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Comedian Maria Bamford discusses suicide, OCD, and buying elephant costumes for her dog on Etsy

Natalie Brasington

It’s almost a shame to confine Maria Bamford to text. After all, the 44-year-old comedian's shape-shifting voice has defined her standup career. Bamford has an uncanny ability to convey an entire character with the subtlest tonal shift. When her voice is just a little huskier than normal, she’s a smarmy Hollywood ladder-climber. A little higher and with a slight quiver to it, and she’s that overeager coworker who’s just dying to go to Quiznos for lunch. And Bamford uses that voice to deliver a one-of-a-kind set about OCD, suicide, organized religion, and her pet pugs.

I spoke with her earlier this month about how she writes jokes, how she makes the saddest parts of the human experience funny, and finding dog clothes on Etsy.

Danielle Kurtzleben: A lot of your jokes seem to be about being an outsider  — having mental illness, being an unconventional comedian, being single. What is it about being an outsider that you find so compelling?

Maria Bamford: It’s all perception, thinking that one is an outsider. I mean, the thing I like about standup is that it is independent. And nobody can tell you that you’re not doing it right. I mean, they can, but you can still keep doing it.

And you get to say exactly — exactly — what you want to say, and do exactly what you find funny.

So it’s a delightful art form. My friend Amy just gave me a good premise for a joke today. We were talking about how friends are always in flux and, at least in LA, it’s like marketing, like you’ve got to stay on somebody’s email list and tweet at them, like signing up for some sort of service: "Are you still interested in our, uh ... ok! All right! It sounds like you're busy!"

In a big city, it becomes sort of service-oriented: "Are you within my driving range? Oh, we actually don't work. You seem like a really interesting person and, you know, I want to support you, but I know geographically I can’t."

DK: Is that where your jokes materialize? From conversations with friends?

MB: It’s a mix of stuff. I have a joke right now. It’s about my friend Amy, but really, it’s like all the voices are me, you know? Or versions of me. May I tell it to you? The joke?

DK: Absolutely!

MB: It’s happening. It’s too late now. You can’t stop it. It’s already hit the gate.

My friend Amy is always trying to get me to do stuff: [quivering, excited voice] "You want to go horseback riding?"

[normal voice] Oh god. What is it?

"You’ve got a horse and a dusty trail, with two lesbians who used to be a couple but now they run a small business together, and you have to wash the horses with a chemical that’s blue with no label, and you cut up carrots and you put them in a bucket, and the horses bite."

Okay. I’ll go once. But I’m going to cry all the way there, and I’m going to need a Peanut Buster Parfait on the way back. [manic] Ice cream. Hot fudge. Peanuts. Ice cream. Hot fudge. Peanuts. Ice cream. Whipped cream! Topped with cherry!

The thing is, I’m the one who tried to get a friend to go horseback riding. And it’s hilarious, because now she’s totally into horseback riding and I don’t want to go.

But that’s how I feel about doing things. The next thing is she said, "Maria, do you want to go swing dancing?"

People are still doing that? The war is over! There’s plenty of pantyhose for everyone!

"It’s on Sunday from 2 to 4, just when you don’t want to do anything, and even if you bring a partner you’ve got to dance with strangers the whole time, and some of them are drunk, or from the era where women weren’t allowed to talk back, and—"

I’ll go for three years. I’ll go for three years. And I’ll do my hair that way. And I’ll do the lipstick and I’ll get the shoes, but that is IT.

And the thing is, I’m the one who tried to get friends to do it. So it’s me. But — what was the last one?

"Do you want to go to a fitness boot camp?" — and this is one that my friend did actually try to get me to go to.

Oh god.

"It’s every day at 6 am, but you’ve got to be committed. They’re trying to get you into a shape. And you get to hold a basketball, but you don’t actually play basketball. And you put on boxing gloves, but you never get to actually box, and you run and you run and you run, and there’s no game element to distract you from the fact that you're running and running and running"

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to go every day for 14 days in a row. And I'm going to get excited about it. I'm gonna tell people about it. And I’m going to get other people to go. And then on Day 15, Tonya — and I know it’s going to be Tonya — is going to say, [peppy, cheerleader-ish voice] "Okay, Maria! Today I want to see you push it!" And I’m never going to go again.

"But will you forget to cancel the automatic debit from your checking account for the next two years?"

[whispers] Of course I will. I love you so much.

My friend did get me to go to a fitness boot camp, and it was so miserable. There was no fun to be had! And we tried to make it fun, we tried to have some laughs, but then they wouldn’t let us laugh during it because we were distracting.

Listen to Maria tell her new joke, complete with her trademark voices and a journalist cackling in the background.

DK: Did you at least feel like you were in better shape?

