Maria Bamford
Maria Bamford

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:

How do you feel about the pairing of your web series The Maria Bamford Show with Grey Gardens for this upcoming screening? Have you seen the film?

Maria Bamford: Oh, yes I have. (laughs) It’s interesting, because I think that is a documentary of somebody’s life who – it could be conceived like it’s untreated mental illness or something where the person doesn’t seen their own art form. Maybe their life is art. You know, they were doing whatever they were doing, and she’s singing and dancing and telling their story. So that is creativity. I guess mine was more self-conscious.

I did a one-person show because I always wanted to be on a sitcom, but then I thought, I don’t really enjoy acting, and I don’t think I would enjoy being on a sitcom because you sit around a lot. At least with my experience, even as just a guest star, I sat around by myself [on set]. So I didn’t enjoy it, and having somebody bossing me around. (laughs)

I suppose most television and film projects are created by committee, so you wouldn’t have much opportunity to insert your own comedic voice or point of view.

Yeah, which could also be called a poor attitude. (laughs) So I did a one-person show. I thought I could make my own sitcom all by myself, or what I perceived to be a sitcom, so I did a one-person show, developing that on my own for a couple years. I did the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia for a month, where I performed that every night.

I called it Plan B – which I think is a common title for a lot of things. So I did that, and it went well over there. I also think festival environments are very warm to different forms. Sometimes, especially at international festivals and especially Australia, there’s a lot of funding from the government, so financially it was possible for me to do it. And you earn money doing it. If I can’t support myself, then this is a drag.

[The website] Super Deluxe was owned by Turner, so they pitched it to them with my manager and they said, “Yeah! Make it!,” and gave me a budget, and it was awesome. And then they said, “Oh, make three!,” then, “Make 10!,” then, “Oh, how about 20?” Then they pulled it. But it was great, because I was done. I just didn’t want to really do it anymore.

The Maria Bamford Show was inspired by your fear of having a nervous breakdown. “What would life be like if I lost everything and had to move back home with my parents in the Midwest?” How do you turn your own mental health issues into comedy?

I have had that concern that to be edgy, you have to be sort of dark. I definitely have some sort of pride. And I think there’s something in our culture – in the comedy zeitgeist, if I’m using that word correctly – where, in the community, it’s much more okay to talk about.

You mean onstage, or only among other comics?

Onstage, and also among comics. There’s just more open talk about mental health, but also negative attitudes. I’ve heard a lot of comics say – it’ll be like a reference in jokes, saying, “I lost hope.” It’s sort of like a punch line. (laughs) Like the punch line is “blah blah blah blah and so I thought I’d kill myself.” The darker punch line is much more acceptable, and also funny. People see it as funny.

The comedian as the sad clown.

Yes, and even using that as the punch line – [quickly adopting a sad, deep voice] “sad clown.” (laughs) So yes, there probably is some peer pressure, or peer pressure I’m putting on myself, of trying to stay negative because, you know, it’s funny.

I worry that I could be seen as a cry for help, but I generally have tons of support. But I have had moments where it’s like, “Well, I could talk for 15 more minutes on suicide. Hmm, that might be a red flag to myself.”

I do second-guess myself sometimes, but then sometimes I just need to say new material and put it out there, whether it’s appropriate or not. But I always like to write things that I’m currently obsessed with, so I don’t know. I think it is like any other business: “Hey, why did you get into selling cars?” (low, meek voice) “Well I wanted to prove to my father that I could.” I mean, I don’t know. Everybody has their own emotional story behind what they’re doing. (back to low voice) “My dad always had a BMW and he said I’d never drive in a BMW because I wasn’t a good driver. WELL LOOK AT ME NOW, DAD!”

I feel like there are two ways of evaluating your unique style of stand-up comedy. Your act is based primarily on character and voice work, so some critics would say that you’re just hiding behind these characters and impersonations instead of showing us who you really are on stage. But the way I see it, any character you’re doing onstage, or any impersonation of a family member, is more about revealing your own vulnerability and insecurity. It’s not really about them; it’s about you. Do you agree with that? Is that a conscious decision, that you’re not actually making fun of the people you’re impersonating, but it’s more like you’re letting us know how they appear in your mind?

Thank you for having that interpretation. (laughs) I think I have used voices totally to hide behind, because my own voice I feel totally insecure about. I feel insecure about that.

You mean the way most of us don’t like to hear the sound of our own voice?

Well, I have had some evidence, in terms of feedback. (laughs) You know, over the course of my life, they all say, “You’ve got a high baby voice, why are you talking like a baby?,” or “That’s irritating,” or people just going “wah wah wah” (mimicking high-pitched baby talk), just hearing how irritating someone’s voice was, so I’ve got it in my head that my voice is not pleasant. So there’s that. And also, the shock factor of somebody changing [voices rapidly]. The show business part of somebody going, “Oh, that’s neat.”

I’ve had impersonations done for me. Have you seen the performer Melissa Villasenor? She does great voices, great characters. I mean, she’s unbelievable, and she’s on YouTube, but she’s also been on America’s Got Talent. She’s super young, beautiful, an incredible figure – but anway, she did an impersonation of me, and she does a lot of Sarah Silverman. And I know it’s out of affection and love and appreciation of comedy, but I can’t watch it. (laughs) I’m so scared that I’m going to see myself and be like, “I’m horrible.”

