On her way to becoming arguably the most innovative, unique and emotionally resonant comedian in the country, Maria Bamford has seen her cult following grow ever larger, even if many people still only know her from her roles in the "crazy Target lady" ads or as the meth addict Debrie in Netflix's Arrested Development. The growing audiences for her stand-up comedy stem in large part from the critical acclaim showered on her since she released in November, 2012 The Special, Special, Special video of her hour stand-up show for her parents at her home, much of it focused on her struggles with a serious mental illness, Bipolar II, that led to three hospitalizations in over a year.
Now that audience is going to grow much bigger, as Bamford is the front-runner to win the "Best Club Comic" prize at The American Comedy Awards, airing on NBC on Thursday, May 8th -- and her at-home special hits Netflix on May 15th, reaching potentially millions of new fans seeking smart, original comedy. First released as a $5 video download, it was her darkest and most confessional material so far in pursuit of her singular comedic vision. Yet it brought her not only a bigger fan base and sell-out shows in larger theaters -- as captured before a Portland crowd in her latest CD, Ask Me About My New God, largely adapted from the earlier video-- but confirmed why she has been so revered by loyal fans and fellow comedians for several years. She's now performing at the top of her game, as the awe-struck reviews of her show at Austin's Moontower Comedy festival in late April by critics from the Austin American-Statesman and the thoughtful Spit Take magazine underscore; seeing her live is indeed like viewing a "thrilling...multi-level magic act."
This week, after triumphing at last year's Women in Comedy Festival, she's returning to headline at the larger 1,200 seat Wilbur Theater on May 8th. I'm a relatively late-arriving convert to the world of Bamford's acolytes, as seen in her 111,000 Twitter followers and the awe-struck adoration of fans, some literally thanking her for saving their lives from suicidal despair. I didn't know about her until about two years ago, even though I consider myself a bit of a comedy maven, until I ran across a 2010 interview she did on Marc Maron's WTF podcast.
I soon discovered an astounding body of work that showcased her remarkable ability to change voices, imitate friends and family, and look at the traumas and humiliations of daily life and her own fragile mental state in a fresh, hilarious and absurdist way, all the while exposing the vulnerable heart that most other comics cover over with a carapace of cynicism and aggressive toughness. She displayed all of these special qualities as early as her first Comedy Central special in 2001, but she kept growing in range and self-revelation that increasingly won the notice of fellow comics. Although she shared few of the hallmarks of the "alternative" comedy scene -- such as frequent cursing and sexual frankness -- she was first showcased in 2004 by Patton Oswalt along with Zach Galifianakis and others in a road tour captured in a 2005 documentary and a spin-off Comedy Central series, The Comedians of Comedy, that exposed her to a wider audience.
But without regular high-profile TV exposure and while earning a living primarily as a voice actress and comedy club road comic, by 2005, she still developed a one-woman show, Plan B, playing over a dozen characters, about a fictional crack-up leading to her return to her family home in Duluth; it won acclaim in the Melbourne and Edinburgh comedy festivals. That was expanded in 2007 into the 20-episode "The Maria Bamford Show" web series that is now generally acknowledged as a masterpiece, even being screened along with "Grey Gardens" at New York's Museum of Art and Design. Her 2009 CD/DVD, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome that's packaged with that web series was hailed as one of the best of the decade; until the release of her recent at-home video special and new CD, it was her most personal, funniest and even transgressive work yet. That's especially shown in her startling routine (updated from her web series), "Free Clinic," about going into therapy for her OCD-driven dangerously violent and sexual thoughts, with language and imagery as shocking as anything Sam Kinison ever did but delivered in her own meek style. Yet as her new web series, "Ask My Mom," demonstrates, she's still able to poke gentle fun at the foibles of her own mother.
