‘How painful it is to try!’: Maria Bamford on Mental Illness, Show Business and Delta Airlines
If your favourite comedian has a favourite comedian, it’s probably Maria Bamford.
By: Rayne Fisher-Quann
If your favourite comedian has a favourite comedian, it’s probably Maria Bamford. The eccentric comedian, actor and writer is a comic’s comic through and through: she’s almost painfully funny, and Judd Apatow, Bo Burnham, Stephen Colbert and countless other titans of the industry have all sung her praises as one of the most talented people working today. Bamford, on the other hand, might argue the point that she’s even working at all — as she’s quick to point out in her shows, working (at least in the traditional sense) is not her strong suit.
“What are you working on? What’s on the next page for you?” she mimics in a Comedy Central set, her voice a smooth, perky caricature of an L.A. careerist. She switches character, her voice careening into a gravelly, fearful whisper in response to her own question. “Ohhh. I’m done.”
This self-critical, confessional honesty is a cornerstone of Bamford’s work. She’s small and slight — she self-identifies as a bag of bones with hair — but she’s incontrovertibly zany, full of energy even while talking about how little energy she has left. Her standup is timed and rehearsed down to the second, much closer to a meticulously scripted one-woman show than anything else; her chameleonic voice boomerangs across characters and caricatures, transforming into a concerned-yet-superior acquaintance, a midwestern mother, a smug stand-up dude, a prototypical woman comic cracking jokes about periods and bad sex. I’ve watched enough of her shows to know that she starts most of them the same way: “If you don’t know what you’re about to see, get out while you can.”
This disclaimer is something like a content warning, and she drops it because her material is far from typical comedy club fare: Bamford’s work has always revolved around her experiences with a slew of serious mental illnesses, including OCD, bipolar disorder and bulimia. The show she’s touring now addresses the death of her mother, a figure so omnipresent in Bamford’s comedic canon that many fans feel as if they knew her themselves.
Suicidal ideation, trauma, 12-step programs and personal failure aren’t the easiest topics to work into an hour-long comedy set, but she’s one of the greats: every comedian aims to make an audience laugh so hard they cry, but Maria Bamford is one of the few who can also make them cry so hard they laugh. She’s simultaneously tragic and hilarious, hopeful and defeatist, knowing the game is stacked against her but determined to participate anyway.
Bamford cuts herself open on the operating table. Famously, she’s turned weakness into a tongue-in-cheek brand — she digs up her darkest moments and makes them so funny that you start feeling better about yours, too. It’s almost a miracle that she manages to be so relatable while also being so immensely talented, but she has a gift for talking about both her successes and her failures in a way that taps into a kind of collective neuroses.
“Stephen Colbert once called me the greatest comedian in the world. A few years later, he referred to me as ‘one of his favourites’,” she deadpans in her latest set. “Precipitous drop.” It’s funny because, fundamentally, we get it. Not everyone can be one of the funniest people on Earth, but we’ve all had tons of experience being pretty absurd.
During my conversation with Bamford, I tell her that I was diagnosed with OCD this year. It’s a prodigiously misunderstood disorder, and one we have in common; the first time I watched her joke about it in a special, it was like my own brain had been splattered across the computer screen. Talking to her about my own intrusive thoughts was almost surreal — it felt weirdly intimidating, like I was speaking to a master of the form. As we discussed pathologies, she chimed in with nods of commiseration, interjecting to ask if I’d ever thought about killing my family or cheating on my boyfriend. Yes! God yes!
This is Bamford’s gift, whether in conversation or in front of a crowd of hundreds. She talks about the skeletons in your closet, the ones you try not to think about yourself; she opens the door, shuffles them around a little, shows you that hers don’t look too different.
In conversation, she speaks in a midwestern warble that makes you feel certain she’d give a good hug. She reminds me of my mother (also a crazy, wonderful genius) whenever she’s not reminding me of myself. I’m sure I’m not alone.
How are you doing? What have you been up to over the pandemic?
Okay, you know, I would think I’ve been extremely privileged to work in show business, so some things were still on, like animation and voiceover, and I was able to do some shows online. And people were bored, so they were willing to watch those shows. So I was able to still pay the bills, and that has been a real relief. My mom passed away during the quarantine, not of COVID but of lung cancer, and that was tough. But grateful to still be a part of what’s happening, and alive. So far!
Yeah, don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Exactly. Exactly. Never be grateful!
That’s a good philosophy to live by.
That’s when God gets ya.
I feel like a lot of comedians have sort of talked about how it’s kind of weird making jokes when you can’t see people laughing. Did you feel like it was harder to get a feel for what was working?
Well, because I’m more of a theatrical comedian, my deal has always been, like, do I find it funny? On some level, and this is problematic, I’m sure, and why I’m probably not as popular as I could be — I’m popular with myself. I think I’m great. But it’s that I don’t really care whether other people like it. Of course I care, but on some level, existentially, I think, “Well, I have to do this all the time.” So I mean, it’s so wonderful if people laugh, but if they didn’t laugh, I would not change my material at all. I would say, “Oh, I think I’m just going to try some new people.”
That’s a great philosophy even off the stage.
