You probably recognize stand-up comic Maria Bamford, even though you might not know it. That’s because Bamford — who has been on the verge of becoming a “household name” for the past decade — is best known for her ability to manipulate her voice and facial features to embody multiple characters, ranging from her friends and dysfunctional family to more general types.
In addition to various supporting roles in movies and TV series, Bamford was featured in the documentary The Comedians of Comedy with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifiniakis, and Brian Posehn; has taped two half-hour Comedy Central Specials; and has recorded three stand-up albums (the latest, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, was released in 2009 and was named one of the “Best Comedy Albums of the Decade” by The A.V. Club). She has also put her transformative abilities to use as a voiceover artist, providing voices for animated series such as Ugly Americans, Home Movies, CatDog, Hey Arnold!, and more; the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, in which Bamford plays multiple roles, is nominated for an Emmy award this year for “Outstanding Short-format Animated Program.”
About six years ago, Bamford used her unique metamorphosis skills to create a one-woman show titled Plan B, in which she faced her fear of having a nervous breakdown by imagining what it would be like to leave show business and move back into her parents’ attic in Duluth, Minnesota. The live show was then developed into a 20-episode web series called The Maria Bamford Show for the now-defunct website Super Deluxe in 2006. Bamford played about a dozen characters in the series, including her parents, her sister, past high school acquaintances, and other Duluth locals, to entertain viewers with a surreal yet hilarious glimpse into the mind of this self-deprecating comic.
This week, while Bamford is part of the lineup at the annual Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, The Maria Bamford Show is being paired with the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens for a screening at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC.
I spoke with Bamford about having her comedy paired with a documentary about the reclusive (and possibly mentally ill) Edith and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, why customer service can be more difficult than comedy, how she determined that it was time to give up acting, and more. Read the Q&A below: Read the rest of this entry »
Hails from: Midlothian, Va. Greener pasture: New York.
Accidental dream: Schaefer was auditioning to be a “Daily Show” correspondent when instead she landed a gig hosting “The DL,” a Web series for AOL. Then, when Jimmy Fallon succeeded Conan O’Brien on “Late Night,” she was hired as the show’s head blogger, thanks as much to her Web experience as her comedic chops. “It’s great to decide on the craziest, biggest dream you can imagine,” she says. “Whatever you get on the way is probably what you were looking for in the first place.” Award-winning nerd: Schaefer and “The Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Digital Experience” were recognized at the Creative Arts Emmys in 2009 and 2010. “I have the dorkiest Emmy you could possibly get,” she jokes about her two awards for “outstanding creative achievement in interactive media, nonfiction.” After more than two years at “Late Night,” Schaefer left this month to join the writing staff of the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Read the rest of this entry »
Hails from: Chicago. Greener pasture: New York.
Ride the train: Plenty of comics leave Middle America for one of the coasts early in their careers. So why did Buress choose New York over Los Angeles? “My driver’s license was suspended for parking tickets,” he says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I couldn’t be in L.A.” Once he was in Gotham with MetroCard in hand, an appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” led Buress to a season writing for “Saturday Night Live,” then a job as a scribe on “30 Rock.” Typecast as a bum? After only one season of working for Tina Fey, Buress already has a recurring role—as a homeless man. Usually, writers read for small roles before actors are cast later in the week, he says, but “I got a laugh the first time it was in the script. So they were like, ‘Let’s just have Hannibal do it.’ And then they kept writing it in.” Read the rest of this entry »
Step 4 in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program—after admitting that one is powerless over alcohol, professing belief in a higher power, and making the decision to turn over one’s life to spiritual guidance—is to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Even before he made a commitment to sobriety in 1999, Marc Maron, a standup comic who combines the in-your-head neuroses of Woody Allen and Larry David with the in-your-face attitude of Richard Pryor and Iggy Pop, had already spent years doing just that on stage, baring his soul to comedy club audiences with brutal self-awareness, vulnerability, and rage. He says his favorite type of laugh is one that sounds like it really should be a cry.
