How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is known for her highly distinctive, painfully funny, and uncompromisingly personal stand-up comedy. Though often cited for her mimicry of family members and various regional “types,” Bamford’s “voices” are anything but a gimmick. She uses her vocal skills to satirize common experience and social maladies in ways that are impossible to compare with any other comic. (To wit: her well-known bit in which she adopts the persona of a certain type of female comic who will, in exchange for shoes and chocolate, allow her date to “go through the back door.” Bamford’s characterization is flat-out funny, but the joke itself challenges audiences to ask themselves what they find funny and why.)

Bamford has raised her profile significantly over the last half-decade. Her recent live album, “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome,” appeared on a slew of top ten lists. Constantly touring far and wide, she remains furiously active in the L.A. comedy scene, starred in her own web series (“The Maria Bamford Show”), and made multiple guest appearances on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!” and its spin-off, “Check it Out! with Steve Brule.” All of which is to say nothing about her robust career as a voice actor, which has included regular featured work on “Sit Down Shut Up,” “Kick Buttowski,” “Adventure Time,” and “Ugly Americans.” In 2009 and 2010, an even wider audience saw her in a series of well-received television commercials for Target, in which she played a tightly-wound suburban holiday shopper.

In her stand-up act, Bamford describes her voice as “high and child-like,” but over the phone, the main thing that comes across is that she is – as advertised on her website – a “nice lady.” She’s so immediately personable that I instinctively want to refer to her by her first name instead of the more journalistic “Bamford.” She speaks of her youth and early career as a performer with direct, eye-opening frankness. Far from being a self-mythologizer, she is an incredibly productive, forward-thinking artist who is not content to rest on her laurels.
So, how did she do it? In discussing her career and life, Bamford is matter-of-face about her history with depression and the role it continues to play in her life, as well as the paramount importance of the creative moment (easily beating out public reception and prestige). I started our conversation by asking Maria to give me a picture of herself as a kid – how she expressed herself and what early creative activities she was exposed to:
MB: My dad always brought home stacks of blank paper because I liked to draw and make stuff. My dad was always very supportive: “Oh, what are you doing?”*  And I went to a lot of gifted children’s arts programs in the summer that were given by the public school. You’d do a play or something. And my parents put me in a Suzuki violin program when I was three. Now that I look back, of course, I realize how lucky I was to get a lot of support to be creative. But there was also a production aspect to it. My family are very much “producers,” so they like to ask you what you’ve been doing and you’ve got to show what you’ve been working on. I’m real grateful for all those things. I didn’t realize that those things were sort of luxuries.
CB: So you’re at a very young age here. All of this stuff was being set up for you by your parents.
MB: For music camp, for sure. The weird thing about it is I did not enjoy it that much, but I was a pretty obedient kid – it’s hard not to be obedient when you’re three – and later the peer pressure kicks in. It’s so funny because I didn’t see the violin stuff as very artistic. It was very prestige-oriented or about accomplishing something. I don’t remember enjoying it and losing myself in the music – that type of thing.
CB: How long did the violin lessons go on?
MB: Ohhh, till I was 21! I quit for the last year of high school, and then guiltily tried to re-up myself over and over again over the years, and then finally about ten years ago... I let it go.
CB: When did you start doing your own thing – whether it was an interest in acting or comedy? When did that start to kick in?
MB: I think in high school and junior high. I liked to run for office. I liked the idea of doing a speech, or plays. And that was very self-motivated – like, nobody really cared that I was doing that, and I think that was a good thing. That was really great. I went to a very tiny school, which was good for me too, because I wonder if I would have fallen through some sort of crack. You look back and you think “Thank God…” Or thank somebody. Maybe I should thank my parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
CB: So, did you know in high school that you wanted to be a performer? Or did that come later?
MB: No, I didn’t know that. I did acting in high school, and it was fun and exciting, but it wasn’t something I thought about. If someone said, “You can be an actress,” I would have been, like, “Uh… I don’t… ummm… huh?” I was terrified, in high school, of what was supposed happen next.
CB: You mean of post-high school life?
MB: Oh yeah. I was absolutely terrified. I remember going to college and feeling like, “What am I doing?”
CB: I read that you attended three colleges. Where did you end up graduating?
MB: From the University of Minnesota. I went to Bates College for two years. It was small, and I got to participate in a lot of things. Then I went on a junior year abroad to the University of Edinburgh. I transferred out of Bates because I was having real problems with depression, and an eating disorderrrr. I ended up going through an outpatient treatment program at the University of Minnesota while finishing my degree there, which was awesome possum.

