Maria Bamford puts on her funny face

There's nothing funny about the Minnesota native's comedic success

Maria Bamford puts on her funny face
Nicola Losik

The first episode of The Maria Bamford Show, "Dropping Out of Society," hit the web in 2007. In the silent opening seconds, ominous typewriter letters outline the series' premise:

"In August of 2006, comedienne Maria Bamford was onstage at the Friars Club in Los Angeles when she suffered a nervous breakdown. She then disappeared for three months.... After being sighted by a homeless Comedy Central fan in Detroit, where she was selling clock radios on the sidewalk, she retreated to her parents' home in Minnesota.

"She began sending us footage of her 'TV show' in December 2006. Viewer discretion is advised."

Bamford at the North Star Ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, September 2012
Nicola Losik
Bamford at the North Star Ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, September 2012
Nicola Losik

Then Bamford's face, framed by short gold ringlets, pops on the screen, exclaiming, "It's the Maria Bamford show!"

For the next five minutes, Bamford fleshes out the show's world: She has moved into her parents' Duluth attic. Her mother comes to wake her in the morning. Her sister chews her nails.

The family goes to Target and fills up a "wagon train" with Diet Coke. Bamford runs into her "arch-enemy" from high school, Kristy Coombs, at register five.

"I saw you on TV or whatever," Coombs tells Bamford. "It's just like in high school. You're not funny; you're just weird."

Here's the thing about The Maria Bamford Show: Bamford plays every character. All the scenes in that first episode, from the attic bedroom to the shower to the Target check-out line, take place in one room. For many of them, Bamford is curled up in bed.

"I've never really seen a female comic who works the way that Maria does," says Bruce Smith, Bamford's long-time manager and a co-producer of the series. "She's just completely unique."

In a conference room-turned-dressing room at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul Student Center, Bamford prepares to take the stage. She's been called in to headline "Super Fantastic" week in an auditorium filled with undergrads.

She hunches her small, black-clad figure over her notes, which are scribbled tightly in a yellow legal pad. At the top she has written, in large caps, "ENUNCIATE," and underlined it three times.

The reminder is right out of Public Speaking 101. It seems more fitting for the amateur performer Bamford was 20 years ago, when she was finishing her creative writing degree at the University of Minnesota, beginning to dabble in improv, and playing her violin on street corners.

Now she's using a different instrument: her voice. Whether in person, on stage, or in work like The Maria Bamford Show, Bamford can convincingly impersonate a full cast of characters within minutes, cycling through her mother's voice, her therapist's, and her manager's. Even her natural speaking voice is high and excitable, almost like she's playing a part.

Bamford has parlayed these chameleonic chords into a career as a comedian's comedian. Among her fans is Louis C.K., who this summer called her act the most underrated in standup.

She may not stay underrated for long. On November 28, Bamford will release a direct-to-fans web special, and two days later, she'll be in town to perform at the Fitzgerald Theater for MPR's Wits series.

A fourth CD, Ask Me About My New God, drops in January, and by spring, Bamford will return to the small screen as a recurring character in the comeback season of Arrested Development. ("She has a story line I'm forbidden to discuss under pain of death," says Smith.)

Despite her mounting success, Bamford remains the oddball outsider, humble enough to give herself basic reminders about crisping consonants. According to Smith, that's part of her charm.

"Most audiences are used to performers coming at them like supermen, trying to be larger than life. Maria is willing to be life-sized."

The first time Bamford performed, she was about four and a half years old.

Her family had just moved to Duluth from Hollywood, Florida, and her mother, Marilyn, decided to take Maria down to Minneapolis for an annual Suzuki violin concert. At the end of the show, all the young students were to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." But Maria didn't want to do it.

Her mother talked her into at least rehearsing. When Maria came down off the stage from that trial run, her mom asked how it felt.

"Oh, mom," Marilyn remembers her daughter saying. "I loved it."

Throughout her childhood, Maria and her sister would perform for each other on family canoe trips as a way to beat boredom. Sometimes, Maria would stand on her head for laughs. Mostly, though, she remained shy.

But by the time she reached Marshall High School, Bamford began to realize that being on stage was fun for her. She ran for school offices in order to give speeches, and started acting in plays, including what her mother remembers as an "outrageous" turn in Lysistrata.

When she left for college at Bates in Maine, Bamford continued to experiment with performing. During her junior year abroad, she joined the University of Edinburgh's improv troupe, the Improverts.

She transferred to the U to finish out her degree, and gradually started getting on stage more. She joined Stevie Ray's Comedy Cabaret and caught gigs at the Comedy Gallery, the then-newly opened Bryant-Lake Bowl, and the Southern's midnight show, Balls.

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