Maron, 47, started his comedy career in the mid-1980s in Boston and moved to New York City a few years later; he is considered one of the founding fathers of the alternative comedy scene that began in the city in the early 1990s. He has taped standup specials for Comedy Central and HBO, spent time on the road hitting comedy clubs across the country and performing at festivals around the world, and even scored a small role as “Angry Promoter” in the 2000 Cameron Crowe film “Almost Famous.” He has released three comedy albums; his 44 appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” is a record for a standup comic.
But after more than two decades “in the trenches of comedy,” as he calls it, Maron’s career had grown stagnant. By 2009, he was referred to as a “comedy veteran” and a “legend” but was struggling to sell tickets to his standup shows. The comedian reluctantly returned to Air America, the left-wing political talk radio station where he had hosted the early-morning program “Morning Sedition” from 2004–2005, to co-host a weekly hourlong video webcast called “Breakroom Live.”
“I had been fired from them two or three times,” Maron recalls. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, but I was in the middle of a divorce, and I was about to lose everything. That job really just got me out of my divorce without losing my house.”
“Breakroom Live” was canceled in the middle of the year, finally ending Maron’s contentious relationship with the now-defunct network. “They went broke again, and I was in trouble,” he says. “I was un-bookable; I couldn’t get any road work. I was washed up, my friend, and I had no real plan. I thought, ‘I built it, and they’re not coming. So what the f— do I do now?’ ” WTF, indeed.
Maron was at a turning point in his career. He just didn’t know it at the time. Read the rest of this entry »
Last year, stand-up comedian and master storyteller Tom Shillue won an ECNY Award for “Best One Person Show” for Supernormal, ”an evening of stories so normal, they’re radical.” Now he returns with a new rewritten version – featuring stories of his youth in suburban Massachusetts, his life in New York City, a high school reunion, and more – running for three weeks beginning tonight, March 16 at PS 122 in the East Village in NYC.
“I suspect people sometimes cringe at the idea of a solo show,” Shillue says. “I guarantee there’s no weeping, there’s no huge life revelations, there’s none of me kneeling down on the stage and coming to terms with my humanity. It’s mostly a funny show. It’s not a learning experience or a teaching experience. I don’t come out of any closets or go back into any closets. But it’s still a good time. So I guess that’s my weird ad for the show.”
Shillue is a fixture in both the NYC comedy and storytelling scenes; he hosts The Moth live storytelling series in NYC and on tour, is involved in radio and online storytelling projects such as the new site Broadcastr.com, and performs regularly at the city’s comedy clubs and alternative rooms. He has been featured on Comedy Central and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and he is also a former correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Earlier this week, Shillue was named “Best Storyteller” at the 7th annual ECNY Awards.
Back Stage once called Shillue the Top New York Comic. Read my candid Q&A to learn how Shillue embraces his normalcy and seeks to define a new genre of comedy, why you almost saw him on Last Comic Standing last summer, and more:
So what is normal? What makes you “supernormal”?
Tom Shillue: In the old days, growing up in Norwood, Massachusetts, I thought I was a radical. When I was in high school, and when I was deciding that I was going to move my life to New York, I kind of thought of myself as an iconoclast. I used to look at New Yorkers and I’d think, “Wow, they must be so narcissistic.” And then I moved to New York and I realized that the real narcissists are people like us, who move from the suburbs to New York. The only reason we moved to New York is because we thought we were the coolest person in our town.
So that was the idea, that I moved to New York because I thought I was different, radical, iconoclastic, special. And then after being in New York a while, everyone in New York treats me like I’m out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So I call that “supernormal,” because I thought I was radical, and now that I’ve kind of settled into myself in New York, I’m not. I’m totally normal. So I like to call it supernormal. That’s my Zen state that I’ve reached. I don’t want to be different anymore. I don’t want to be special. I’m not rocking anybody’s world. I’m still the guy from Massachusetts, you know? Read the rest of this entry »
Substance abuse and AIDs are hilarious, right? Well, no, not usually. But for the past decade, stand-up comedian Mike DeStefano has crafted a career telling jokes about these hardships, and the other painful and tragic parts of life that we’re not supposed to laugh at. He’s not trying to make life any easier — just funnier.
DeStefano’s new one-man show, Drugs, Disease, and Death: A Comedy debuts this week at The Producers’ Club in New York City. It is an autobiographical story based on the comedian’s life in the Bronx, battling heroin addiction, losing his wife to AIDS, and simply struggling to survive.