CB: What did you end up getting your degree in?
MB: Creative writing. It was kind of murky. I remember going, “Uh… If I do this, can I get a degree?” Like, “If I write this thinly-veiled autobiographical play, would that count as something?” And they were like, “Sure!” I don’t remember being super-organized or focused about it. It was more like: get ‘er done.
CB: If you were frightened of post-high school life, what about post-college?
MB: It’s hard to say. I’ve had depression throughout my life. From the age of ten, I really started having some issues with enjoyment in life. So it’s hard to say what ups and downs are really caused by. But I did a lot of shows in Minneapolis and felt very goal-oriented and motivated to do things creatively. And just as I was stopping feeling motivated, I auditioned for this thing to go out to California and be a “Star Trek” character tour guide.
CB: Had you developed more interest in performing while you were still in college?
MB: I just wanted to finish my degree... I started to get more focused on what exactly I wanted to do and having some specific vision when I was kind of depressed and I was talking to this mentor-comedian Frank Conniff. He’s in Los Angeles, but was living in Minneapolis at the time. (And I think that’s important: to have mentors. You know, people who are ahead.) He said to read this very hippy skippy dippy book called “The Artist’s Way,” and I totally grabbed onto that. That book changed my life. Sometimes people will hand me a book and say, “This book changed my life,” and I’ll be like, “Really? Oh, that’s weird.” But it totally helped me focus and gave me this courage to believe in myself. I think I was 22 or 23 when I got my hands on that delightful thing and it provided me with the idea that it’s okay for me to say I’m a comedian, even if no one else thinks I am. Everyone else can be on the fence – but at least I’m on board.
CB: So you moved out to LA to take the “Star Trek” tour guide job.
MB: Yeah – which was very uncertain. It didn’t go on for that long. And I really didn’t have life skills – how to pay bills, how to hold down a job. I had always lived in these hippy cooperatives, and even then didn’t do very well. Like, I didn’t pay rent for a year once! And the rent was only $140 a month. And the hippy cooperative leader (or the guy who had been there the longest), he was like, “Hey, man, listen, uh… You gotta, kinda… C’mon!” And I was like, “God! You’re so uptight!” I think in smaller cities and artistic communities you can kind of keep scraping along and do okay – especially in Minneapolis, where there are more social services. And being young, maybe it was okay to be poor. But then I moved to Los Angeles, and not only was it super isolating, but it’s sort of terrifying to not have any money here, or family. So I went through a couple of hard years, realizing I needed some help. There was a hippy cooperative I could have moved into when I came out here, but part of me had that, “Come on! Bootstraps!” thing. And I think part of it was like The American Success Story: I Can Do It on My Own! And I think that’s kind of mythological, because you can grow more isolated that way.
CB: So you’re in LA, and you had the tour guide job, and maybe things weren’t going great for a couple of years. What marked a turning point? Was it a particular job? Or a change in your approach? 

