off. She doesn't engage in that way. I think that's what really comes across in the show. The show is not a grievance show. There's no purity of a point of view.

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She's kind of the perfect vehicle for a show in an age where you can't please everyone, but you're supposed to try.
I agree. I think Maria's point of view is, she just wants to do the right thing. We have the character say it in the show: "I just want to be a good person." And I think it works because a lot of us in the writers' room are a little more, not cynical, but worried. Looking for when the other shoe's gonna drop. What does that mean? What is the blowback?

When she told us about that white group that she went to, we all loved it. As I remember it, I think that group actually put white people on one bus and black people on another. Something that perfect. Everybody in that room—we have people who worked on South Park, Kyle McCulloch, people who love that kind of thing, and we'd spend a lot of the day arguing a point and that would be the spoke of our story. It was this dialogue. The fact that she could come in with her point of view, so earnest, and we could relate, that was great.

This is the first show I ever worked on—and [co-creator] Mitch Hurwitz introduced this idea—where we all were in the room when the scripts were written. One person would be the head writer, but we would all work to write it together, which is how Mitch did Arrested Development . Our writers' room turned into a Borg brain. Suddenly Kyle started talking like Burt [Maria's German-accented pug], and it sounded like Werner Herzog. I think you almost start hallucinating. We were pulling in School House Rock–style animation; we wanted to do claymation. Everyone in the room was interested in lots of different shows, and this was a perfect opportunity.

Because it was based on Maria.
The way she presents herself, she can pop in and out of voices. Like, anything's possible. She's so quick, and she can pull from anything. She can talk about Hannah Arendt [as she does in episode one, when she tries to "Trojan horse" a feminist monologue into a bit part she lands in a show about a baby CEO]. There's nothing funnier than going high and low—have this crappy sitcom about a talking baby and then talk about the banality of evil.

Follow Mallika Rao on Twitter.

Lady Dynamite is streaming on Netflix.