Maria Bamford on How She Develops Her Act

When she’s not touring, playing open mics and festivals, making web series, or recording an album, Maria Bamford finds things to keep her busy—in the past couple years, she’s appeared on Louie, Kroll Show, and Arrested Development, and she does voiceover acting for cartoons like Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors. Beyond her busy schedule, though, what’s impressive about Bamford is how in her standup she addresses dark or personal matters like suicide and mental illness stigma while never sacrificing her effervescent stage presence. Her 2012 direct-to-download the special special special!, which had her performing a set in her living room for her parents with breaks to serve cookies, administer eyedrops to her pug, and let her dad use the bathroom, is now available streaming on Netflix. I recently got to talk to Bamford about her special, her experiences with acting and voiceover work, and some of her favorite fellow comedians.

I was just watching some of the special special special! again and I really love it. Were your parents hesitant at all to participate in that? 

No. They’re on board with anything. I did pay them though—I don’t know if that’s part of it. They both got 600 dollars.


Yeah. It was a non-union gig as well. It was in my apartment. They’re not getting any residual payments out of it. I don’t know the buy-outs.

Did you run any of the material about your parents past them before doing it on the show?

No. They’ve seen me a bajillion times. You have to ask them. Whenever they see me, they’re just like, “Oh, great!” [Laughs] And my dad can’t hear very well sometimes, so he may have had his hearing aid out. [Laughs] I don’t know. You have to ask them. They always seem, to my face, to be very supportive. I don’t know if they have Twitter feeds that say just the opposite. That could be possible.

You’ve said in previous interviews you prefer smaller audiences so you can test out new material. How were your parents for testing out new jokes?

They’re good. I don’t know whose fault this is, but they don’t seem to know where the punchline is. So they’re like, “Is it done?” Sometimes they don’t like it, but that’s fair enough. That’s what makes our country strong!

What do you think you learned from having them as the audience, if anything?

Well, it was just a lot easier of a production to put together! You don’t have to get a whole bunch of people in one space. It was very inexpensive. It was really fun because they’re really nice, interesting people, and they liked asking everybody [questions] and quizzing people on the production. They were good workers, they stay focused, and I like working with them. They’re fun.

Do you think that would be your ideal audience? Or what would your ideal audience be like?

Well, I think anybody that laughs is a good audience to me. Anybody that laughs. But my dogs I also find are a good audience, and they never laugh. They’re often falling asleep. But anyone’s laughter is appreciated.

How do you develop new material and practice for your shows? 

The best thing is a walk. I’ll take a walk and talk to myself. I’ll say it over and over. Sometimes you get together with different comics. My friend Jackie Kashian and I will do jokes back and forth to each other. I do a bunch of different things. I just did a couple shows last night, and I’ll record it and listen to it back. What works for me is a super long process where I’ll work out a joke for years. [Laughs] Oh well.

How much do the jokes actually change over the years? 

That’s a good question. You probably have to ask somebody else that. I think they’re changing, developing. Once I’ve recorded it, I stop doing all the material. I slowly stop doing it and start doing something new. So those ones don’t change since I don’t really do them again. But the others, they change. It’s just like writing where you rewrite things and then the audience makes them different, too, just whatever works there I guess. I don’t know. I think they may sound the same to a lot of people.

But they sound different to you?

Yeah. I pay attention to the different words or whatever, but they may not sound different at all to anybody but me.

Last year and the year before were big acting years for you, with your roles in Louie and Arrested Development. Are you interested in pursuing more acting?

Yeah, I’m enjoying it. It’s really fun. I auditioned for what, 10 years, and never — I booked I think one job. I auditioned for so long, and then I stopped auditioning seven or eight years ago, so the only way I’ll get the job is if somebody just offers it to me, which I’m really grateful for. I think that there’s people who that’s their craft, and it’s really fun to learn about it. I got an acting job on this new USA network show [Benched] that’s supposed to air in 2015. I got to play a part on that for a bunch of episodes. It was super fun. I hope I’m not taking jobs from actors, but I’m not going to think about it. I can’t think about it.

You’ve said before that in your act, the voices you do are the same few voices, but in recent years you’ve done so much voiceover work. Do you think you’ve learned a lot from that and have more voices now?

