This piece originally ran in April 2016. We are rerunning it with Lady Dynamite premiering on Netflix today.
"I hope I don't embarrass you when I say, 'You are my favorite comedian on the planet Earth,'" Stephen Colbert told Maria Bamford when she stopped by his show back in June. Though not everyone is telling her that on network television, it's a sentiment shared by many, especially comedians, and now Bamford is ready to become your favorite as well.
She worked with Mitch Hurwitz (whom she first worked with on Arrested Development's season four) to create Lady Dynamite, a semiautobiographical comedy, which premieres on Netflix today, May 20. In it, Bamford plays Maria Bamford, a comedian who is looking to slow down the pace of her life after recovering from a mental breakdown. The occasionally surreal, often silly show knowingly winks at, subverts, and outright makes fun of the now-common semiautobiographical stand-up TV-show genre.
Vulture had Bamford walk us through the nitty-gritty of the wonderful series.
Why title it Lady Dynamite?
Because I have no energy and so there's something funny about that.
How did this show come into the world?
What happened is Mitch Hurwitz, who has a deal with Netflix, liked my comedy and asked if I had any show ideas. I usually get so embarrassed by that, like, "Yes, I have a vision!" So we started talking about how if there's one story I'd want to tell, it's about a mental breakdown. That is an experience I had and I'd be totally into telling that story.
And so we met for about four to five salads — and those were all free, by the way — and then he wanted to work with a certain writer and director, Pam Brady, who worked on Team America as well as South Park. It just slowly gathers like a snowball. It is extremely slow. My new premise is that show business is kind of like a friend with a drinking problem: She's so fun and exciting and charismatic, but she may be in a blackout and you may not hear from her for months. It's not that she doesn't mean everything she says. Eventually, we did a pitch at Netflix and they said, "Go ahead with it."
When was that first conversation with Mitch?
My God — I'm going to say 2013.
Did you guys first meet during Arrested Development?
I know he had heard my comedy and had enjoyed it, and then I was asked to do a part on Arrested Development. I don't know what his thought process was, but I'm grateful that he's awesome. It was such a great learning experience, especially for learning to act. It turns out if you say the lines in the way that you mean them, then that's acting.
What are your goals for the show?
What I hope people get from it is that by losing everything, it's possible to become something better. At least in real life, I have a much more reasonably paced life than I ever had when I was slightly banana head. In losing some of my ambition, it made it so I can have relationships and a better life. That has been learned throughout the ages: You mean money and prestige doesn't make people happy? Nope.
The show is about a mental breakdown, but it's set primarily after it, with flashes of during and before it. When did you decide to structure the timelines that way?
Part of the pitch was that it would jump around three different time areas. I like the idea of, you come in and you're like, "There's no way that person was ever like that." You can't see them in that moment of depression or doubting themselves or violence or being kooky. You are reminded of that journey throughout the entire series. What's that one show in Florida with Sissy Spacek in it? With a boat burning. It's a Netflix show.
Bloodline! It's kind of like that, where people have these flashes. It's just like Bloodline, basically.
That's a hell of a pitch. I can see why they said yes.
You know Bloodline? Yeah, it's that, with me.
In the first episode, there's a story line where the show kind of just stops for Patton Oswalt to lecture you about putting your stand-up in the show. Yet you are still you; it's not like you're playing an actress or a person with a different job who was coming back from a mental breakdown. How did you decide on that?
I had this real anxiety of, "Oh, tying actual stand-up material into the show, that's a genre." Even though that is a reasonable way of telling the story, I do have a self-conscious feeling of "I don't want to see the same thing over and over again of, there's a comic and, guess what, comics — you can't even believe it — they're up onstage, and then they're having relationships."
The show starts with a sort of fake hair commercial.
And then you're sort of woken up from it, like, "What are you doing? This is your TV show, you're not doing a hair commercial"?
That was Pam and Mitch. They said they would really love to shoot me not knowing exactly what I was doing. I thought that sounded good, and I wouldn't mind doing a hair commercial, especially since my hair is thinning, which is even more funny to me. They have different brains than I do, so they thought of totally different things, like surreal ideas.
Between those surreal moments and the scenes that are darker and more grounded, how real do you feel the show is?
