When word gets out that a New York art museum exhibit is pairing comedian Maria Bamford’s act with a documentary about reclusive socialites, I assume the response from most of her colleagues will be, “that sounds about right.”
Bamford, whom you might recognize from Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy tour, concert film and television series, is known for her unique, character-heavy style of comedy that blurs the line between stand-up and performance art.
The Duluth, Minn.-native, who frequently makes light of her OCD and other conditions on stage, lives in Los Angeles and is a favorite among comedy’s tastemakers there. She’s had two Comedy Central specials, has put out a couple of critically-acclaimed CDs, and wrote and starred in her own web series, The Maria Bamford Show, for SuperDeluxe.
I recently spoke with Bamford about her family, her part-time job at a book store, and the art exhibit, which opens July 28.
Congrats on your exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. How did that come to be?
I’m not really sure. They saw my show on the internet. It’s playing alongside Grey Gardens, which is a documentary of a mother and daughter who kind of fall away from society and have gone mad. I had a web series that had a similar theme. Theirs is a documentary and mine is sort of autobiographical [Laughs], but I also put some writing into it. I think that’s why they chose part of my web series to put up. I wish I could go, but I’m going to be in Montreal that week so it’s sort of sad.
Well, I guess that’s a good problem to have when you’re performing at the Just For Laughs Festival.
Are they showing certain episodes of your series or is going to be a montage of clips? Do you have any idea?
I don’t know, but I wish I knew for the purposes of this interview. [Laughs.]
You wrote the episodes of The Maria Bamford Show, did you have much to do with the directing and editing?
No, the guy who directed and edited and shot everything is Damon Jones. It was just the two of us. He did all of the production stuff and directing. He’s in the Groundlings and did a beautiful job.
Can you talk a little bit about the experience of creating that show? Web series don’t have the same rigorous production schedules as network shows, but it still seems like a lot of work.
No, it really wasn’t. It was over a year so I did one episode every couple of weeks. It took us four, five hours tops to shoot anything. [Laughs.] For me, it was a pretty sweet gig. It was pretty easy actually. The editing was a lot more work, and I had no part in that. Sorry, I wish I had a more impressive answer.
No, I appreciate the honesty. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I slaved day and night over that thing. I don’t know how I did it.”
In entertainment, they all make it sound like everybody is crazy busy. I mean if I’m travelling a lot, then I’ll feel stressed. But I wasn’t travelling as much then because I was getting paid to do the series. [Laughs.] It was pretty awesome.
Do you think you’ll ever do something like that again?
I don’t know. It was nice. The show was on the SuperDeluxe website. That went down before I had to think of making any more. I didn’t really want to; I was kind of done with the idea. But it was fun. Yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. That’s the exciting part of about self-employment — you don’t know what’s going to happen next. [Laughs.]
At one point you were a writer/performer on the Martin Short Show back in 1999…
Yeah, like 12 years ago. I only worked on it for two months I think it was. I got fired. I don’t think it was because of my unpleasantness. I’m not very good at that genre. It’s not my gift but I did try very hard. [Laughs.]
Did you enjoy any aspects of that experience?
It was a good experience to see what it was like and say “OK, maybe this isn’t for me.” My favorite part was making jokes and stuff. That was fun. Maybe now that I’ve matured it would be a better situation. I don’t know. With stand-up I’m always excited to do it. I pretty much always feel pumped. Even if nobody hired me, I think I would still do it. And not everyone thinks what I’m doing or what other people are doing similarly is stand-up. [Laughs.] They’re like, “That’s not stand-up or comedy, what you’re doing.” But I enjoy doing it, whatever it is I’m doing.
Sure. And your act is definitely more performance-based with all the characters you do and stories you tell. Have you ever attempted the more straightforward, “setup-punchline” approach to stand-up?
No. I was always performing in theaters and doing the one-person show-type deals. I’m just starting to hopefully get better at the art form of talking to the audience and welcoming interruptions. [Laughs.] I hope I’m improving at that. But yeah, I always did mostly theater stuff. Starting out, I didn’t do the road or anything. I think I did one weekend on the road, and it was so difficult and such a bummer that I said “Oh, I don’t think I’ll do this again.”
I did a half-hour special, but I had never done a half-hour of stand-up before. I practiced and just did it by myself and in front of my friends over and over again.
What got you into the world of stand-up then? What drew you to comedy as opposed to pursuing theatre?