I mean, it’s not the greatest thing. It has good points and bad points, like any philosophy or business model. I love businesses that are, you know, customers first and trying to please you and stuff like that. But then that means you’ve got to deal with everybody. And that’s when I feel bad for Delta. I’m sorry, Delta Airlines. How you have to deal with … with all the people that are farting on the planes … they shouldn’t be allowed on.
On a serious note — you talk about a lot of different kinds of mental illness in your work. How does it feel to be so open about things that are generally still so stigmatized?
I mean, I think, well, it was so debilitating when, when I had a mental breakdown, and I don’t know, you know, whether that was hormonal or, you know, I didn’t really have severe, you know — I’m on the lighter side of having mental illness experiences, you know, like I did, you know, heavy OCD since I was with him and depression and suicidal ideation. But, you know, I’ve known people who have had it a lot worse, you know, so I just want to say that. But when I had a breakdown of function, I guess it also made me feel more useful to talk about it. Like I feel like I don’t have much use in society beyond that maybe this is useful. If it isn’t, then oh, well. But yeah, I guess. I don’t really have a lot of shame about that. I’ve had people go, “Well, aren’t you afraid to be looked at as a sad clown?” And that’s kind of like the same thing as people saying, “That crazy, psycho bitch.” If that’s how you think about women who have mental health issues, that’s a whole other issue. Like, I don’t know if it’ll help if I hide things about myself, if that’s what you think about things, you know? Yeah. So, yeah, I figure it’s okay. As long as the most important thing is that I like myself and the same thing with the jokes. Like, I’m down.
And in your upcoming shows, the shows you’re doing now — what kind of material are you talking about?
Right now, the theme is about wanting to belong. I desperately want to participate and belong and be a part of life and, yet, how painful it is to try! Or that once you try to belong to something realizing once you know what it is, like, whether that’s a relationship, or your family or, for me, my job, then going, “Oh, I don’t know if I really want all the responsibilities that are inherent in this …” It’s like, well, you did a couple of things that you need to be doing, Maria, on a daily basis. Oh, oh, shit. Okay. That’s kind of what it is. It’s kind of me saying that it’s still okay to belong even if you do a shitty job of everything. Which is I think an ongoing theme in my tiny narrative.
Yeah, I kind of found myself on really the bum end of the social contract over the course of the pandemic, especially. Where I was like, “Oh, I have to be doing so many things …” I think it’s hard being like, you know, being very ill in a variety of ways and also wanting to build a better world but then sort of knowing that, uh, that means you have to kind of do some daily tasks.
I have a friend who, number one, is a great person; number two, she’s like, fully functional. She has an incredible brain, a beautiful brain. She just is energized and pumped and action-oriented. She’s somebody who doesn’t worry at all either. She just goes and does the thing. She just goes, “Oh, yeah, well, I’m going to help out. Yeah, I’m gonna drive over there right now.” And I am the person who thinks about it for a month. I do one shift at the food shelf. And then I go, “My back hurts.” When I’m working at this food shelf, there’s no place where I can stand where it feels good. I don’t tell anybody at this food shelf. I work there for three months. And then I say, “Oh, I just got too much work coming up.” Yeah, that’s great, Maria. I probably could have — they probably would have just given me a stool. I could probably still email them right now and say, “Hey, it was just that my back hurt, could I have a stool?” I’m obviously still thinking about it instead of doing something helpful. Yeah, I would like to be more helpful than I am. I’m doing some things, but it feels like not much.
What is it like, performing these sometimes very, very intimate things for an audience?
As always, I love being on stage. I also like attention, I do love the feeling of attention. And then usually because of the beautiful and powerful internet, usually people who come out to shows now, they know what they’ve come to see. So it’s usually positive attention. Sometimes it can still happen when I do a show and a bunch of people don’t know what they’ve come to see so they’re visibly angry. And that’s, of course, not as fun. Not visibly angry, but just that face that you make when you’re like, I asked for avocado toast and now she’s trying to sell me insurance. You know, like that kind of confusion and frustration? But, yes, it’s usually a very positive experience. It doesn’t feel very scary to me, for sure now, with the internet, where it’s like preaching to the choir, in many senses.
You’ve said many times that you’re very shy and that conversation is often difficult for you. How did you end up getting into entertainment? On the surface, to many people, that might seem like a counter-intuitive choice.
Oh, the OCD really helped! Because I didn’t want to spend any time with people! I didn’t want to spend any time alone with people, and in standup, you’re blind to the audience — you can barely see them. You can stare off into the darkness and say you’re rehearsing. It’s timed. You have this experience with endorphins. And then you get to eat immediately. So it was perfect for a shy person with terrible OCD.
Yeah, people sometimes think of show business as being an explicitly social endeavour, but I guess it’s really not a lot of the time.
Not if you don’t want it to be. And, I mean, obviously, I’m not a superstar so, you know, note the trajectory of my career and know that I am not social. Because I think it does help if you are extroverted. That is a wonderful gift.
A lot of women in your audience really see themselves in you, and you’ve talked a lot before about how a lot of people come up to you after shows and talk about your shared experiences. I know this is a really common experience for artists who talk about mental illness, and everyone sort of has a different relationship to it. How does that feel to you?
Oh, I’m very excited. I just feel worried that I’m going to say the wrong thing. Because I am not in any way a professional but just assume that I should just listen. I’m honoured that anyone would share their experience with me. Like when you shared your experience with me — I just light up. It’s such a relief.