The Weird and Wonderful World of Maria Bamford

Back in August, the web series Modern Comedian debuted an episode featuring standup Maria Bamford wherein she candidly breaks down her struggles with bipolar disorder and delivers a hilarious walkthrough of her favorite website Lit by nothing but the glow of her computer screen, Bamford reads a panic attack-inducing list of side effects for one of her meds – including “instant old age,” inability to drink alcohol, tooth loss, confusion, baldness, and dry skin – before bursting into laughter then telling the camera: “I don’t mind losing a little hair. And, again, the tradeoff is pretty awesome.”

In this little moment lies the true magic of Bamford. Whether she’s starring in her own standup special or bringing her uniquely lovable oddball brand to shows like The Comedians of Comedy, Louie, Arrested Development, or her newest role on USA’s Benched, Bamford has mastered the art of remaining a fearless yet vulnerable performer who knows how to draw the funny out of life’s bitter side effects. Ahead of the premiere of Benched tonight, I asked Bamford about her latest television role, the emotional pain of Bridezillas, the difference between sitcom work and standup, and what her own ultimate dream TV show would look like.

First off, I saw you recently got engaged – congratulations!

Thank you so much! Are you a married person or…?

No, I am not!

Well, I am in no way smug about being engaged. We don’t know what we’re doing. But he is a delight and a scrumptious hamburger bun, and that’s probably all I have to say about that I guess.

Do you feel different now as an engaged person?

Well, it does almost feel surreal. You know, you always have things on your vision board, but I didn’t always think that it would happen. I guess I used to have this feeling where I thought it was gonna be “perfect” or something – I don’t know if it’s because I read so many self-help things where it’s like If you want to be in a relationship, you’ve got to be perfect and clean and whole and without blemish and free from sin, but to me it feels like there’s this sort of mythology to relationships and this weird magical thinking about it. So yeah, it’s nice to have something that’s just real where it’s okay to be myself even if that’s very messy – even if that means I’m leaving a trail of Double Stuf Oreos.

So on top of touring as a standup you’ll have a wedding to plan this year. Are you worried it’ll get stressful?

No, I mean I only go out maybe twice a month – I’d just like to make it clear how little work I do. [laughs] It’s so funny because in show business, the representatives always make it sound like you’re extremely busy, which I think is a marketing thing, and then the trick is I live life quietly and I come to my coffee shop and I bumble around – there’s a lot of bumbling time – so there’s plenty of time. We already got the place and it’s one of those places where they do everything. It’s kind of like an “event factory” location, so it’s very easy. I’m not a detail person. I just want to sit down and eat and then have a nice party.

No plans to be a Bridezilla then?

Oh, I kinda love those shows. Do you watch any of those shows?

Oh, I’ve definitely watched Bridezillas before.

Okay now, first of all that’s a tougher one, because it seems like people on that show generally seem to be in emotional pain. But there are some other shows where the relationships seem more solid or pleasant, and I enjoy watching all of that and thinking like Oh, what if I had a speakeasy/soccer theme to my wedding?

It’s not much to ask!

It’s not much to ask! And I just want my pet guinea pig to be centrally involved at each aspect in the ceremony.

[laughs] That’s very reasonable. So let’s talk about your role in USA’s Benched. What’s your character like?

I play an incompetent public defender and it’s sort of typecasting in that I am always well-meaning but often disorganized. What seems to come out, at least in this character arc, is that she has a great relationship with her clients despite the fact that all of them are going to jail because she is not doing a very good job. The show has so many great actors – the star of the show Eliza Coupe is incredible, it was just so amazing to watch somebody so funny and so smart and just a natural actor.

Coming from standup, do you enjoy the sitcom workday?

Oh yes, I mean, it’s lovely! It’s a lot like temping. It’s a lot like any kind of freelancing where you go in, you don’t really know anybody, and for me whenever I’m in any new situation I’m completely hostile to it. I’m afraid and I’m hostile, like This is scary, I don’t like it and then I start to go You know what? I think I’m having an okay time and then by the end of the day at a temp job I’m like I like it here. This is my home. I’m willing to die for these people.

I read that you and Mitch Hurwitz were pitching a show to Netflix. Are there any updates on that you can share?

I wish I knew more. Right now they’re negotiating, and I can tell you that my vision is that I would like to work with others on some sort of meaningful topic and do something that’s empowering or meaningful to other human beings, or to me, really – who cares about other human beings – and something that’s hilariously fun and funny and in town. That would be really neat. I don’t know in what way that will happen, but whether or not this deal goes through, it seems like it is happening more where I’m working in town, and that’s really exciting.

What would your dream fantasy TV show look like?

