Maria Bamford puts on her funny face

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

Bamford is careful to note that her impressions are caricatures, and that she liberally deviates from the facts. But there are some things — like one well-loved joke that starts with her mother saying, "Sweetie, when you don't wear makeup you look mentally ill" — that are plucked directly from reality.

Even with the material that Bamford fabricates in the name of comedy, her impressions remain so shrewd that her family can protest only so much.

"There are some things she makes out of whole cloth," Marilyn says. "But the thing is, she says it in my voice. Every sniff."

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

"It's like being at a seance," says Smith about those hyper-accurate impersonations. "Those voices seem almost otherworldly coming out of her, like she's channeling them."

The characters aren't purely comedic, either. They've become a part of Bamford, and pop up in her everyday speech.

"It's a way to exorcise a lot of demons," Smith says. "If Maria was going to be angry, or dumb, or silly, she wouldn't do it in a Maria voice, she would do it in the voice of another character."

Bamford's many voices once prompted a radio DJ to ask if she was schizophrenic, and her retort to him remains in popular rotation. The short version of the rant is that no, she isn't, that schizophrenia is hearing voices, not doing voices. But also that calling someone schizophrenic is a terrible thing to say.

Unlike her character in The Maria Bamford Show, Bamford never suffered a nervous breakdown that drove her home to Duluth. But she does grapple with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder — mental illness is another subject with which Bamford blurs the line between her life and her work.

"I have had difficulty functioning, though not so much to the point where I did have to move home," Bamford says. "But part of doing the show and acting it out was knowing that that would be okay if it did happen."

Bamford doesn't shy away from these fears, and some of her best material is mined from this vein. Her third comedy album is titled Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, the name of her type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

To spin comedy out of such serious topics, Bamford creates personalities around them.

"She takes maybe a personal story, and then builds a character on top of it," says Kashian. "It lets her address these big issues and take the thorns out of them."

Sample joke, told in the voice of a dumb jock: "I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she's been wearing contact lenses all this time," Bamford begins. "She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I'm not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic, you know?"

"With mental illness, there's an accusation that somehow the person has personal responsibility," Bamford explains. "But you wouldn't say, 'You invited cancer into your life.'"

Bamford wants to talk about these untouchable issues partly because she's experienced them. But another reason is rooted in empathy, which pops up as a strong current in both her comedy and her personal life. She created her character Sid the Schizophrenic Squid, for instance, less out of direct familiarity than out of concern that schizophrenic people are relegated to the margins.

Off the standup stage, this streak comes out in the way Bamford worked for years with two of her neighbors on fixer-upper projects around their Northeast L.A. neighborhood, like installing trash cans. Or the way her website, next to headers for "Comedian" and "Actor," also includes a category labeled "Nice Lady."

One result of this willingness to bare herself, and to relate to fans struggling with the same things, is that Bamford's following tends toward the fervid.

"Everybody who finds Maria has this thing that they feel like they discovered her," says Smith. "Whether on the internet or on television, the reaction we hear is, 'I found this comic, and she's speaking right to me.'"

Bamford lives in that sweet spot of celebrity: She's comedy-world famous, but outside the standup scene, she can walk freely without attracting attention.

Smith says that Bamford is "the only person I've ever worked with who doesn't chase fame." Four years ago, Bamford decided to stop auditioning for parts, because she was sick of the rejection.

Now people come to her and make offers. Instead of working at being a celebrity, Smith says, she works on her material, and the less she goes after acclaim, "the more it finds her."

To the general public, Bamford is still unrecognizable enough that sometimes, she doesn't even own up to being a comedian. She prefers drawing on her temp days and pretending to be a bookkeeper.

"If I tell people I'm a comedian, I'm supposed to be hilaaarious, right?" Bamford says. "People will ask you to tell them a joke, or say, 'You don't seem like a comedian.'"

But as her sister Sarah explains, this kind of introversion is part of her sister's talent. "She's normal and sweet," Sarah says, "and just an excellent observer of human nature."

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