Maria Bamford both has, and is, the most distinctive voice in American comedy today. She naturally speaks with a high Minnesota lilt – half Fargo, half Looney Tunes – but in conversation, as on stage, she switches between different voices at dizzying speed; stoned surfer dude one moment, angry heckler the next.
In her Netflix stand-up hour The Special Special Special – listed as one of the five best comedy shows of the past decade – she had a ready put-down for someone who called her schizophrenic. “Clearly, that is not my mental illness. Schizophrenia is, of course, hearing voices, not doing voices.”
It’s a joke with a serious edge. For decades, the 51-year-old has spoken frankly onstage about her struggle with mental illness: OCD-inflicted intrusive thoughts, bipolar disorder and time spent “squatting in the psych ward”.
“Now, comedy is seen more as an art form in the US,” she tells me. “But when I began, we were listed along with karaoke in the back of a free newspaper.” Her eccentric style and dark subject matter made her an outlier. I’m sure there are some comics out there who’d go, ‘Bamford’s not a comedian, that’s theatre’ – in her best rough bro voice, this last word is spat out like an expletive. Still, if mental health is now less of a taboo for a younger generation of comedians, that’s due in part to Bamford.
Does she feel being bipolar makes her more creative? “Yes, for sure! Ohmigosh, when I don’t take my medication I can stay up all night and have a thousand insane ideas, but I also don’t want to live,” she says, brightly. “So there’s a bit of a trade-off. I’d rather be alive and not bananas-prolific than be dead and have ‘had an amazing run’.”
Today, she’s wary about taking on too much. She’s made it known that, if she agrees to work on a TV show, her health means she has to stick to “children’s hours”. She’s been let down in the past; in show business, “even if it seems like someone’s deteriorating in public, there’s no help, because it involves a lot of money,” she says. “As long as you can still function in the job, nobody cares.”
The first series of her breathlessly inventive Netflix sitcom Lady Dynamite (2016-17) was inspired by a real-life breakdown. Ironically, while making it, Bamford “had a 12-hour turnaround” between shooting sessions, she told Variety at the time, “and doing that on such heavy psychiatric meds, I was just half-asleep almost the entire day”. The second series (shot to a more forgiving schedule) was in large part a bite-the-hand-that-feeds satire about making a Netflix show. There was no series three.
These days, “I live the life of the semi-retired,” says Bamford, video-calling from her home in Altadena, California, which she shares with her artist husband Scott and a clutch of elderly, adopted pugs. I notice a painting on the wall behind her. In it, pugs surround a brightly daubed Bamford like fluffy cherubim. “It’s a portrait of narcissism,” she deadpans. She recently made it at an after-school art class aimed at children, where she didn’t have to waste time on boring stuff like perspective. “I tried to take a few adult classes, and I was just like I DON’T CARE!” The last three words come in a sort of whispered roar, with her nose pressed right up against the camera, eyes popping. It takes me quite a while to stop laughing.
Bamford would much rather be painting pugs than climbing Hollywood’s greasy pole. “Showbusiness is a bit of a cult,” she says. “It’s this weird fantasy belief system where you’re going to be ‘discovered’, or somehow brought to a new level – you’re going to make it to heaven or something – and the goalposts seem to keep moving. But people are very religious about it.”
She’s been thinking about cults a lot lately. “I’m writing a mental health memoir right now about how many cults I’ve joined.” She uses the word loosely – she includes Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, which she encourages me to join. “Because I want to be part of something, what I love about the 12-step groups [such as AA] is they are free – and they’re all on Zoom.”
Bamford is practically a cult herself: a comedian’s comedian, revered by peers and critics. Super-producer Judd Apatow (Superbad, Girls, Bridesmaids), who cast her in his new film The Bubble, has called her ”the funniest woman on Earth”; the BBC listed her as one of 12 “artists who changed the world” in 2019. When asked who their comic heroes were, about half the finalists at last year’s Funny Women stand-up awards – coming from as far afield as Denmark and Mexico – named Bamford. And yet she’s still largely unknown by the general public, despite memorable roles in TV comedies such as Arrested Development, BoJack Horseman and Louis CK’s sitcom Louie.
Speaking about Louie, she now feels “regret” about taking the role, following the star’s public confession to acts of gross sexual misconduct. “I wanted income, I wanted the prestige of working with a person,” she says. It was a case of “hearing the rumour and going ‘Huh, that sounds weird or creepy or awful – but it’s not on record, so...’” But, she points out, it’s generally women who are asked for soul-searching answers about #MeToo; nobody asks the men responsible, who carry on regardless. “The whole idea that people can be cancelled is ludicrous. There are always people who will go ‘I love that guy!’ Everybody’s fine. They all have enough money, they all have yachts to sell.”
Traditionally, comedians prepare a new stand-up set by trying out material in comedy clubs. Not Bamford. Ahead of her UK tour, she’s been doing one-to-one performances in cafes for strangers she’s arranged to meet through Twitter. “It’s been hilarious. Sometimes people will bring their kids – I’ve had a five-year-old heckling me the whole time. I’ve had someone bring a friend who did not like my stuff at all.” One time, she found herself looking for somewhere to meet in an unfamiliar town. “I chose this coffee place, and it turned out it was a coffee distribution factory.” She ended up doing a comedy set for her sole volunteer in the parking lot of a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.
For a working comedian, social media “is really empowering,” she says. Connecting with people directly means you can make work on your own terms: “If you have a thousand fans, you can make a living.” The flipside, of course, is online criticism.
“People get very agitated and angry about what’s funny, what isn’t,” she says. ”We [should] all get to find funny what we find funny,” she says. “Comedy’s an art form. I love comedy. I can even see the craft in the hate-speech of some of my colleagues.” (She won’t be drawn on who she has in mind.)
As well as criticism, of course, there’s also outright abuse from trolls. “I haven’t got it as much, I think because I’m older and out of the loop. At the same time, I get constant texts telling me to kill myself.” She laughs, and rolls her eyes. “It’s like, ‘I’ve tried! Listen, it’s not like I haven’t put in the effort.’” It’s a typical Bamford joke – delivered breezily, but so pitch-black I’m not quite sure if I’m allowed to laugh, until I realise it’s too late: I already am.
The Daily Telegraph