Comedian Maria Bamford on anxiety, depression and avoiding hecklers
Maria Bamford has long been a comedian of choice for those who enjoy offbeat humor grounded in absurdist, sharply observed character sketches. Over the last decade and a half, Bamford has raised her public profile with appearances on the Comedians of Comedy Tour, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and three years of Target Christmas commercials that give holiday shopping the surrealistic and borderline psychotic edge it so richly deserves.
Natalie Brasington Maria Bamford
Bamford will be at the Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 10; in advance of her appearance, she answered some questions via e-mail regarding her relatively recent openness about her real-life struggle with anxiety and depression in her act, avoiding environments conducive to hecklers and how she develops and introduces new material into her shows.
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Westword: You joke in various ways about your dysfunctional family and emotional reactions to the absurd situations you've encountered in your life. How did you come to terms with being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then even joke about that in a direct way?
Maria Bamford: I'd always had problems with depression and anxiety and it runs in my family, so it's not a big deal to talk about it. Then the SSRI meds I'd been on for many years stopped working and it was suggested by my [doctor] that I try mood stabilizers (Lithium, Depakote, Lamictal -- ask a professional for more info [wink]) because of [my] inability to sleep [and a] deeper depression than I'd ever experienced before. I was ashamed at first about getting the new "bipolar" diagnosis but it has really helped me that other people have come out and said that they also have it (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Patty Duke, [among] many others) and that it's just another name for mental illness. "Crazy" is a slur used to shame people into not asking for help or to blame themselves.
The bits you've done for Tim and Eric's show blur that line between hilarious and disturbing in a way few other comedians would try or do well. What was it like working with them and how much input did you have in coming up with that material?
It was all their idea. I'm not the greatest actor so screaming and over-the-top are my favorites. They're really nice and extremely inspiring with how prolific and brave they are in their work.
As someone who spent most of the '90s working in customer service-oriented jobs and the like, your stories of doing that sort of work resonate well with me. What is it about that work and that work environment that made it especially fertile territory for your humor?
I felt the best in secretarial work because I'm introverted, but anything one on one in customer service is [a thousand] percent more terrifying than being on stage. I would have terrible nightmares before waitressing shifts.
In the movie Heckler you had some of the best, most devastating comments of the movie. How do you generally deal with hecklers and do you get many?
Really? That's funny. I haven't had to use them just because I think, as a small woman, and the fact that I actively avoid heckle-prone environments -- Long Island, London, small-town bars, my family -- and now, it's extremely rare. I feel like I would really have a hard time with it now. I find it frightening when anything happens in the crowd. I'd like to change my neural pathways so that that might change.
When you did the Comedians of Comedy tour, did that make touring easier in any way to be touring with a group of comedians?
That tour changed my life in terms of exposure and I can't thank those guys enough for having me be a part of it. I love comedians and now I bring my own opener, but I don't like doing long tours. I like to be home with my boyfriend and dog.
Do you feel you write your material ahead of time or do you feel you do a lot of improv in crafting that material, perhaps in the fashion of extemporaneous speaking? When you have new material do you throw that into the sets you do on tour? Do you test it out at open mics and then refine it after seeing the reaction from people and how you felt it worked?
I wish I improvised more. I'd like to. I work on things over and over again with other comics and on stage. It's a slow process for me and I try to work in new material all the time, but I'm afraid of trying new things for sure. I need support from fellow artists to risk failure.
You are more of a storyteller than a standard joke writer. Why does that approach more suit your sense of humor? Is that informed in any way by your creative writing background?
I don't know. That's how it comes out. I don't really think about it.
This may be something that just appeared on the Internet somehow. But you play violin? When did you start? What do you enjoy about playing violin these days?
I played as a child and then quit altogether [fifteen] years ago. It's not something I do anymore. I didn't really ever enjoy it.
How did you get involved in those Target ads and the producers of those ads in terms of the content? When you did that for the second year, what did they tell you regarding the feedback they got from those commercials that made them want to approach you again?
An ad agency in Portland pitched the idea and they aired for three years. It was a wonderful experience and I'm not sure what all the feedback was but just that they did it three years and that's a pretty great run!
Maria Bamford's Amiable Basilisks. That Amiable Basilisks is probably just a ridiculous and amusing couple of words to put together. Is there any more significance to that name for you?
Friendly Shells. I think you're right.
I first became aware of your comedy sometime in the early to mid-'90s on comedy round-up type of shows on Comedy Central or elsewhere and have been a fan since. But it seems it is within the last decade or so that you've been starting to get your due as a comedian. Do you feel like you did anything different and do you feel like you've been a late bloomer in some fashion when it comes to your career in comedy? Is that something you appreciate more now than perhaps you would have earlier in life?
I don't know. I feel like I've been lucky beyond any hopes I ever had. Everything has been pretty awesome for me and I've had it pretty great all along -- I've been able to work in the arts, pay the bills, have friends and family, and that's all anyone could ever ask!
Maria Bamford performs at 8 p.m. this Friday, May 10, at the Oriental Theater with Adam Cayton-Holland opening Tickets are $20; for more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Oriental website.