MB: Oh yeah, totally. We got into great shape, but who cares? It was just so miserable. At least let’s, like, have weird races. Let's race each other and have prizes. I mean, if we’re going to get all serious about it, let’s do the Hunger Games. Let’s get really weird. If I could have won something or if there was something like, "Fall upon the rabbit!" and we all have to chase this rabbit. "Fall upon it! With your knives!" It’s violent, but it’s great cardio.

DK: Who are some of the best comedians you are seeing out there right now?

MB: There are so many wonderful comedians. Kate Berlant — she’s out of LA, and she is a delight. And then I just saw a few comics from Chicago that were just spectacular. Rebecca O’Neal was just great, and then Katie McVay I also saw out of Chicago, and she was really wonderful and super-funny.

I just think it’s a real renaissance — there are so many great comics, not only people older and the same age as me, but people who are only 12. Just nubile 12-year-olds.

DK: What do you mean by "comedy renaissance"?

MB: I think it's a boom. There are just so many more comics, which also means great comedians, and it’s really wonderful. I just remember when I started out, there just weren’t as many open mics or venues. I don't remember comedy being revered that much — and now it seems to be seen as an art form.

It used to be listed next to karaoke at the end of whatever the free paper was. And maybe it should be. Karaoke is an art form. It’s quite beautiful.

DK: You do a great job of making some potentially depressing things, like suicide or OCD or loneliness, really funny. How do you navigate that line?

MB: I think it depends on the audience. The people I do it for are already on board. I think I could do that material in a different venue or with people who didn’t know what they’re coming to see, and they would be pissed and bummed out. I think a lot of it rests on the audience. It’s not that I’m a genius. It’s that the people that are coming are ready to hear it. They think it’s in the zeitgeist. Like, I’ve felt like there's been so much more support and openness about mental illness — Catherine Zeta-Jones on the cover of People saying she’s bipolar. It’s just really wonderful. But yeah, I’m definitely preaching to the choir.

DK: Maybe that’s what’s going on in comedy, the same thing that’s going on in music — you can go on Spotify and find really niche things. You can find someone who plays calliope music, if you’re into it.

MB: Which is so great! It’s made it possible for artists of all kinds to have — all sorts of craft people have careers and have incomes. Like how I shop only on Etsy, for the most part, for gifts and stuff. And that’s all people like me who are, you know, making a specialized thing, and somebody’s going to look for, "I need an elephant costume for a pug, but somehow I want it to be knit." Well, I’m going to search for that on Etsy.

DK: Is that something you’ve searched for?

MB: Oh yeah. I have an elephant costume for my pug.

It’s so great. I don’t think I would have been able to have a career before the internet.

But then, if you don’t ever see whatever else is out there, you don’t know. There are huge swaths of comedy that are not represented by hipster comedy coverage. Like in my neighborhood, there’s a giant Armenian comedy show that’s put on in this theater in Glendale. That is not discussed in the LA Weekly, but if you seek it out you can find it.

So is that good, that you can find exactly what you want? Or is it making it so that everyone’s more segregated into different things?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because before, it was you just get whatever you got. I love Steve Martin, but a lot of people had Steve Martin albums, and I didn’t find out about the Mexican comedian Cantinflas until I moved to LA.

DK: I’ve read quotes from comics like Chris Rock about fears of trying out new material on some audiences — the fear of an audience being too easily offended. Do you ever feel that?

I don’t know. I think it’s just like it’s always been. It’s a public forum, and maybe there's more social media, but things pass over so quickly. I mean, people have like 48 hours of "Oh my god, can you believe they said that? Oh, Christ." And then it’s on to the next new crisis. People are fairly forgiving, or they worry about other things.

Of course, I've had things that have been negative happen on the internet, where I’ve felt scared, and it’s like, so what? It’s okay!

It’s like we’re at a giant potluck dinner and someone is yelling out, "I hate you! You brought the wrong dish! You said you were going to bring a casserole and you brought this thing, and I think you’re a f**king idiot! And you're evil and you should have never been born!"

"...Oh, okay."

It’s just a group of people talking to each other. So the only people who are paying attention are other human beings.

I think everybody’s doing the best they can, and sometimes it’s not that great. I don’t know. Life is hard.

I’ve had some things where my manager called me: "Oh, this thing happened, and you really need to redress it, because somebody said this on the thing." and I’m like "Ehhhh … maybe not."

DK: And it never ends up blowing up?

MB: And if it did, it’s okay. The worst that can happen is the worst thing that can happen.

The worst that can happen is that someone finds out I’m not always the nicest person. Let’s say I was grumpy on an airline flight or something. Well, that’s for sure happened. Then what’s the worst that could happen? I could be jailed. Mmm, probably not, but if I were, I’d be jailed. And no one would ever talk to me again. Well, I like to read. And sometimes in women’s prisons, they have dog training camps.

I’m not saying that that would happen, and maybe that’s thinking too big, but even if all is lost, people are dealing with a lot more than that. So it’ll be fine.

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