Maria Bamford on Anxiety and Why She Avoids the Lady Dynamite Writers' Room

Maria Bamford comes to Phoenix.
Maria Bamford comes to Phoenix. Bruce Smith
Watching comedian Maria Bamford perform is like eyeballing a tornado.

Her delivery is fast, fluid, and so engaging that its swirl collects everything in its realm, while steadily maintaining a frenzy. She is so real, it hurts. She talks frankly, often about mental health issues – her own, in particular. The deliberate awkwardness in her style mirrors the constant challenges we all face as we find our way through life’s perilous and often ridiculously humorous gauntlet.

In addition to her stand-up work, she’s a veteran performer who’s been on shows like Louie, Arrested Development, and her own Lady Dynamite, in which she plays a somewhat fictionalized version of herself. The Netflix series will air its second season this fall. She’s got mad vocal skills, and in addition to singing, has done voices on numerous cartoons like BoJack Horseman. Bamford is visiting Phoenix for a one-show-only event at Stand Up Live at 7:30 on Friday, April 21.

New Times caught up with her while she was out and about with her pup, walking through her LA 'hood. Ever polite, she made sure she stopped and said hello to each neighbor she passed.

Hi, Maria, how are you?

I’m good. I’m just walking my dog.

What kind of dog do you have?

We just got this one, she’s a chihuahua mix and her name is Jackie Onassis, so things are pretty elegant over here. We have a pug, too.

So, you’re going to visit us soon, but this isn’t an extensive tour?
I don’t really tour. I do a date here, a date there. I like to come home. I like to do one show and go back home to my nest.

click to enlarge Maria Bamford's in town for one night only. - NATALIE BRASINGTON
Maria Bamford's in town for one night only.
Natalie Brasington
Did you ever do big stretches on the road?
Not really, unless it was with other people. I did the Comedians of Comedy tour, which was only like 10 days. I had a chance to talk to Weird Al Yankovic and he was saying that he did something like 200 dates in a row. I’ve done like 20 dates in a year with periods of weeks off in between each. I can’t even imagine 200 days in a row!

With stand-up, like music, a lot of the early years involve heavy touring. Was it like that for you in the beginning?
Nobody was really asking me back then. There wasn’t that option and I was not a social enough comedian to do a circuit. That was not in my wheelhouse. I was more in the performance art circuit, which offers little chance of touring [laughs]. I did secretarial work for 10 years, and other things that anyone would give me work for that wasn’t illegal, while doing comedy on the side.

You did improv, too, right?
Yeah. I did some in college, and was in a troupe in Minnesota. I went through the Groundlings program. I’m also about to do an improv workshop at Upright Citizens Brigade. My husband did it and was having so much fun so I thought, “I wanna have fun, too.” I enjoy improv. I have totally forgotten how to do it. We’ve tried to do some games at home and I was refusing any of the scenario suggestions. “No, I’m not on a ship at all right now.” So, I want to be able to get back in that mode.

What is the focus of this current live show?
Some material from my recent special. Marriage is another one of the things I’m speaking about – my own marriage, not marriage in general. And some mental illness stuff, that seems to be interesting to me still. Gonna do some tunes, a couple of those. Jackie Kashian will be opening and she’s a hoot. She has a really good joke that I hope she does about the Armenian genocide. Not the genocide itself – that’s not funny. She’s great and we’ve toured together a lot and she always has new wonderful things she’s doing.

Your delivery has a certain pervasively subtle chaos to it, was that always your style?
I think so. I didn’t start with an initial plan that said, "here’s the way I’m going to confuse and delight people." I just wanted to enjoy myself and talk about things that matter to me. That’s what I think I’m still doing, though I’m not sure how it always comes out. But I didn’t have a theory going in.

Because you do speak of mental health issues and your own related experiences, do you get a lot of fans who share their experiences with you?
Yes, and that’s really wonderful. I think that’s one reason why I talk about it – it makes me feel not so alone. It makes the shows so much more meaningful to me if someone with similar experiences gets any relief through what I do. That’s the best; it’s amazing. And it’s just nice to make people laugh. I get a lot of hugs afterwards, which is nice. Sometimes when I get a standing ovation, I think it’s because people are worried I’m gonna kill myself. Their clapping is really a cheer of, “You’re still alive, you go for it, kid.” [laughs]

Comedy, with mental health issues, is such vital way to emphasize the importance of what so many people endure.
Definitely. I do prefer talking about everything. Though, I have dragged other people into my philosophies, like my family and sometimes I wish I hadn’t. It’s one thing to tell jokes about myself. My mom seems okay with it, but she’s mostly just glad I have a job. My dad came when we were shooting Lady Dynamite and I asked him what he thought and he said, “Well, whatever you need to do for money.”

