‘I am that pretentious white lady’
Maria Bamford talks comedy, characters, and creativity ahead of her appearance at the Blue Whale Comedy Festival
A word kept coming up during my conversation with Maria Bamford. That word is grateful. Her 20-plus years in comedy have brought her to a more mainstream level of success through recurring appearances on “Arrested Development” and her loosely autobiographical Netflix show, “Lady Dynamite.” She’s made two recent well-reviewed comedy specials, also on Netflix. She’s in a happy marriage and finding a healthier balance in her day-to-day life. It would appear that there’s a lot to be grateful for.
The seasoned stand-up comedian is known for being open about her personal struggles with mental illness. “Lady Dynamite” follows Bamford’s attempts to restart her career and life in Hollywood after being institutionalized for bipolar disorder. However, she doesn’t just shine a light on her own personal struggles through her comedy. She also brings to light the insecurities and faults that are in all of us through her own style of surrealist vocal impressions. That co-worker that takes their job responsibilities too seriously. The family member that means well when they’re giving you terrible advice. She offers critiques on the flawed individuals we all are without being conceited or antagonistic.
I talked to Bamford about her recent body of work, what comedy she’s enjoyed watching recently, and destinations to take in while she’s in Tulsa to headline Blue Whale Comedy Festival on Sept. 1 at Cain’s Ballroom. (Co-headliner Tig Notaro will perform the night before on Aug. 31.) You can find more info and purchase tickets at bluewhalecomedyfestival.com.
Andrew Deacon: Are you enjoying your vacation right now?
Maria Bamford: Yes! I’m having a wonderful vacation. It’s a lovely day. It’s not a total vacation. I’m still doing some shows but it’s nice to be away from the internet. That’s a great freedom that all of us have but is very hard to exercise.
Deacon: Have you ever been to Tulsa before?
Bamford: I haven’t. I’ve been to Oklahoma City a few times. I’m excited to visit your city. What do you recommend one sees when they’re in Tulsa?
Deacon: There’s an incredible Woody Guthrie museum I tell everyone who visits Tulsa to check out.
Bamford: That’s great! Despite the fact that under Woody Guthrie rules, I have completely sold out, making the kind of songs that no one should sing. He had high standards for his art. I’m a great admirer of his work, so that’s wonderful!
Deacon: I always recommend hanging out downtown. There’s a great park right across the street from the museum and a bunch of locally owned restaurants and boutiques.
Bamford: I am pumped. Now I’m totally excited. Not that I wasn’t before, but now you have little bits of gravy and a cookie to follow and it sounds even more exciting. As long as I can find a nice cold brew, which seems to be an addictive problem I have.
Deacon: We have cold brew.
Bamford: OK. All these things will be happening.
Deacon: I’ve followed your stand up career for a while now. One thing I’ve noticed is your stand up has transitioned from being centrally based around your struggles with mental health to other topics such as your marriage and your career. How does it feel to be creating material that comes from a more positive place now?
Bamford: I always like to talk about what’s going on, and I’m super grateful that I’ve had very happy things to talk about. Life can be a series of ups and downs, and I just try to talk about it as I go along. I try to absorb whatever is in front of me, so I’m grateful that I’m creating any new material. I’m happy with what is coming out, I think—and, if not, more stuff will come out in a few years I hope, and then I’ll do that. If the stuff I’m doing now isn’t any good…
Deacon: Just wait as-is around half a decade?
Deacon: When did you start experimenting with the sound of your voice? Was it something you were doing when you started doing comedy?
Bamford: I started doing it because it gets people’s attention. The sound of my own voice has been described as irritating, so when you hear that more than once you think, ‘Maybe I should try and do some characters.’ So I started doing other characters like my parents or my sister or even the type of people that I’m not, someone that’s overly confident. I don’t have many of them. I’m not a genius. It’s a great way to illustrate an idea without having to explain it. It came from other comics saying that I needed to explain my bits more. The thing is, that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. To me, the fun thing is not explaining where these ideas come from. All the characters are a part of myself in some way. I am that pretentious white lady.
Deacon: We’ve all been the pretentious white lady at one point.
Bamford: Yeah, everybody has it within them. I hope.
Deacon: Your most recent specials “Old Baby” and “The Special Special Special!” have a different format from the traditional comedy special. Was this something you always wanted to do with your specials?
Bamford: No. With “The Special Special Special!” I did it out of my house as a necessity. I was just recently starting to feel better after some psychiatric issues. I thought, ‘let’s make it the easiest thing possible.’ I can roll out of bed and perform to the easiest possible audience in the world: my parents. They can’t hear very well. I paid them and bribed them with beer. It came from a position of sloth.
With “Old Baby,” I liked the idea that you’re so dependent on the context for comedy. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience before where, depending on where people see something, it really makes a difference in their reaction to what it is. I have this one dear friend and I will always remember this story.
