In her sublime new Netflix standup special, Old Baby, premiering today, Maria Bamford performs a comedy set in increasingly larger venues. What begins as a few jokes in front of a mirror progresses to a living room, onto a bowling alley, and so on, until she goes out with a bang on a big stage. The special is sparkling, her jokes are original, and her audience grows more hysterical with laughter as the size of the performance venue expands and shrinks. She is truly magnificent.
Bamford is my favorite comedian. I admire everything she stands for as a comic and as a human being, and her comedy has served as somewhat of a lifeline to me during particularly dark times. Stephen Colbert may have proclaimed her to be his favorite comedian on planet earth, but she is my favorite comedian in the history of the universe, so I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to express my sincere gratitude and adoration when I interviewed her over the phone last week.
You perform your special in increasingly larger venues – the living room, a bookstore, a big stage. The only constant is the pug – is it papier-mâché?
He is papier-mâché and his name is Arnold. He’s going to be auctioned off for the ACLU at the Upright Citizens Brigade. So if anyone needs a pug? And then part of the idea of doing different size venues – and I’m sure this happens with writing too – I’ve just had so many people who see me perform a joke for them in the backyard and they’ll say “Oh, well you know - just keep working on it.” And then they’ll see me performing at the hot dog stand and be like “Oh, now I can kind of see where you’re going with that, the joke has gotten better.” It seems like the more people who are there, the more it’s like, “Oh God, now it’s great! It’s so good!” And it goes both ways – it’s like “Wait a minute - it wasn’t that good, there are just more people here and the lights are shiny.”
You feel like there’s a group mentality going on.
Yeah, yeah. I have a friend who tells this story of someone saying like “I didn’t think Maria was funny at all, and then I saw her on TV and was like [gasp] oh, she’s really good!” Even though I’m performing the exact same material.
Who are all the people in the audience? There are some interesting looking characters. Who’s the guy with the long red hair and the bell bottoms?
Oh yeah! That’s our friend Robbie. They’re all friends. The young ladies who are singing so beautifully with their father? Those are friends of ours too.
Were there any surprising behind-the-scenes moments while shooting the special?
It was just very nice with friends and the director Jessica Yu. She’s lovely. She, by the way, is an Academy Award-winning director. And she’s a friend of my husband’s. He met her 20 years ago in an artist’s colony. And then the hot dog stand on Colorado has an open mic on Tuesdays and we’ll walk over and sign up there. And then the bookstore is local. And then the home that we’re inside of – I don’t know if you know the guy who makes these funny, amazing bird paintings?
That sounds right up my alley.
His name is Matt Adrian. Him and his wife sell art and they have like their own small behemoth empire of cards and books and things that they publish themselves.
I read that you like to read. What is your all-time favorite book, and what are you reading now?
Off the top of my head, I do love What Is the What by Dave Eggers. My husband and I bonded over that one. As far as self-help literature, which I’m always interested in, I love If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and then there is the Artist’s Way, classic, classic. I’ve done that one a billion times. Have you read that one?
Of course, that book was a life changer.
Me too! I started getting on stage because of that.
That is an amazing book.
Yeah. Don’t listen to the wet blankets and the ivory towers because they are just poisonous playmates.
You’ve got to fill the well.
Yes! You’ve got to fill the well.
I love your bit about Howard, the guy at the dog park without a dog. Is Howard real?
Well, he’s based on a guy who I had come over to help me train the dogs. He told me some very dark stories about WWII. And then some oddly sexual things. I was like “Wow, where are we going here?” He was a very elderly, lovely man, but he had a way about him… [laughs] …you know when someone says “oh, you can do it this way” and you’re like “no, you can do it that way because you’re a gruff man who grew up in Queens. I can’t do it that way.”
The pugs respected him.
The dogs were cowering.
What did you need to train your pugs on?
Well, the hope was that if you have a closer relationship with your dogs, then they won’t get depressed and bored because they don’t have anything to do and they feel confused. We just had another dog trainer to the house and she was kind of the same, except less frightening. But it was good to remind myself that dogs like to have boundaries. Much like me. It’s probably good for someone to tell me that I can’t call them all the time. Because otherwise, I might call all the time. Oh, you’re only open till five? Oh, I see. I thought you were my private club.
I can definitely relate to that.
I’m self-employed, I’ve got to have some place to go, but sometimes places want to close. I’m like, “What?”
Totally. I paid three dollars for a muffin so that I could sit here for the next ten hours.
It’s like…you’re my friends, and you’re kind of being assholes right now…
How did you figure out that you could do a good raccoon impression?
The raccoon joke is from my sister. I stole that directly from her. Because when I got married, my husband was shocked to find out that I was so messy. And I told my sister, and she was like “Oh yeah, that’s what we do.” She’s been married for 25 years, and she said, “My husband is completely disgusted by me.” I tear open boxes. I don’t know who taught us that. My mom is a stickler for being neat, but my dad is kind of a wild card. So I guess we went his way.
What’s your favorite bit to perform?
Right now, it’s my newest one. Can I tell you my newest joke? And I’m trying to prepare for a commencement speech for the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts – but this joke won’t be for that, I have other jokes for that.