I would hope so, but again, things like acting, voiceover work, it’s like a whole other art form. There are people out there who are really skilled at it, who can do specific different voices as well as impersonations and doing all these sounds. It’s like a musical instrument or something. I definitely don’t think I’m in anyway one of those people. That’s a whole other thing to learn about.

When you’re recording the shows, what’s the process like?

The funnest part is when everybody is in the same room recording together, but all the different voices on the show are different people on different schedules so a lot of times you’re just by yourself. You’re recording in a booth by yourself and then there’s some people telling you how to read it. I want to say it was Chris Rock who said it’s the easiest job in the world. And it truly was one of the most delightful jobs in the world.

Some of my favorite bits from your recent work are the bits where you address the stigma against mental illness. Since incorporating those into your act have you noticed people around you becoming more sensitive?

I think it’s like anything, if you’ve been affected by something, whatever it is, it’s important to you that you want to talk about it. The people who are interested are gonna care about it, and if it hasn’t affected you, why would you care at all? Yeah, it seems like there’s a lot more acceptance, whatever, celebration of eccentricity, and you hear a lot more people talking about it. It’s really great. I think it’s part of a zeitgeist at least in the sense of there being a lot more help and public awareness of it and stuff, it seems like.

Have any fans approached you at all to talk about how they relate?

Sure, yeah, yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of really—that’s why talking about it is so great. I don’t feel alone, so it works out for me. It’s been really nice. I didn’t realize how big a stigma I think I had about it in my mind. I always thought I was an accepting person and then when I started to have problems and got hospitalized and stuff, it was like, “It turns out I’m not okay with this it all!” So it’s good for me to know how many people are accepting of it.

You’re going to be on Comedy Central’s new standup show The Meltdown premiering next month. What was it like recording that?

It was super fun. Super fun, the back of a comic book shop. Very little stress and a smaller crowd, which is my favorite, and Jonah [Ray] and Kumail [Nanjiani] are such nice guys.

Are there any new comics whose work you think deserves attention?

Oh god. Sure. I don’t know a lot of them, I don’t want to say one name, but then not another, but Cameron Esposito, Dan Telfer, Baron Vaughn… I should have just a list. I also have a lot of peers who I love — Karen Kilgariff has a great new album, and Jackie Kashian has a downloadable special that you can get on her website. She just keeps getting better and better and better. Those are the people I see all the time, I don’t see that many new comics, but I go to a lot of open mics.

Do you perform at a lot of open mics or just watch people?

Yes. I perform at open mics. Wherever I can go up that’s close and will let me up really early, I’ll book. I’ll go up. There’s a sandwich shop by my house, Dave’s Chillin’-N-Grillin’ they have an open mic. There’s some other ones. And there’s a lot of comics coming up. Also, internationally, there are incredible comedians. The UK and Australia, there’s just so many great comics over there in those directions. Really an embarrassment of English-speaking comics.

Do you tour much in England?

I’ve done a little bit, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s too much. It’s a great comedy scene, just wonderful. It seems like they’ve always treated [comedy] as an art form, they’ve always reviewed comedy. I remember going over there and being like, “You’re gonna give me a review?” I have great respect for them. Australia, too, has a really great scene. They both have festivals, having come from a festival tradition.

Do you think the United States is kind of working its way up towards that?

Oh yeah. Now, there’s so many festivals. It feels like we’re in a boom time. It’s booming.

Is there anything else that you’re working on that you want to talk about?

Just working on new jokes. Working to develop a small TV show. We’ll see what happens. And that’s just a lot of salad. A lot of eating salad in Beverly Hills. That’s where I’m at in the developmental process. I get a lot of free salad. It’s pretty great.

Maybe I’ll plug the Orlando Comedy Festival - the young comics, they’re trying to get me to come to the festival. They made a video presentation and a website, it’s really great. Just go out and make your own things. If you don’t like the comedy you see on your TV, why don’t you write something? Then you’ll be able to laugh all the time, if you start writing comedy. The comedy that you like, of course — don’t do the crap that I’m putting out. [Laughs]

Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.

Maria Bamford on How She Develops Her Act