Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Bamford. Here’s the version I ended up filing before going to sleep — and it’s one I feel like I should make public. Enjoy — EF.
When Maria Bamford was reached by phone near the beginning of May, she was re-reading The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, which encouraged individuals to seek things that ‘incite joy’ and bring a ‘springing feeling to your sternum,’ and if they don’t, you toss it aside. And she had not succeeded in tidying that day. She was also doing a bit of bookkeeping.
Maria Bamford, beloved stand-up comedian (Marc Maron once characterized her to a crowd as “an angel who got bored”; Stephen Colbert: “You’re my favorite comedian on planet earth”), has a Netflix series debuting on May 20th. It’s called Lady Dynamite, it’s a meta-sitcom, and it runs for 13 episodes, roughly tracking with events that have unfolded in her life: how — for instance — she was hospitalizated in relation to her mental illness (there are flashbacks to a hospital in Duluth, sitting at a kitchen table by herself, and a scene where she makes her group therapist cry in the middle of a game of Truth Badminton); how — at one point — she tells her manager (played by an earnestly bespectacled Fred Melamed) that she’d like to “do less, not more” with her work; then there is the park bench she had installed outside her house; and the show does a great job approximating the tone, structure, and swerves of Bamford’s stand-up fairly well, too.
Context-free pleasures of the show itself include (but are not limited to): “There’s nothing sadder than a cobbler making shoes for no feet,” commercial grunt work done for a show called “Pussy Noodle,” the sentences “I’m a 45 year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged,” “I thought you were bisexual because of meth,” and something that happens after the conclusion has been reached between two people that they ‘should just be themselves.’
Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, she compared her usual work of stand-up with the process of making the show, pointing out that “stand-up is only an hour a day at the very most, so it was a surprising schedule change for me. Other people [who were working on the show] did not sit down ever sixteen hours or something. I had to take an hour nap every day,” joking that the production probably lost $5,000 a day because of those one-hour naps. “I was the lightweight in the group.”
“It’s high-energy, which is why the show is called Lady Dynamite. I think the funny part about that is that I have so little energy sometimes. I am not a super energetic person. So that’s the funny part. Know that. Enjoy it and/or … go outside.”
We were speaking the day before the California primary, so — as a matter of curiosity — the conversation turned to homelessness and housing in Los Angeles (she spoke about performing with people who slept at a nearby homeless shelter, and how it struck her as being so much better than being performed for, especially when one gentleman brought his own doll with him (“Some actual shows, people show up, and they don’t bring anything. They don’t practice their material, they don’t have a set list, much less a doll”), as well as the Presidential race, with community and engagement continuing as a theme.
“Have you noticed that there is an element of stand-up comedy happening in our politicians?” She asked at one point. “Like, they’re funny! I don’t know if I should feel proud, or … concerned?”
As for the politician who has received a modest amount of coverage, Bamford could only say, “I wish him … all the best. He … he seems like a happy guy … and terrifying. I don’t think I would … he doesn’t seem to like women very much, so I don’t think I’d get along with him well. If it was down to something where he was becoming our President or something — I don’t know. I feel like I should be protesting now. Maybe that’s why we’re having this interview, is that this is supposed to be the trampoline that gets me into protesting against.”
“I think comedians have some of the best foreign policy ideas I have ever heard,” she continued. “Things that are, like, non-violent solutions to problems — to communication — that have just been — very inspired and inexpensive. I’ve heard of dropping porn in countries just to confuse people, or having a high school marching band enter a war zone … Just, like, things that bring joy and confuse. So that’s a valuable dissent and/or just respite. From the nonsense. And that’s what I like to call war, ‘Nonsense.’ World War III. World Nonsense.”
And, once upon a time, she was elsewhere in the world, too — in Edinburgh as a student for a year, later returning as a performer. “I have been to the Edinburgh Festival I think three times,” she said. “And it’s a super neat town. I remember seeing John Oliver before he moved to the U.S.. So many great comics in the U.K. that I really love: Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson … I’m sure there’s new, upcoming people that I have no idea about, but I did really like Edinburgh. I had a hard time when it was still winter. And then it kept … being dark. But that’s just a result of the way it is. My brain chemistry doesn’t do very well in the dark.”
But where she does have the most fun are where the shows “are easy and very supportive, so there’s one near my house. It’s called, ‘Pale Hydra.’ And it’s an open mic: everybody gets 6, 7 minutes. And it’s in the back of a coffee shop, a coffee shop run by these two-three guys who know each other from high school.” The best comedian in America still does stand-up at open-mics, loves stand-up at open-mics, and still retains a deeply democratic and empathetic ethos about the whole process.
“You find community and who you want to hang out with by going outside,” she continued. “The first thing: you have to go outside.” If you’re a stand-up comedian just starting out, if you’re in a city with loads of open mic nights and one hundred people signed up at each open mic, then “Start your own … show! Book your own show! Do your own hour of what you perceive stand up to be. And then … they will come or not come, but you get to do it.”