One sign of her special status is the quality of the comedians who so admire her and cite her as their favorite. They're part of a mini-trend of comedians and story-tellers who also aren't afraid to return genuine emotion and vulnerability to comedy, including Tig Notaro, her friend Jackie Kashian, Marc Maron and Mike Birbiglia. Comedy titan Louie C.K. also featured her playing a fictional version of herself in a two-part arc in his series Louie. Birbiglia, the story-teller best known for Sleepwalk With Me, tweeted after a recent Bamford show, " I've never seen a comedian who made me want to give 25 standing ovations in one set.” One of the great comics who tours with her, Erin Foley, summed up as well as anyone why she called Bamford, her favorite comic, "a dream sequence." Foley said, "She is all parts smart, honest, poignant, imaginative, brilliant and silly. I think she might be from the future."
That future is here for those who get to see her in person, as I did most recently at the Sixth and I synagogue that doubles as an arts showcase in Washington, D.C. There's something essential about Maria Bamford in person that the rave reviews of her CDs and videos somehow miss: It is her astonishing mastery of the crowd as they follow each whisper, mumbled aside and altered voice, supplemented with a physicality that includes changing her face, the look in her eyes and even her body carriage to fit each character and a playfulness that includes sometimes rolling around on the stage just for laughs. What she has called her "quiet, odd joke-stories" aren't either standard jokes or monologues, but artfully condensed mini-playlets with the quick-change artist Bamford deploying at once all her gifts for mimicry, off-beat observations and precise, sometimes surrealistic, language. And who else opens a show in a synagogue noting that she was upset to discover a limit to the available genocide documentaries she could put in her Netflix queue?
I talked to her a while ago by phone about how she transforms her personal pain into comedic gold, and she spoke with the mix of frankness, awkward hesitations and humility that also mark the podcasts she uses as a sounding board for new or under-construction routines and painful confessions. She also revealed how some wrong choices in prescribing slowed her recovery, and how being told to go off all her psychiatric medication before being subjected to a scientifically unproven brain scan plunged her into her deepest depression. But as thoughtful, self-effacing and open as she is, she doesn't fully unveil the secrets of the creative alchemy embedded inside the comedic mind of Maria Bamford.
A.L.: Basically, I want to just have a conversation about your work and your art and how your work has evolved. Your Special Special Special, which I loved and so many critics loved, was done for an audience of just two people, your parents. Why did you choose them as your audience to hear some of this very daring new material about your experiences with mental illness and suicide and hospitalization?
Maria Bamford: Well, it was actually easier to get my parents and, you know, it wasn’t really an issue: it was the easiest thing to do a show in my house and get my parents to watch. They are always a good audience, so they were super supportive. How could it go wrong?
A.L.: Well, about how it could go wrong, one of the things I noticed with some of your fellow comics on podcasts , when you spoke about this, was that they were basically totally amazed. They seemed to not be able to imagine that you could tell such raw material directly in front of your parents. How did you deliver that type of material without having to pull your punches or feeling self-conscious? What was going on inside you internally while you were delivering this very naked material about these troubling experiences?
Maria Bamford: It wasn’t very stressful because my family has seen me perform a bunch of times and we’re very open. My Mom is a family therapist and my Dad’s also very well-versed; they've followed different philosophies of self -help. They are all on board, and my Mom has had her own experiences with mental illness. So it wasn’t that scary for me at all. I was more thinking about what the crew thought than my parents, actually.
A.L.: In terms of that, one of the things I’m interested in with this new material that you did for the special, you got some of the most celebratory national attention , we're talking about The New York Times, The New Yorker, the A.V. Club, all these rave reviews for this material and you’ve broadened your audience. A number of people are discovering you as a comic and also people who care about these issues about mental health are also coming to your shows. So how does that kind of success, with that kind of material, affect you as a touring comic who has to go out and is delivering brand new material? Like when I saw you do that in Boston, where you made some sort of self- deprecatory comments that also got laughs about the new premises that you were introducing
Maria Bamford: Yeah, I think it's like any business or artist where your putting out, because you have to put out new things and try new things, then people go: "I like the old stuff or "I like the new stuff, I'm so glad you’re out of the old stuff" or "I don’t know you exist ,who cares?" The main thing, at least for me, is to keep making stuff, that’s what came out this time. I don’t know what will come out next time so it’s very exciting.