No, I think I should watch it. She’s a delight and I know it comes from a very – you know she sent me the link like, (switching to high, cute voice) “Hey, I did an impersonation of you and I thought you might want to see it,” and I was like, “Uh-huh…” And I know Sarah Silverman does one of me as well, and Tig Nataro. And I still can’t watch it. So now I think I get it more, like when my sister feels offended. It just takes a lot of grace for someone to say it. My sister’s not a comedian and she lives in a smaller town…

She’s not in show business, so it doesn’t just roll off her back when you impersonate her on stage?

[Laughing] And I don’t let it roll off my back, as it turns out. I mean, I’m in the business with them, and I’m like, (in a timid, high pitched voice) “Oh no, are you trying an impersonation of me?”

Has the rejection that seems to be an inevitable part of show business gotten any easier over the years?

I mean, doesn’t every job have constant rejection in some ways? Even if it’s just your boss, or somebody you work with, or just the fact that no job is stable. I just think so much of everything is like, it’s just a thing. It really is. I worked as a receptionist and a secretary, and I cried in the bathroom more at those jobs than I ever have in show business. From what I can tell, people who work in customer service, oh my God.

But the difference is that as a comedian, you’re putting yourself out there with material you’ve created yourself, as opposed to customer service, where you might be answering calls from an anonymous person on behalf of the company. So isn’t the rejection more personal as a performer?

I really don’t think so. I think everything is personal. When I’ve had somebody mad at me on the phone and they don’t even know who I am and I don’t know who they are, when I’ve been working at a studio or as a secretary, I’ve felt just as bad. I think it’s just as bad as heckling, if you’re at a job, you’re trying to do a good job, and somebody comes up to you and is like, (acting like an annoyed customer) “Uh, you know what you need to do? You need to pay more attention!” You know, whatever it is, indicating that you’re incompetent in some way. It’s the same thing.

And actually, being a comedian is great, because you can leave the stage. You can leave. And I don’t have to talk to that person, and I also have the prestige of people going, “God, that guy was a real asshole.” There’s tons of witnesses to it. Whereas on a job, you come in and you have no one to talk to about it, and nobody’s witnessing it.

Does that mean that you feel like you are part of a supportive community as a comedian?

Totally. And I’m not somebody that likes authority, so I think that kind of binds comedians together.

I’ll go to this fitness class, and I found out I was going to heckle the instructor. I would go and just sort of say things back to her. And I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute. You’re heckling.” Sometimes I’ve heard, “Comedy’s so competitive.” I have not found that at all. I’ve found comedians are some of the warmest, kindest people.

I think it’s like any community. Let’s say you’re working at Target and you find out that someone else worked at Target, and you go, “Oh man, do you love this?” Or, “Don’t you hate that?”

War stories, right?

Yeah, war stories. Everyone loves a war story. And the humiliations, the irritations, and just the joys of it, what it’s like. You know, I haven’t worked at Target. I have represented the brand, but I don’t think that’s the same at all. I am represented by a union, let’s say that.

I did the Groundlings for six years, but I think it was mostly for, you know, classes. I totally exaggerated that; I think I was in the program for three years. I like to exaggerate things. I made it up to the advanced program. To be honest, I love watching sketch comedy, and I love the art form, but I am not good at it. And it’s also not something I really enjoy. I mean, I have a hard time working with others.

The path of a stand-up comic is traditionally more solo.

And I think that really fits more for me. I really do enjoy it. And the same thing for acting. I auditioned for 10 years without booking anything, and I was like, “Hey, maybe it’s time to let it go.”

What made you realize that acting wasn’t for you?

I think I felt frustrated. I realized at one point that I hadn’t booked anything in 10 or 11 years. And I had gone to maybe not as many auditions as somebody who actually had a passion for it, but plenty of auditions. 30 times a year, I’d drive to some major studio and try it. And I think a lot of times I got auditions just because I was a stand-up – which really is not a good reason to be getting auditions, because they’re really two completely different art forms.

Norm MacDonald said earlier this year in an interview with the A.V. Club that just when you get good at stand-up is when you get offered a TV show, so then you can be bad at acting instead.

(Laughs) Yeah, why would that cross over, beyond I guess the sales point of view? It was also really a financial decision. I was spending so much time doing this, and it’s not paying off at all and it’s not giving me back anything. I don’t enjoy the process.

I have a friend who is a great comedic actress, and she loves auditioning. She thinks that part’s fun. I love open mics. I’ll sit around an open mic for three hours. I think it’s fun. I really enjoy. I love it – maybe a little less so now that I have some friends who aren’t stand-ups, so I’m like, maybe it’s more fun to go get pizza. But I do enjoy stand-up comedy as an art form; and I enjoy stand-ups, whereas I can’t say I enjoy talking about acting, and I don’t enjoy talking about sketch comedy. I just don’t relate as much, and that was a real relief to let it go.

This week, “The Maria Bamford Show” will be paired with the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” for a screening at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City on July 28. Bamford is currently performing at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, which runs through July 31.

This Q&A was posted online July 27, 2011 at Blog Stage and