Maria Bamford puts on her funny face
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."
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.
Bamford moved into a cooperative on the West Bank and shaved her head. Jackie Kashian, a fellow Minnesota comic and close friend, met her around this time, and remembers that Bamford's car was covered with feminist stickers.
"Not just the bumper," Kashian says, "the walls, the doors, everything."
It was the early '90s, the heyday of Jerry Seinfeld-style observational comedy, but Bamford didn't cave to that trend. Her act "was always unique," says Kashian. "It came from a desire — and it still does today — to examine different issues, to say, 'I think this weird thing, why, what do I think about it,' and then go down the rabbit hole and see what comedy came out."
Bamford used her violin on stage, either between jokes or to accentuate them — one of her bits was a musical interpretation of her relationships.
"It was more performance art," Bamford remembers. "I didn't really do the clubs, or standup per se, though I was trying to get into that."
One night, Bamford's family — Marilyn, dad Joel, and sister Sarah — came down from Duluth to see one of her sets. The night was bitterly cold, and as the family sat in the theater, Marilyn realized that her daughter was doing a spot-on impersonation of her.
Back in Duluth not long after, Sarah got a video of one of Maria's shows. When she watched it, she saw that her sister had added an impression of her, too. Sarah didn't think it was all that accurate, but decided to ask her friends.
"I showed my friends the tape, and they fell out of their chairs. Holding their guts, rolling around, all of it," Sarah remembers. "I was honestly confused, just like, is that me? But that's when I realized she captured something."
One day, at a shop in Minneapolis, Bamford picked up the book The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. She remembers reading it and thinking, "Oh, I'm a comeeeedian!"
"That was super helpful," she says, "and sort of when I made the decision that this is what I'd like to do."
Between gigs, Bamford had graduated. In 1994, she got work playing a Star Trek character at the Mall of America (a Bajoran from Deep Space Nine). She spent her days doing meet-and-greets with Klingons and Vulcans, and eventually she was offered the chance to bring the role to L.A.
She felt she'd done everything she wanted to do in Minneapolis, so she went for it.
For the next decade, Bamford took stints as a baker and a bookshop clerk, but mostly racked up lots of hours temping. The part-time work gave her plenty of room to write and perform. One of the temp jobs even brought her to Nickelodeon, where she started doing voices for the popular cartoon CatDog.
In spring 1999, Bamford got one of her early breaks: a standup set on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Two years later, she made it onto The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Then in 2004 she joined the Comedians of Comedy tour, along with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn, and started expanding her reach. A year later, Netflix released a documentary based on their tour, and Comedy Central picked it up as a TV series. She was picking up a small but devoted following.
"Comedians of Comedy was instrumental in bringing her not just to a wider audience, but to her own audience," her manager Smith says. "Her quirkiness and her vulnerability was a natural fit for television, and those audiences respected the fact that she wasn't talking down to them."
By 2007, "The Bammer" decided to rework some of the material from an earlier one-woman show into The Maria Bamford Show: just her, a few rotating accessories, and her voices. Two years later, she got a gig as an over-eager holiday shopper in national Target commercials, a role she reprised for two more seasons. This year, she returned to television for a two-episode part on Louis C.K.'s sitcom Louie.
In 2010, Bamford celebrated her 40th birthday with her family, including sister Sarah.
"I just remember saying, 'Man, the world is your oyster,'" Sarah recalls. "'How big do you want to let it get?'"
The Maria Bamford Show is fictional. But like much of Bamford's comedy, it's a riff on the autobiographical.
In the facts column, Bamford did grow up in Duluth, and The Maria Bamford Show gets a few good laughs out of accents, Christian Bible camp, and cinnamon rolls "the size of your head."
The difference, Kashian explains, is that with the Minnesota material, Bamford goes a step deeper.
"Maria took some of those stereotypes and delved into the psychological," Kashian says. "Like, not just that Minnesota Nice exists, but what causes it."
Her family on the show is, similarly, drawn from life. Which meant they had to come to terms with being parodied. For Sarah, seeing her sister's impersonation of her became easier once she realized the viewer's response.
"So many people have dysfunctional families and can see the degree of madness and laugh at it," she says. "It's a gift to them."
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."
"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."
Sarah recalls how, on a recent trip to Minneapolis, the Bamford family had breakfast together. Maria was exhausted.
"She was letting it all hang out," Sarah says.
But then a transformation happened.
"That night, I was at her show at 10 o'clock, and when she took the stage, it was almost like someone else had stepped into her body," Sarah remembers. "I was just riveted by her power."
Back at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, for her show at the end of September, Bamford performed a similar feat. Before her set, she was effusive and friendly, chatting with the student about to open for her and jotting some autographs. But she also seemed frayed from travel, hopping between conversations and sliding her voice through registers.
When she got on stage, though, that nervous energy dissipated. As the lights dimmed, Bamford and her many voices filled the auditorium. For the next hour, she wove from Botox to "the Baby Jesus" to health care, digging darkly comedic nuggets out of the weighty material. One student sitting in a middle row whispered to a friend that she felt like Bamford could make her laugh on command.
Over the next few months, as her two new releases make her an even bigger name, this comfort in front of an audience will come in handy. Because by 2013, Bamford may have a harder time convincing people she's anything but a comedian.
Catch Maria Bamford at 8 p.m. Friday, November 30, at the Fitzgerald Theater. The show is sold out but will be streamed live at mpr.org/wits.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.