Anyway, I was at the funeral for a comedian who committed suicide – that’s not the joke though, that was super tragic. But I heard someone say at the reception, “Wow, suicide. That’s just the single most selfish thing you could do. He had two kids and a beautiful wife.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, I think blaming someone for their death at their own funeral…that’s the single most selfish thing you can do.”
Wait – scratch that. Writing down the premise to this joke – wait scratch that. Combining two things that actually happened – I went to a funeral of a comedian who committed suicide and then someone did say “Suicide is the single most selfish thing you can do,” but in another venue – I moved it into a fictional narrative to create a comedy piece to illicit the idea that I was trying to fight stigma. That. That. That is the most selfish thing someone could do.
I mean, he had two children and his wife was gorgeous. Somehow that seems important – how gorgeous his wife was.
If she was homely, it wouldn’t have been sad at all.
Oh God, she was so pretty. So pretty. The kids, take it or leave it – but the wife?
That’s funny, I love it. And that is something people say. It’s terrible.
Yeah. I understand it because I’ve had friends and family that have committed suicide. And you just feel angry sometimes. I have felt, like, “Couldn’t you have held on? Couldn’t you have just stayed one more day?” And then at the same time, I know that I’ve been in that place and that hasn’t felt possible. It’s like – no, I can’t. This suffering is too much for too long. So I also get it. Not saying, “Oh gosh, it’s a great idea,” but I think death by suicide is also death by an illness.
Definitely. I also have mental illness and lots of close friends and family who struggle with it. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to empathize with people with mental illness. At the same time, sometimes I kind of wonder to myself, what would it be like to be a mentally healthy person? What do you imagine it’s like inside the brains of people who don’t have as much going on in there?
Well, since 2012, I’ve been on these meds that have really stabilized me. It feels like for the first time in my life – I’ve never felt this – it’s not like I don’t feel sad or mad or stressed or happy and excited and all that stuff, I just do not remember feeling this daily reprieve from suicidal ideation and from wanting to stay up all night. Wanting to vacuum. I just don’t remember this stability ever. And I think I have a joke about – like now I get it when people say “Oh, it’s going to be fun!” I just never understood that. I just thought “Oh, you mean it’s going to be a different set of extraordinarily uncomfortable circumstances. It’s going to be terrible, but it’s going to be a unique terrible. And then you’re going to go back to your old, usual terrible.”
So I do feel like I have a sense of that now and how I could have seemed to others. I remember I was rejected from a mentorship program. Me being a mentor. Not anyone mentoring me – I’m clearly available for mentorship. And I remember they said I was anxious, high-strung, and eccentric. Those were the notes on me. And I remember the social worker called me to tell me that they couldn’t accept me, and I immediately – of course – started crying. [laughs] Like oh, no, no, no! You’re doing what they said you’d do! And I remember kind of hyperventilating and needing to stop, and the woman was trying to talk me through it. And I actually was able to talk them into another interview and I did actually get to mentor a kid.
But I think about it and I’m like, “Oh, okay.” Now that I’ve seen people and kids that I can relate with who are not on their meds, I see why people were kind of frightened to be around me sometimes. Because of my intensity, or talking very fast, or kind of the up-and-down nature of myself. I left many jobs – at least four – in tears and, you know, that’s just four off the top of my head.
You kind of got that outside perspective now that you’re more stable.
Yeah. And I kind of ask my friends and family. That’s what great about talking about it, is that everybody knows. It’s not like some big secret where everyone isn’t willing to tell you. It’s not like “You know how you’ve been talking about going to the moon lately? Uh…yeah…the moon is great…it’s great.” The thing that is so tragic is how hard it is to get help. Because once you’re feeling so bad or feeling so elated, it’s so hard to get help. I had a friend who was like, “I’m taking half doses of my meds because I can’t afford to refill my prescription.” And it took her four phone calls and a lot of footwork to get her meds for free. Now I have insurance, but I remember when I had to go wait at County for six hours and then get a week’s worth of prescription – and that’s me being someone who can actually go to County or who knows where County is.
It shouldn’t be so hard to get help.
But if you google it. That’s always the important thing. Google anything and it may be in your neighborhood. I was just in Arizona and one of the wait staff said “Hey, I’ve got Bipolar and I’m not on meds and don’t have any insurance.” So we googled it and we found that there is a group in his area called the Bipolar Bears, this community. There’s stuff out there. It may take a while and it’s going to be embarrassing and painful, as everything is, but there is stuff out there.
Right. It’s definitely worth it to keep trying.
Yeah. And you’re not doing it wrong if it’s hard. Sometimes when people have a hard time getting services they start to wonder, “Am I doing this wrong?” No, no, it’s just hard.
Yeah, and trusting your instincts when it comes to mental healthcare professionals. There’s a wide variety when it comes to quality of care.
Yeah, they’re overworked. It’s not unlike waitressing. You’re going to get somebody who’s at the back end of their shift, they’re pissed, they’re exhausted, they’re whatever. They’re not in that place of “I’m going to be the best I can be right now!”