Well for one thing I got hired as a stand-up. It was more of a job than an interest [Laughs.] I didn’t get much interest from the theatre community. It was just wherever more affirmation was. [Laughs.]
And I found with acting and theatre that everything is very serious. I’m more on the side of making fun of things. So that was not good for theatre.
“Hey, we working we’re on this scene, what are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m making fun of you working on that scene.” [Laughs.] “I thought we were a good match.”
So you were always a bit skeptical of the self-importance sometimes associated with acting?
Yeah, and I also don’t know how to do it. It was easy to make fun of because I was so frustrated by it. I didn’t know how to do it, and I don’t really understand what acting is. I think that played a part of it. [Laughs.] I think had I been better at it, I might have been more into it.
I know people think the same thing about whatever thing you try, and it doesn’t work out. Because out of frustration you’re going, “Yeah, those people are assholes. I just don’t want to hang out with them.”
It’s like with comedy, everyone says it’s so competitive. And I haven’t found that to be true at all. I don’t feel like people are that competitive because we’re supportive really.
Have you kept at comedy ever since you started doing it? Have there been any prolonged breaks or points where you’ve felt like you couldn’t do it anymore?
I thought about if there are other things that I would enjoy doing more. I’ve tried volunteering or going to career counselors. And that’s because it makes you feel like “OK, I’m not a victim of my own dreams.” [Laughs.] I’ve done that over the years a bunch of times. I think I’ve taken up to two months off once. And sometimes I’ll take a month off and ask my friends not to talk about show business, which is very difficult. I guess trying other things makes me feel like I do enjoy what I do. It’s awesome.
I did start a tiny, tiny part-time job at a bookstore in my neighborhood just so I can have some stability and community. I think that’s been a surprise for me. As I’ve gotten older I used to enjoy really being alone. I still do sometimes, but I think because I have less OCD and more social skills, I want to be around people more.
You weave your family into your comedy and do impressions of your mom, dad, and sister. How does that go over with them?
I always did my mom and then I added my sister and my dad because they felt left out. And then when they saw my impersonation they said, “Uh, why don’t you stop doing that.” [Laughs.] “I guess we don’t really need that.”
Did they legitimately ask you to please stop or was it more like an “Oh, Maria” thing?
Well my dad cried. He felt sad about my impersonation of him. I don’t know why. Well, I do know why. I’ve seen people do impersonations of me and it is an homage, because you feel like someone’s thinking about you and has latent affection for you, but it’s still hard to see a caricature of yourself. Now he seems at peace with it and my sister as well. They have been extremely gracious.
Considering that you talk about them a lot, is it safe to say you find your family pretty interesting?
Yeah, yeah. Totally.
You dad’s a doctor?
Yeah. He’s almost retired. I find him really funny. We would watch Saturday Night Live together and all that stuff.
Is it true that he once opened for you?
He did, he did. He did 10 minutes at a motorcycle rally in my home town. I was worried because I felt like I wasn’t going to do well at a motorcycle rally.
Yeah. That’s not exactly your target audience.
I think the guy who booked me to do it, he was a fan. [Laughs.] But that does not mean the director of constituency was a fan. I asked my dad to open for me because I was scared. And I paid him 300 bucks. He really took the bullet up front. I wish we had it on tape. He is a very supportive father. Almost to his detriment. [Laughs.] I mean to do 10 minutes…And this is more subjective, but I think he bombed. [Laughs.] And I bombed right after him.
With your act, and your stories and your characters on the Maria Bamford Show, is most of that material an accurate, honest portrayal of who you are? It can be hard to distinguish between what’s actually you versus what’s a character you created. Is that intentional? Do you prefer to keep an air of mystery?
There’s some form of reality. There’s the whole premise where I go mad and live in my parents attic. That’s my worst fear, but that has happened on some level. [Laughs.] I’ve been in the hospital for depression. I haven’t yet moved to my parent’s attic, because they don’t have an attic. There is some element of truth to it. There are some comics who are who they are on the stage all the time. You know like Marc Maron or Christopher Titus or any number of comedians like that. I’m definitely more into performance-based facial expressions and mugging. [Laughs.] And keeping some distance from the audience. I don’t know if I’m totally myself on stage, cause I’m nervous.
Well it’s working, whatever you’re doing.
Yeah, the checks still cash.
Phil Davidson is a writer whose work has appeared in um, well, Splitsider.