MB: I got a ton of outside help. Support groups. 12-step groups. I have gotten and continue to get help there. I know not everybody’s into them, and I’m not into them half the time. But they’re free and it’s a bunch of people who have been in the same situation or are in the same situation.
CB: Like free group therapy?
MB: Some of it’s not therapy. It’s what you get from any community. Like, “Oh, you haven’t taken care of getting your teeth cleaned in three years? Let’s call each other and see if we can get that done.” I read an article in “The Week” that made me feel good because sometimes it feels like these groups can be cultish. But the article said that there was scientific study that this works – that any group helps people. Mental health-wise, people benefit from being a member of a group. So, I got a lot of help with how to have a job, how to keep showing up for a job… And you can get that through programs with the government and stuff, but I found it through these 12-step groups. Super, super helpful.
CB: What kind of jobs did you have while you were trying to build up a career as a comic?
MB: I always worked food service jobs, which was interesting, because I’d had an eating disorder, so that was sort of a poor job choice. But I did not have the confidence to say, “Hey Maria, you can type 70 words per minute and you have a degree. Why wouldn’t you try to get any job that would pay better than $6.00 an hour loading trucks at night?” That’s where I needed some sort of community to help me say, “Hey, you can do this.” For some reason, I didn’t even think I could answer the phones places, which sounds cuckooberry, but I was really scared that people knew how to do things and I didn’t. I had very remedial life skills.
CB: Those confidence problems must have impacted your pursuit of a show business career.
MB: My parents cut me off, which is probably one of the greatest things they’ve ever done. Because then I had the opportunity to say, “Oh, I can do this. I can earn enough money and take care of myself.” And I can’t imagine that that didn’t help me creatively to feel like I could take care of myself.
CB: Plus it frees your brain energy, right? Once you know you can handle practical stuff.
MB: Yeah. But with mental illness, it doesn’t matter if you have money or prestige. It’s devastating no matter what. People have killed themselves at the top of their careers, with loved ones all around. I don’t know if achievements always make a difference in people’s self-esteem or state of mind.
CB: One of your first credits was writing for “The Martin Short Show.”
MB: Yes.
CB: Had you written for anyone else prior to that?
MB: No. I think I just got that job because of some weird buzz. I was a young lady and they thought I was funny. It was like some mystical thing. Frankly, it wasn’t a great experience for me because I wasn’t very good at interpersonal relationships and group dynamics, interestingly enough.

CB: That “room full of writers” thing?
MB: Yeah. Because it’s working with others and I didn’t always do that very well. So I got fired. But I did give it my 100% shot!
CB: What did you want to follow first and foremost? Was it acting or writing or stand-up? Or all of them?
MB: I kept being driven to do stand-up in the way I was doing it, which was more of a “one person show” or performance art kind of thing. It didn’t always go super well in comedy clubs – and still doesn’t! Unless people know what they’re coming to see, I don’t always do well in front of a crowd of people who are just there to see “comedy.” I just wanted to do what I was enjoying, and I’m not sure I even had a name for it.
CB: Right, which is what this interview series is about: people who are doing something they are compelled to do even though there might not be a name for it. And how you can make it work.
MB: You just do it and do it and do it. And maybe somebody takes notice. And maybe they don’t. But at least you’re doing it. And that’s the victory. Because the most important thing is this moment. If I’m not creating something today – that act of creativity and the joy from that is the one thing that stays steady. That’s the only reason for doing it. Prestige, and looking back on what you’ve done isn’t really that satisfying. I’m excited about my jokes now. I don’t really care about stuff I’ve already done. I want to say, “What about this joke? Have you heard this one?” Because you always have the freedom to create things – whether or not people are interested!
CB: Do you set aside a time to develop new material, or is that something you’re constantly doing?
MB: I try to force myself to do it. Sometimes it’s hard to get myself to do it. As I’m talking to you right now, I’m thinking, “Oh God. I should go write something down…” I don’t know if it’s a workaholic thing. I always thought I would feel rested, like, “Okay, I did that. Now I can coast.” I never feel that, or I feel that for maybe a minute. Did you watch that Joan Rivers documentary? It’s just her rushing around going, “Okay, where’s my next gig? What’s the next thing?” That’s where the joy and excitement is – it’s in the thing you’re doing now. She’s this icon and I’ve looked up to her forever, and she’s like, “I’m busy. I’ve got to do this now. See you later!”
CB: Are there specific things you would still like to do that you haven’t gotten to yet?
MB: Yes! I made a pilot, and I’m gonna try to sell it. And I’m always excited about a new thing. I have an idea for a live show I want to do weekly, but I can’t talk about it because then I might not do it. And there are always new jokes, new dreams, new visions. And as far as success and affirmation: If you have a critical mind, those things don’t make a difference in the end. My brain has made it a magical trick for me where instead of using my success as a feeling of, “Oh, you’re great at what you do!” my brain makes it into pressure – added pressure. “You’ve got to keep producing.” So, uh, just enjoy the day, is what I’m trying say. (Laughs) It doesn’t get better up ahead, just different.
* Italics indicate where Bamford switched over to one of her many alternate voices; often enough, she uses a different voice even when impersonating herself.

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