A.L.: You've covered different life areas as your comedy has evolved over time. When you’re going to your audiences now with this new material, when you're deciding what to bring forward as new material , how do you measure it, what makes the cut for you about what’s audience -worthy to put on in a performance at a theatre or club?
Maria Bamford: Well, It’s sort of just risking ...you have to do new material and risk failing. It’s all subjective. I'm sure some people will say "That person's whole career is a failure." I think you keep making things and it’s so hard to say when something's done or complete or that’s the best version to see it or now it's okay for people to see it. It doesn’t help me so much to think that way because I have a hard of enough time as it is, creating things in the first place -- and then to put limitations on when it will be good enough.
A.L.: Well, your fans are very welcoming of you and I was delighted to hear this new material. One of the things that is so amazing about your work and I want to understand a little bit about the craft involved here: You had gone through such horrific experiences and I was trying to get a sense, how long did it take you to be able to be funny about these really upsetting and troubling experiences in your life? For instance, you had said you were hospitalized like three times over the space of maybe a year and a half. I was trying to understand how things evolved in the life experiences and how that later got shaped into your art. What are the instances or developments that led to the first hospitalization and when did that occur -- and how did you end up deciding you needed to go to the hospital or did friends pressure you to do so or what happened ?
Maria Bamford: I think things had been building up for awhile and I had turned 40; I mean, I don’t know if that can biologically upset people differently or for women or if that was an element of it. I was working a lot more than I ever had. I was on some national commercials and I was like, "Things are great." But it was also very stressful, just a new experience and I know there’s mental illness in my family. I’ve always told my friends, if I ever start talking too fast, let me know and I did start talking fast and start being pretty agitated. And that’s not totally out of line living in a major city in the US. But I think my friends started to notice that I wasn’t feeling so good and I was told by my psychiatrist, I need to go on mood stabilizers but I kind of refused to because I thought I had some stigma in my head about it: that means I’m crazy. So I didn’t, but my friends started noticing it and showed concern. That’s when I went in the first time, I didn’t want to go by myself [at home] trying new medication because I was already feeling kind of bad. I didn’t want my friends and family to have to worry about me.
A.L.: So you went into the hospital, that first time, it was voluntary.
Maria Bamford: Oh, yeah. I’ve been on the other side of somebody being hospitalized and it’s so stressful if someone's so ill and they're saying, "I can handle it, I want to stay home" and you’re like, "Oh my God, what if you die or run out in front of a car thinking you’re Jesus?" So I didn’t want to do that to anybody, and so that was the first time. Then I got on this medication and was trying to work that out, but it turns out that the medication I was on, Lamictal , has some cognitive side effects where you can not be able to speak or talk properly or words get jumbled. I didn't stop work, I kept touring. I just think all these medications have side effects and you never know…
A.L.: They didn’t tell you about some of the cognitive effects?
Maria Bamford No, I had to look that up on my own as it was happening.
A.L.: I heard you had problems in Chicago or what were some problems you had?
Maria Bamford: Hard times saying [words]. I know I did some shows in LA where I couldn’t think of the words and I used the wrong word. Instead of "relevant," I said "revelry" [in the punch line].
A.L.: Is that in the Botox routine?
Maria Bamford: Yes, so that didn’t quite make sense.
A.L.: Did your audience know that you had not made sense or did they think, what an absurd wonderful touch from the lovely Maria Bamford?
Maria Bamford: I don’t know, I did not stick around.
A.L.: But it scared you.
Maria Bamford: Yeah that’s all, it was very frightening. You know when you’re sick, it's like my brain is already not doing so great. So then if there’s an added side-effect, it seems more catastrophe upon catastrophe. If you’re having depressing thoughts already and now you can’t do your job because of the side effects, it's going to feel more hopeless than it actually is.
That's what I think what happened. I flew to Chicago, and you know when you know, "This is going to be bad," but I thought, " I’ll just keep going and maybe my body will just keep going." I was trying to rehearse in my hotel room before [this show] and I was just going through stuff and literally I could not even say the words. Maybe they were coming out. It was very odd and I think I was getting increasingly more upset. I get nervous before shows anyways; this was amped. I ended up canceling those shows right before the show, and flew home to the hospital again and that again was my own choice.