I’m sure everybody has had this. I remember I had this wonderful psychiatrist who just sat down on my bed and said “Well, tell me everything from the beginning.” I was like “Oh my God, you’ve opened up a can of worms.” I tried to keep it tight. But then I had one guy who, for whatever reason, we didn’t hit it off personality-wise. I’m sure I wasn’t the greatest personality at that point. I was trying to teach him about the type of OCD I have, and he said, “That’s psychosis!” And he wouldn’t let me leave for seven days. So there can be kind of a punitive atmosphere sometimes. It’s not fun. And sometimes the reasons people get into psychology or social work aren’t the right reasons. Maybe for the money or because they have a family member who they hate and they just wanted to figure it out. It’s just like any career path.
Speaking of psychologists – this is a slight pivot - are you familiar with the study by psychologist Arthur Aron where he devised a list of 36 questions that lead to love? It was in the New York Times Modern Love column?
Yes! Yes! I forwarded it to all my friends.
Can I ask you some of those questions just for fun?
Of course! Let’s fall in love.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
I would want to say somebody like Julia Cameron, but then I get a little worried because that book was so precious to me…that I think I’d want to have dinner with my dad. I think that might be more meaningful long-term.
If you could be famous for something (other than comedy) what would it be?
Creating comprehensive, long-term affordable housing in Los Angeles.
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
Yes. Sometimes if I have to say no to something, I have to do a broken record technique and say “no, I can’t.” Or with intimate relationships, like with my mom, to say – I’m a lover of all 12-step programs, so Al Anon has this thing where you say, “You might be right.” So I just say that to my mother instead of hanging up the phone mid-sentence. “You might be right - maybe I should check out how that guy in North Dakota said something on my Facebook page about how he was offended by a certain joke” – it’s like oh my God….
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Okay. Getting up. Going for a super long walk with my beloved, my family, my sister, her kids and then meeting all my friends for lunch. Having a nice long lunch and then just walking around some area that had shop windows where we could stare in, but wouldn’t have to go in. And then, swimming in a pool or the ocean for a long time and a salad would be involved later on. And cold brew, of course, would begin the day so that I would be shrocketed into the ninth dimension. And then at the end of the day we would go back and chit chat and have laughs in some sort of situation where it would be nice to sit around. And then go to sleep while reading a booky wook. And then I’m sure some physical activity with my husband might be involved that I shouldn’t share with the public.
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Hmmm, I could see how the body of a 30-year-old could be good, because then I wouldn’t be in physical pain and deteriorating. But then if I was getting Alzheimer’s, and was just super energetic with Alzheimer’s…actually that might be kind of hilarious. I mean, super sad, but kind of hilarious. Getting progressively more energetic and not knowing who anyone is. But the problem with Alzheimer’s is that you don’t know what kind you’re going to have. Are you going to have good memories, or the scary ones? So, yup, I think I’m going to go with the 30-year-old mind. Although I would be really immature, sleeping with strangers in the body of a 90-year-old.
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
My passwords, my list of passwords. My family has everything so if I needed a photo, my dad has uploaded all of those. So I think my passwords. I’m not a very sentimental person in terms of objects. My husband is always like, “What are you tossing out now? What important thing from your childhood are you burning in the back now?”
What do you value most in a friendship?
Forgiveness. I’m going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, be less than what you hoped. But one thing I’m good at is apologizing. Or trying to. I would hope that I would be forgiving too. I hope that I’m forgiving. Am I forgiving? I guess that’s something I’m trying to get better at, to not take things as personally.
That’s a great quality.
I’m going to have to get my husband to answer these questions too. Just bring them up in casual conversation. Sometimes people don’t like to do things all at once, like then we’re going to be expected to feel a certain way. Like my husband and I went to the Love Lab with John and Julie Gottman, and he got really anxious because he thought it was going to be sort of a quiz for how we were doing in our relationship. And it was hilarious because he got sick during the whole thing, which ended up being good because it’s all about acknowledging what our partner is feeling instead of being like “We need to finish this workbook now!”
That’s in Seattle, right? Do you recommend it?
Well, I recommend doing the book yourself. I mean, it’s fun. They have these really helpful tools called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling – it’s kind of like “Yes, And” in improv. So if your partner is like, “I would love to go to China someday” and you say “That’s stupid, China is so far,” instead you should say, “Oh, China, we should look that up and get more information.” You open up to the idea, build on the idea, and keep talking instead of reacting out of fear. And that increases the chances that your relationship will last. Just being more curious about your partner instead of getting into a dynamic of fighting back and forth. Which some people might just know how to do naturally – I do not know those things naturally. Like, someone might read this and think, “Oh, does she mean just be pleasant?”
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
I don’t think I’d want to know anything. Yeah, because whether it’s bad or good, it’s a surprise. And that’s the fun part!
Any last words of wisdom?
Everybody is doing so much beautiful work out there as comedians, artists, and writers and I just want to congratulate anyone who got of bed today. Good job, you’re doing great. If no one else tells you that today, you’re doing great as far as I can tell.