It's super loose. Everything becomes something completely different. Like even if the idea was in your mind, then the actor comes in and performs it differently. It's like a cake! My husband was telling me about a Little Rascals episode when they all made a cake and the cake blew up in the oven and it came out like a cube and the kids put, like, hairbrushes and random household objects in the cake and it was wonderful. The show is kind of out of your control on some level, with everyone putting their perspective in, and that's a good thing.
So although the story and some of the emotions are there, it's super loosely biographical. Like, the way I am when dating, is totally not me. I am not that cool or relaxed at all. Those are the things where it was, like, for the nature of time and creating a story arc, well, you've got to eventually have a date. It's like, "Oh no no no, that would take me so down and dark and into a thousand thoughts." But there's not enough time in one episode.
You can't have ten minutes of you thinking about it.
Yeah, or that's a different style of show. But the general story line of someone who has a mental breakdown and then comes back is genuinely my story. And just being part of the production, I hope it has part of the real me in it. But also it becomes a group story. Just like my family, we can't decide what really happened even if it was just yesterday. We all have a different perspective.
What was it like to see people interpret your voice?
That's super interesting. It's like when you have a friend do an impersonation of you and you're like, "Oh, God. Oh. Oh, no." I did not write it because I did not have the willingness nor the wherewithal, the skill level, the energy level to write, so it was a great miracle that we had writers who were willing to write in my voice. That was really super duper. But then it’s also in their voice as well, because they're there putting their own experiences in it. And that's what you'd hope, going, "That's a good idea and it doesn't have to be mine."
What was your involvement in the writing process?
I would stop in every day I was in town, which was many days, and I would go in for about two-and-a-half hours to have a free lunch, chitchat, have some laughs, watch YouTube videos. But also it's kind of a sacred process, being a part of the writing room, so I didn't want to just fly in at the last minute and go, "Oh, guess what, I made a lot of changes. I haven't been here the whole time, but heads up, I don't like the color yellow and that whole episode is about yellow. Anyways, bye."
Everybody was really cool about listening to my opinions, my ideas. That was really nice. It's just like having any relationship or friendship. At least for me, I'm not a person who relationships come naturally to. I'm always frightened, so this was no different. I have my Chihuahua and it's just a natural thing within me. It's not based on any childhood trauma. It's just, I am a Chihuahua who cowers and pees occasionally, despite people offering me bits of jerky.
Some of the show takes place in a mental hospital. What are you hoping for with that setting?
The problem with depicting a situation like that is, in the real situation absolutely nothing is happening. It's hard to show that. What I'd hope for is that in the given scene there's a feeling that it's not going to get better, that there's a true hopelessness feeling. Because I think that's what would've been the most helpful to me. I see some things where a mental hospital is portrayed, and it seems kind of fun. I'm certainly hopeful, but it is the antithesis of fun.
That's where the different timelines help.
Yes. Otherwise it would be a dark, different kind of show.
Related to that, a couple of months back, Vulture and I did a list of the 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. One of your jokes was on that list. We felt that you really influenced a lot of comedy that dealt with mental illness.
I've been influenced by plenty of other comedians who have talked about their depression and neurosis, like Richard Lewis. But I do think it's wonderful. If it became a hack premise to mention that you are suffering [Laughs], wow, how far we've come.
It's the new airplane food.
Yeah, he has schizoaffective disorder — "Seen it!"
Can you tell me about the supporting characters — who you cast to play those characters and why they're the best?
Bridget Everett plays my friend Dagmar. I love her work and it's always nice to be around her. Then, there's a character played by Lennon Parham. All of these characters are a part of myself. I'm kind of a spiritual self-help nerd, like Lennon's character. Fred Melamed plays my manager Bruce. I didn't know that he was so famous and had been in so many films. He was just so kind to me in the one thing I've ever been on, which was this show called Benched. So I was like, I want to work with him.
And then Ana Gasteyer plays your agent. There is a really interesting contrast of those two as show business surrogates.
Yeah, agents, they're so busy that it is kind of insane and they use superlative language like, "You're the best. Everything's going to work out. We're going to kill people with your talent." And then my manager, who actually is named Bruce Smith, is an extremely kind, loyal person and very low stress.
Very early in the first episode, you say, "What a great late-in-life opportunity." What does getting this show at this point in your career mean to you?
It means I paid off the house. We've fully funded our retirement accounts.
That's all it is? You're finally making money?
It's just amazing. It's very lucky. It's the golden age of creative content right now. You're really empowered to make whatever you want. I'm grateful to be a part of that.