A.L.: In Chicago, you ended up bleeding, how did that come about? Because that sounds like you must have been so disoriented.
Maria Bamford: I don’t know what happened. I went for a walk, sometimes that helps me before shows to take a walk. So I go for a walk and somehow I got back to my hotel and I didn’t have any of my identification. I couldn’t calm down from the walk and called my Mom and my manager and they said -- my manager for the first time in Bruce Smith's history, in three years -- said, "Let’s cancel these shows." He never cancelled a show before. I was bleeding, I might have scratched myself on something. So when I got to the airport, I didn’t have any ID and was lightly bleeding from my hand and shaking. It was not a good time, but then I went into the hospital again.
Part of the reason I went in was Lamictal, because I refused to get on Depakote. My Mom had done really good on Depakote. One of the side effects of Depakote is that you’re supposed to gain an enormous amount of weight. It can be like that, so out of vanity I didn’t want to go on that drug. Although that would have been probably the most responsible and best choice for me, but I still refused to go on it. The psychiatrist said, "Well, let’s do a brain scan." I guess there's the new technology to see what medication you’ll do best on and [following the scan] that's when I was involuntarily brought in: being off all the medications was a real breakdown. I think I was irritated with the psychiatrist and, in retrospect, thinking, well that was a little irresponsible to take someone off all the meds.
A.L.: How many days were you off the meds and was that the precipitating incident that led to an involuntarily admission?
Maria Bamford: I think it was, I was off the meds for a little over a week. I’m not sure exactly how long. The first brain scan said, you’ll do really well on Depakote, which I would have known well in the first place. I ended up getting on Depakote and I haven’t seen any weight gain at all. Hilarious.
A.L.: Here’s the issue, what was the incident or in your behavior such that you were involuntarily committed? You had a real basic falling apart and is that when the deep suicidal stuff came to light most deeply in the wake of being without the medication?
Maria Bamford: Yeah, without the medication for sure, it was like really bad and they were like, "You have to promise you’re not going to hurt yourself." I wasn’t feeling [well], every second was unbearable. Just unbearable and I really did have a plan. I knew in some corner of my psyche that would bum people out. But I wasn’t well and I was like, "I just want this to be over, the terrible suffering."
A.L.: So when you were in the hospital, did they put you on Depakote and stabilize you in any way?
Maria Bamford: Yeah, but it was miserable. I don’t feel like I really felt like myself or better until maybe like eight months.
A.L.: I hate to ask about a very personal thing but you have discussed it and did a routine about it. When did in all this process, did your beloved [pug] Blossom die with your inattention issues?
Maria Bamford: That was actually before any of the hospitalizations.
A.L.: So you had all this stress, high profile TV ad and the misery and guilt from your dog was all preceding this, this sort of excess deterioration that was going on.
Maria Bamford: Yes, for sure.
A.L.: The reason I was asking about it --and you’ve spoken at length that’s open and very moving for many people about your experiences -- I’m trying to understand how, why and when the ability to make humor out of this occurred. So you’re going through these horrible experiences, a series of terrible things. When did you begin to be able to either first with friends and thinking of yourself as a comic and artist decide, how to have enough distance to be funny with these terrible experiences? Or were you thinking, like Nora Ephron once said, "Everything’s material?" So were you thinking in the middle of this horrible stuff, maybe I can get some funny stuff out of it? Or you were so gone, and you couldn't do it? How did it evolve from really bad things occurring to your turning around and then creating comedy out of this bad stuff?
Maria Bamford: I don’t know, I think it is mysterious and it could be argued that some people might still not find it funny. For me, when I start to feel better --and it 's different for everybody -- sometimes it takes an excruciating amount of time to find the right combination of meds and I go back and forth and come in and out. I didn’t think it was super funny at first, at least for me, when I tried doing some material I felt so vulnerable about it. Doing material is always vulnerable because you don’t know it as well.
A.L.: So you were tentatively trying material about these experiences or on other things?
Maria Bamford: Yes, a lot on those experiences.
A.L.: So when were you workshopping this preliminary stuff?