“What I’m going to be talking about in Drugs, Disease and Death,” DeStefano reveals, “is death, disease, and drugs.” You might call him an expert on the subject. (In one joke, DeStefano explains: “I’m a stand up comic. Before that, I was a drug counselor. Before that, I was a drug addict. Before that? I was 12.”) Read the rest of this entry »
Comedian Matt McCarthy loves professional wrestling, and thinks the sport deserves to be viewed and appreciated like any of the performing arts. For that matter, so should comedy. “I see a lot of parallels between stand-up and wrestling,” he says. “They’re both bastardized, in a way.”
And so on Monday, Jan. 24, McCarthy presents the first installment of “Marking Out,” a new “comedy extravaganza” to be held the third Monday of every month at the Ace Hotel in NYC — with a name inspired by the experience of watching pro wrestlers.
In wrestling, a “mark” is a fan who believes that the characters and events depicted in professional wrestling are real — or at least reacts as if they don’t know them to be staged. “‘Marking out’ is when you know wrestling is fake,” McCarthy explains, “but you get excited and lost in it anyway. So I’m calling the show ‘Marking Out’ because you know it’s just a joke, but you laugh anyway.”
Calling attention to joke-telling as performance art reveals McCarthy’s cerebral approach to working as a stand-up comic, which he has been doing in NYC and across the country for about eight years. When I ask McCarthy to describe his comedy writing and performance schedule, he pauses for a moment to make mental calculations, then decides, “Well, it’s all I think about.” Read the rest of this entry »
The ECNY Awards, celebrating the best of the comedic performing arts in New York, were presented Monday night, March 8, at the city’s Comix comedy club. Fifteen awards were given out, in categories ranging from best male standup comedian to outstanding achievement in the field of tweeting.
For the third year in a row, Jon Friedman (“The Rejection Show,” “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”) hosted the show. “It’s weird to choose a winner in comedy,” Friedman said before the ceremony, comparing the ECNY Awards with the previous night’s Academy Awards. “Comedy is so subjective, and any comic can simply have an off night on any given night. Or, as a comic, you can connect with certain people and not at all with others, no matter what day or night it is. Whereas with a film—say, for best picture—that film is exactly the same every time it’s shown.”
Among the past ECNY winners presenting awards were Kurt Braunohler (BBC’s “Penelope Princess of Pets”), Sara Benincasa (Sirius Satellite Radio), Leo Allen (“Saturday Night Live”), Pat Baer (UCB Theatre), Reggie Watts, Kumail Nanjiani (“Michael and Michael Have Issues”), and Michelle Collins (BestWeekEver.tv). Other presenters included Michael Musto (The Village Voice) and Andrew W.K., with a special video greeting from Michael Ian Black (The State).
Upon accepting his award for best one-person show early in the evening, Tom Shillue said of the raucous event, “The future of comedy is community. And that’s what this is.” Shillue then exceeded his 30-second acceptance-speech limit, was played off the stage with “Me So Horny” blaring from the speakers, and cursed everyone he had just thanked. Read the rest of this entry »
Standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani relocated to New York City from Chicago in 2007 to jump-start his career. Fast-forward just two years, and Nanjiani has been named a comedian to watch by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and New York magazine, writes for and performs on the Comedy Central series “Michael & Michael Have Issues,” has appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Colbert Report,” and Comedy Central’s “Hot List,” and is touring his standup act. This year he’s also developing a sitcom pilot for NBC.
And he did it with a little help from his friends. Nanjiani knew other Chicago transplants in New York, such as comedian Pete Holmes, and he’d opened for Zach Galifianakis on tour before moving to the city. As soon as he landed in New York, Nanjiani started performing regularly at open-mike nights, where he met and built relationships with more-established comics like Eugene Mirman and Michael Showalter.
“It was sort of lucky, where I had known the right people coming here, and then once I did shows, I always had the right people seeing me,” Nanjiani says. His rapid success is the exception rather than the rule, of course, but his career suggests the many opportunities available for comic performers in New York, whether their goal is standup, improvisation, or sketch comedy. Read the rest of this entry »