My friend Melinda Hill and I did this show called The Program, and we only did two episodes but we’d like to actually try to give another shot at that. My dream would be to star on a show where everybody is who they are in real life in terms of Louie or something like that where there’s no big makeup or costuming – just to have, at least to me, more realistic depictions of people. I love the idea – which is not far off, this is all autobiographical – but the American idea, or I guess Western idea of success of what we should be doing and then what’s actually happening. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but just something more realistic.

I’d also love to talk about things like finances in the show and have stuff like “Oh yeah, let’s go do that!” “I can’t, I only have 35 bucks until Friday.” There’s just not a lot of mention of reality like that on TV. I like specifics. I think that’s my favorite thing about standup when somebody says a specific reference that you just know is true because it’s too specific. My friend Jackie [Kashian] has a sexual healing bit about how she’d been through a traumatizing event on the bus as a kid – part of the joke was she had been sexually assaulted because she had spent a lot of time on the bus – and so she and her husband do a live action role-play so that she kind of takes back the power from that, and they’re both nude and sitting on chairs in their kitchen… [laughs] …and it’s like oh God, that’s so specific and so hilarious, you know?

Your episode of Modern Comedian was fantastic. I noticed that the guy who runs tweeted it – seems like the site was excited to get that exposure from you.

[laughs] Jerod Poore! I’ve never met him in person, but I just found that website from the back of a memoir I’d read by Marya Hornbacher, which was this hilarious, really heart-wrenching portrait of what bipolar I can be like. Crazymeds is hilarious, it is such a funny site. To me anyway.

That episode, and a lot of your material in general, does a lot of work to break down the stigma against mental illness. Have you noticed that stigma fading at all? Do you think those topics are becoming less taboo?

Yeah, I mean I think it has been for a long time – comics have always talked about those issues, but now it’s much more acceptable, and that’s awesome. I think that just like other social issues, it seems like it’s a cultural change. The hope is that it becomes something where you don’t even have to…like it’s not a “big reveal” anymore.

I rewatched The Special Special Special! recently then went back and watched some episodes of The Maria Bamford Show, and it got me thinking about similar shows like Nathan for You where part of the humor is rooted in the fact that the star is an introvert at heart. That seems to be a sensibility that’s on the rise these days.

I hope so. I know that sometimes I feel insecure going like Oh, you’ve gotta have some kind of party host vibe or extroversion to be a skilled entertainer. And that is not one of my gifts, so it’s not super natural to me. I’d like to be better at it because I think it is super fun, but it’s the best thing when somebody is truly, truly themselves. Whenever I fake confidence or fake extroversion I think it can come off a little Valley of the Dolls. The reason I did the Special Special Special was sort of out of sloth – I was like What is the absolute least I can do? I wasn’t feeling super great and I was grateful for the opportunity to do a special, but I didn’t want to do any sort of giant production. That just felt horrifying to me at that point – and I was so grateful they were okay with that. [laughs] And what better crowd to have than my parents?

As a comedian with bipolar disorder, are there days where your funny material is no longer funny to you? Are there swings with moments you consider funny and moments you consider sad?

I think any time I have any sort of distance from something – like the day after something happens – it’s not hard. One of my favorite memories with some friends that I have was when I was hospitalized and I did this thing where you just go in every day and they pick you up in this big purple industrial van because they don’t want you to drive because your meds are so screwed up. So anyway, I’d be riding around in a big purple industrial van, and yeah – the sadness of being in this giant purple van and being completely out of it and feeling horrible, you know, that’s not super hilarious. But then what I would do is I would text my friends before I was going to ride past their store – they have a little storefront, they sell eyeglasses – I would text them and say the purple van was gonna come by and then they would come out on the porch and wave at me as the purple van came by. [laughs] At the time or even like six months later you go Oh that bums me out, and I’m not sure if I can tell anybody, because I still feel bad about it and embarrassed about it. But once you get a couple people to laugh at it who are outside your circle…I think confidence comes with repetition. Once I repeat a joke so many times it kind of takes the power away from me and the event itself.

I have a joke about how I killed my dog by accident, which was horrifying. At the time I was just miserable and horrified, and now – because time passes and I’ve gotten a lot of support and people come up to me after shows and go like “I sat on my rabbit!” – I just needed time, but also sharing it with other people and getting that Oh my God I’m not alone feeling. I had friends who came up to me and said “I’m bipolar and I don’t tell anybody about it because I don’t want it to affect my job, but I went off the rails and I lived in a psych ward” – you know, somebody you would never think had ever had any psychiatric problems, and it turns out they’re right there with you. I think knowing that it’s not as big of a deal as I thought it was makes things a lot less serious.

Benched premieres tonight at 10:30pm on USA.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Maria Bamford