Maria Bamford: Oh gosh, I’m not very good with dates.
A.L.: But it would have been after the first or second hospitalization or third hospitalization?
Maria Bamford: It would be long after the third hospitalization.
A.L.: So what was a turning point for you? What was a piece of material you started to develop off of these bad experiences? What was that like -- the process -- and how was it for you psychologically about creating material about this horrible stuff that happened to you?
Maria Bamford: I don’t know, there's a couple places I felt relatively safe and comfortable, kind of low pressure. There was a small art gallery, the Fake Gallery, where you can put on a show. So I did a couple of things there and run doing a hour because I was so scared I would not be able to remember things.
A.L.: So you did an hour of old and new material?
Maria Bamford: Yeah.
A.L.: So you were getting back into shape and condition. So here’s why I’m mentioning this: I had an experience in my mid- twenties where I did a humorous first-person piece for a magazine I had left and it was about my chronic insomnia when I was a teenager and my years of regular sleeping pill use and how I got off that and took nutritional supplements. But first I had to actually get off nightly using sleeping pills to be able to write the article about not needing the nightly use of sleeping pills. So when I turned that suffering and pain dogging my life -- which is nowhere near what you experienced -- into comic material, it was really liberating for me to be able to write that article.
Maria Bamford: Right, yeah!
A.L.: I wanted to know what -- and you had a lot more extreme suffering -- did it mean for you psychologically and creatively to develop material after going all through what you went through?
Maria Bamford: I think it was empowering, I was very ashamed about it. So if I talked about it, I was making it okay with myself and it felt kind of useful because I thought if anyone else has gone through situations like this, well, okay, then maybe they won’t feel so bad. Maybe they’ll come talk to me after a show so then I won’t feel so bad. It’s a circle of not feeling bad. That’s why I wanted to talk about it. I had so many [feelings]... not so much shame but a lot of fear and anger and how frightening it is to lose your marbles. It's a human experience, and we want to talk about it. It's not that deep.
A.L.: One of the things that’s interesting to me is that looking at your career artistically is that in 2009, you had released the Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome album and you had been doing material that was pretty raw and frank about the obsessive compulsive disorder and unwanted thoughts syndrome. I think that is very brilliant writing and material: your conversations with your therapist and so on. So what I was struck by was that you had already been putting yourself out there discussing a serious mental illness and yet you said that you felt real shame about this new development in your psychological health. I was wondering why that was for you, because you already told your audience, "Well, I have OCD, very unwanted thoughts and I got it handled." Was it then the fact that new issues were arising and psychologically it was so upsetting? It wasn’t like you had not discussed and done routines about your mental health before this latest round of horrible stuff.
Maria Bamford: Yeah, it was frightening to me that I was embarrassed about it. I was surprised I felt that embarrassed about it and frightened by it. It's exciting and new and I read a ton about mental illness, all sorts of experiences. I'm not sure why I felt so embarrassed, but that’s how I felt.
A.L.: So in creating the routines, was that basically a way to slam those experiences down or achieve some control over them? How did the creation of these routines relate to dealing with mastering getting over the experiences?
Maria Bamford: I know with the OCD thing, I had to be done with it , to kind of be recovered in some way to be able to talk about it. Otherwise, for me at least , it was hard to get some sort of distance from it so that I knew what it was and I was comfortable with it. So the thing with the art of whatever it is, of suicidal breakdown or whatever, it's when once I 'm more comfortable with it, part of that is feeling better, feeling more like myself again: Oh, that was an illness, that’s not me or that wasn’t forever, and I felt more confident.
A.L.: When you mention the OCD thing, looking over your career material, one thing that struck me as a breakthrough in terms of your frankness about mental illness was that on your earlier tours on The How to Win CD and Comedians of Comedy was the bit called, "The Anxiety Song." So how does that go?
Maria Bamford [in half-spoken song]: If I keep the ice cube trays filled no one will die; if I clench my fists at odd intervals, the darkness within me won't force to me to do inappropriately violent or sexual-- or violent or sexual things -- at dinner parties. As long as I keep humming a tune, I won't turn gay. And they can't get you, if you're singing a song!