That’s so parents, right? As long as there’s a job and hopefully some benefits. Speaking of Lady Dynamite, when’s the next season coming out?
We just finished shooting and started post-production today, so I think in the fall sometime but I’m not sure. But let me tell you about some of the fantastic guest stars that are on this new season. We have Mira Sorvino, Mo Collins, Jill Soloway, Andy Samberg, Weird Al, David Spade, Paul Scheer, Ed Begley Jr., but even more interesting might be the animals! We have raccoons, a coyote, pugs, a baby goat, and an alpaca.

All at once?
I’m not gonna tell ya! We made the most of our animal budget, I will say that.

Did you hand-pick these special guests?
It was an effort of everyone in the writers’ room.

You aren't very involved in writing the show, right?
No, not really. I’ll come in and maybe rewrite some of my lines just so they feel more like myself. It’s not my favorite thing to write scripts, so I trust in the writing team. It becomes more of a collaborative effort and it’s not just my voice – it becomes the voice of everyone involved and I think that’s more fun. Like, we had a situation where one of our writers who was from Chicago had the experience of accidentally dating and making out with two of their cousins. So we worked that into the show to have me dating two of my cousins. My husband and I have been married two years. so we’ve incorporated some of the wedding stuff into the show. I’d told my mom that I wanted a tiny wedding and she said, “Forget that,” so I gave her what she wanted and said, “Go crazy, girl,” and she did. She went bananas, so on the show it’s kind of a psychedelic version of that.

Lady Dynamite is Bamford-Lite. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Lady Dynamite is Bamford-Lite.
Courtesy of Netflix
Your minimal participation is a real testament to your writers because they really do a great job of capturing your many layers.
They’re great writers, and when I am with them, they’re great listeners. They do a really good job of representing some of my personality traits. It’s been perfect. If we do get a third season, I think it could be fun to be a writer on the show. I’m just an introvert, so I’m not a fan of unregimented communication in a group. I love a group with a structure. Like any type of 12-step group or stand-up up where one person is totally lit, amplified, and timed. Anything where you’re just sitting there and you don’t know when it’s gonna end totally worries me. Maybe I’ve grown emotionally enough to handle it, though. We’ll see!

Ahh, anxiety - when do things begin, when do they end, and where are the escape routes!
Yes! I am not unlike a mafioso in that I need to see the exit door. Need to see all sides of the room. Mostly, though, just to see where the emotions are coming from, not because of a fear of actual gunfire. More so I can see how everyone’s feeling in part of the room.

Are you empathic to the point where once you can read those moods, it affects your performance?
I’m empathic in that I think people are thinking things. I think that’s also called paranoia. Empathic is a very nice way of saying “seriously paranoid.” It’s like when someone says they’re psychic, I say “Oh, you mean controlling?” When people start telling me they know what’s gonna happen in my life, it just turns into my mother’s voice talking to me.

Are you focusing on the current political climate in your live show?
I’m not really talking about it beyond the fact that I’m willing to lay my body down for free speech. I will put myself down as a meat shield. I’m just not sure when I’m supposed to do that. The White House banned so many press outlets from the briefings. Is that when you need to ambush or tackle? Let me know. When it’s time to go in, I’m ready. I am going to the tax march. I’ve been sending John McCain postcards about twice a day for a while. He has said a couple of things that sound normal, so I’m trying to appeal to that.

Since you are an introvert, what do you like to do with your free time?
See friends. I like my groups, my anonymous groups that shall not be named, also that I may or may not be a member of. I like hobbies and drawing. I’m a bit of a homebody. I like to read.

If you go out is it primarily because you’re working?
Yeah. I like to go to dinner with friends but when people want to meet at 10 p.m., ugh. I did some shows for a couple weeks in Hollywood at 4 p.m. and it was delightful! I was done by 5.

Was it a retirement center?
[Laughs] No. Ha. There’s just so many self-employed people in LA that the time actually worked really well; the place was relatively full. I may just spend my retirement that way, if I’m lucky to still be doing this. I feel very lucky about where I’m at right now.
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young