She said: “When I met you, and you said you were a comedian, I said, ‘OK, well good luck with that.’ And then, I saw you at a show in a tiny used bookstore and I was like, ‘Well, good for you,’ you know? ‘Good for you.’ And then I saw you at this other show and there were more people, and I was like, ‘Huh?’ And then I saw you at this big show and I thought you’ve got something. And then I saw you on TV and I thought, ‘You’re a star!’” I like the idea of how that context can snowball.
I’m so grateful for the illusion of stand up, where you’re lit and amplified in front of a group of people as if you’re in control of something, but that’s a gift from the audience that they could take away if they wanted to. When you’re taping a special, where the audience has been warmed up and told what to do, you’re set up to do well. So I like the idea where it’s just me and four people on a bench who are thinking, “Well, I don’t know about this.” I’m sure it was uncomfortable to watch. It was a funny idea to me. I’m not sure how it was perceived.
Deacon: As someone who performs comedy, I’ve had that experience before. I remember running into someone I recognized when I started doing comedy. That night I was performing at a laundromat in Dallas, Texas.
Bamford: Of course.
Deacon: After my set, a person I know from some chamber of commerce meeting I had attended for my day job came up to me and said, “Hey there. I’m not sure what you’re getting paid to do this, but if times are this tough I’m sure I could talk to my boss about getting you some part time work.” I told him, “Thanks, but this is what I want to be doing,” and he left without saying another word.
Bamford: Little do they know that was your second laundromat show of the night. That’s the good laundromat gig that’s really hard to get booked on.
Deacon: With the popularity of your Netflix show “Lady Dynamite,” have you been getting new fans coming to your stand up shows or is it a blend of new and old fans?
Bamford: It’s a blend of the two. I’m so grateful to have been doing some theater shows now. Because of the wonderful gift of the internet, people that are coming know what they’re getting into. I appreciate that so much. I went to an improv show once and with that kind of show you never know what you’re getting into. It can be jarringly disappointing depending on what your idea of being entertained is. I understand it can be a real bummer when you’ve paid forty bucks and bought drinks coming out to see somebody and the show starts and you’re thinking, “Boo!” It’s less likely to happen now and I think that’s good for everyone. At least that’s my opinion.
There’s another school of thought that is like, “You’ve got to toughen yourself up! What you should do is go to Saudi Arabia where women are considered second class citizen. You take off your hijab and if you can win over a crowd of extremely Muslim clerics, then you know you’ve got good shit.”
Deacon: It’s that philosophy of “speaking your truth” that can be misused by some people in comedy.
Bamford: I was watching this TED Talk where the presenter was talking about how it is easy to preach to the choir. If I’m just performing to the people that have the same opinion I do, how useless is that? Which I think is a fair point. I think about that. The presenter said that sometimes what he does is he will interact with the people who have written mean things about him on the internet. He’ll enter into a dialogue with them and ask them why they wrote those things. I think that it would take an enormous period of personal growth for me to be able to do that.
Deacon: That is making my skin crawl thinking about it.
Bamford: It seems so scary.
Deacon: Jackie Kashian will also be on your show here in Tulsa. How did you two start working together?
Bamford: Jackie is an extremely generous person, and I was not a very strong headliner when I started. I was getting jobs because of TV credits but I was absolutely terrified because I hadn’t done a 45 minute set at that point. She would agree to come out on the road with me and was very supportive. We’ve known each other for 25 years. She had done a ton of road work, and I hadn’t. She has always been extremely supportive and continues to be as it turns out. She’s super funny and is a great cheerleader of the comedic arts. She has a great podcast called “The Jackie and Laurie Show,” where her and Laurie Kilmartin, who is a writer for Conan, talk about comedy and the business of it. It’s a very fun podcast if you’re a comedian.
Deacon: How much stand up do you still watch at this point in your career? Who do you enjoy watching on stage?
Bamford: Most recently, I watched Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette.” It was mind blowing. It’s something that is very challenging. It makes you wonder what comedy is for. I can totally relate to her talking about quitting. That’s very close to my heart. I also watched “Act Happy” which is Todd Glass’ comedy special with the band in the background. I also loved Todd Barry’s “The Crowd Work Tour.” I know I should be watching more but there’s just so many things to watch.
I was in Montreal for the Just for Laughs comedy festival and we saw all the New Faces shows. I thought how great it was that there’s hundreds of talented young men and women who are coming up. We made sure to exchange emails with a lot of them and told them if they ever need a meal of frozen pizza they can come over to our house. We have a lot of frozen pizza on deck.
There’s so many great comics. I just did a show in LA and met a wonderful new comic from Austin, Texas. Her name was Natalie Holmes. She just moved from Austin. She did all these singing impressions and she had great, well-written jokes.
Deacon: Thank you so much for talking to me. We’re excited to have you in Tulsa for Blue Whale Comedy Festival.
Bamford: I’m so excited! I’ll see you all soon.