A.L.: It’s short, but it’s amazing and frank. What was going on for you in your life that allowed you to do that routine and how did you get yourself comfortable enough to do that routine? How did audiences first react when you started doing it? What was going on that allowed you to develop this new openness in your life?
Maria Bamford: I had started going to see someone about that issue and felt more comfortable. I went to therapy about that specifically and read stuff and felt more comfortable about that. I think at that point I was doing stand-up for like 10 years and had some success and was probably more confident in that way and could get somewhat personal. But I always assume what someone says on stage is true, at least on some level.
A.L.: One of the things that’s so remarkable about you as a comedian is that your act is so unique, its unstealable. No one's going to take that bit about being in the hospital [visited by a friend]; that's not going to happen. Your material doesn’t rest on a single joke to sell the material. It’s so finely wrought. In that spirit, I wanted to ask you about this bit that I wrote this rave about when I reviewed your show.
Maria Bamford: I heard it was good. I get nervous about reading things. I don’t read. Positive or negative, I try not to read it. It's best to just keep making things.
A.L.: Was that the case with the reviews of the Special, Special Special that the New York Times and the New Yorker did?
Maria Bamford: I looked at those a little bit. I've heard other artists say, "If you start believing all the good press, you’re going to start believing the bad press, too."
A.L.: Oh, I see. You’re sort of protecting yourself artistically.
Maria Bamford: And the most important thing is that I think it’s good and I like it. That’s the most important thing: I’m the one who has to do it.
A.L.: I heard you had said someplace that when you’re creating material, if you think it’s funny, that’s one person. I did want to ask you about two of the routines and I'm talking in paraphrase, so I’m not really giving it away. One is this routine about the New Age friend visiting you and giving you blessings to move on to the next dimension while you’re being suicidal in the hospital. It was so amazing and your ability to create this character, and I refer to what you do as playing that character as instant method acting. Your body changes, your eyes, everything changes. Not just your voice. How did the real person -- or people -- you were lampooning act and what was their reaction afterwards?
Maria Bamford: It is something that happened, and it was also an attitude I've heard, in Los Angeles as well. I did have someone come and say, maybe you just need to move to the next world in which...
A.L.: Oh, God!
Maria Bamford:... in this case it’s going to be positive that you die. That was spectacularly odd. I did have that experience. That's a helpful thing for some people who believe that's where you go.
A.L.: But it wasn't for you
Maria Bamford: It wasn't for me. It was a little, uh, insensitive.
A.L.: When I saw you do it live, for people who hadn't heard the routine or didn't see the film, there was a shocked gasp from at least one audience member. You're doing the routine, and they couldn't believe someone would be so insensitive and clueless.
Maria Bamford: Let's say someone you love is ill and dying. This has meaning, and you say they're meant to go to the Great Beyond, that's very comforting. I think the person was also angry at me and felt that the illness was sort of a choice or I was making this drama. I think there were other elements there, where I don't know exactly how the person felt, it seemed to come off :I let you go, you're on your own with this one, because I think kind of you're doing this yourself. I could understand, too. I've hd friends who had different illnesses, mental or otherwise, and sometimes I've risen to the occasion, and sometimes I have not. You deal with things the way you can. I'm sure I'm an irritating person.
A.L.: Obviously not based on that one person or encounter, you were actually addressing a whole mindset , you were talking about an attitude that’s all too common in LA and elsewhere. What was the reaction of the person upon whom the germ of the routine was based when she learned about it or saw it? Did you get any feedback about that?
Maria Bamford: No, I don’t think they noticed. I don’t think they did. If they did, they didn’t say anything.
A.L.: In other words, they didn’t notice after it was cited with all the reviews for your show. They didn’t notice..that’s amazing.
Maria Bamford: I think if somebody did a dead-on impersonation of me or even said words I said , I'm not sure [I could recognize it]...Sometimes they say, "I heard what that person said but I heard in a way they didn’t mean." Who knows? I could see why you didn't see yourself in something if that's not what you thought you said.
A.L.: I see your point. For years, you have been doing impersonations that to us, outsiders who don't really don’t know your family members, seem like dead-on and seem like they are accurate. How has your family's reaction over time evolved, from your days in Minnesota doing some impersonations of them and that’s been a core of a lot of your material over the years? How have their attitudes changed or evolved or have they remained the same?
Maria Bamford: They have been incredibly generous and understanding about it and I really can’t complain at all about how good natured they have been about it. I've had people do impersonations of me, and it's hard to see when somebody sees your tics and caricatures of it. They have been really kind about it.
A.L.: Now, when you were doing the Blossom routine [on her dog's death], I actually couldn’t believe you had the courage to develop a routine about how your dog died and do kind of an impression of how the dog might react. It was daring stuff and this is so deeply, deeply painful for you, to then go create a comic routine around this highly traumatizing incident in your life. How did you go about creating it and then trying it out? What did it mean to you to be able to create that routine about this horrific trauma in your life?
Maria Bamford: Well, I have lots of supportive comic friends so I tried it a few times in front of friends before trying it on stage. And again some people may not find it funny. I do like that process of something you’re super ashamed about and when you talk about it, it’s less powerful. I did find it difficult as there was no information and it is difficult for people to talk to about a tragic mistake. I actually even Googled about "How I was responsible for someone’s accidental death." I don’t even have children but you can’t even imagine how someone would go on. And it was a real comfort to me, that there are people who have shared that and I typed it into an Internet engine there was these horrendous stories. I was distracted, left my dog in a truck cab it was too hot, and their beloved dog, after they brought groceries in and hung around the house for two hours, died. At least a few times a year in the U.S. someone will leave an infant in a car by accident. Obviously, I was really grateful for anyone who put that online because, it made me feel better, at least not feel alone.
A.L.: A lot of the message in your new material is that you're not alone, these things happen and is happening to other people. But other elements of the new material in particular is about stigmatizing people with mental illness that we would not do with physical illnesses. I was so struck by it. Do you feel you're addressing a civil rights issue for this population, people with mental illness, in a way? It's similar in spirit, even if not exactly the same, the way an earlier generation of comedians was talking about discrimination against blacks, women and gays.
Maria Bamford: That discrimination is ongoing, and there's tons of unfairness and bigotry in the world. I never experienced that much of it. I'm white and had a fairly privileged upbringing, so maybe it's just a shocker. I had heard that so many times, you think someone's crazy, and kind of being dismissive. They're a human being.
A.L.: Do you think you're taking on this like Richard Pryor or Dick Gregory or Chris Rock, an earlier generation, were taking on race or politics, that you're taking on an added role as a social critic with this new material? How do you think it will affect your comedy moving forward?
Maria Bamford: I'm not a super politically active person. I'm pro-people and pro-humanity and pro-love ,and I know everyone describes that differently. But I don't see myself doing that.
A.L.: It has a political dimension now to a degree, a social justice dimension.
Maria Bamford: Yes, social justice, it is related to mental illness, there's no funding and no one to speak for them. Just as there are so many populations in our culture, that it's really hard to get any sort of leg up before falling back down again. I don't have any solution. I don't know if the arts change anything, but one thing is, it makes me feel better, and that's one person.
A.L.: One thing I wanted to ask about your art was your creative process. In some interviews, you say it takes five years to put together an entirely fresh hour of material and in another interview you said you write about three pages a day. Do you generate a lot of written material and try it out and winnow it down? How do your bits develop? They're so beautifully written and designed, but it depends so much on your delivery, like the one [ on relationships] when you throw in the line, "he doesn't like onions." And it kills. It's a mystery to us.
Maria Bamford: I don’t really know myself. I think that’s the fun part, you don’t know where it comes from, or how it’s going to come out or how long it's going to take or if it's even done, or if it's even any good -- or what good is. Who knows? Who knows? It's all very mysterious.
[While ringing off] I'm so sorry, I get to the point that I'm so introverted that I can't talk any more.
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly and an Alicia Patterson Fellow researching mental health reform, also writes periodically on comedy and music for The Huffington Post, Spit Take Magazine and Oregon Music News, among other outlets. He is working on a book on mental health for Overlook Press.