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Maria Bamford: A Seriously Funny Comedian

Maria Bamford is a stand-up comedian and voice actress. She recently appeared in the fourth season of <em>Arrested Development.</em>
Maria Bamford is a stand-up comedian and voice actress. She recently appeared in the fourth season of Arrested Development.

It's almost uncomfortable to laugh at Maria Bamford's comedy, because so much of it is about really serious problems she has: OCD, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts. She's been hospitalized several times. But you have to laugh, because she's that funny.

In addition to the difficulties from which she suffers, Bamford — who has a new comedy CD out called Ask Me About My New God! — incorporates her family into much of her material. She's close to both her parents, in part, she says, because they've been through so much together.

Bamford, who has recently appeared on Louie and the new season of Arrested Development, is familiar to a wide audience from a series of holiday season ads for Target, but she's also known for a cult following of her Web shows. These, too, often revolve around her folks.

In The Maria Bamford Show, the premise is that Bamford has had a breakdown that has landed her in her parents' attic in Minnesota. It's fictional, she says, but based on her worst fears.

For her Web program The Special Special Special, Bamford takes the premise of big cable comedy specials and relocates it to her living room with her parents as the only audience members.

The idea, she says, came partly out of laziness; she hadn't been feeling well and was trying to find the easiest way to produce a special. But, she says, the lazy way was also her preferred way.

"The bigger the crowds get, the more nervous I get," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I actually am very comfortable with a half-filled room of people who are slightly disinterested and are irritated at a Barnes & Noble."

It's a bonus, she says, that her parents are also inexpensive talent — although that diminishes their significance.

"It is true," she says, "that the people who it makes me feel the best when they laugh are my family and friends."

Interview Highlights

On her extreme anxiety

"When I was about 9 years old I stopped being able to sleep at night, because I had fear that I was going to kill my parents, act out violently, and/or in some sort of way — it's even hard for me to say now — act out sexually [towards] something, somebody. And so I wanted to be isolated so that I would not be around people at all. [I would] stay up all night, making sure I wouldn't fall asleep and somehow lose control, fearing I was going to do those things.

"That is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. What it is, it's the equivalent of washing your hands, thinking you're going to be dirty or that you're somehow dirty, but it's with thoughts. So as soon as you try to not think of the thought, the thought pops up again. Most of us have weird thoughts floating through our heads once in a while. I heard a comedian once say, 'You ever think, "Hey, my dog looks kind of sexy today." ' Things where it's kind of like, 'That's wrong,' but usually nobody thinks twice about that. You just go, 'Oh, that's weird.' If you are an anxious person and somehow on high alert, you think, 'I just thought my dog looked sexy, that must mean I'm somehow a dangerous person' — sort of this spiraling effect."

On her parents' role in her comedy

"Sometimes my mom just writes the joke herself. She couldn't find me in the house once — and an object at rest stays at rest, and I'm in a corner, curled with my bristles to the outside — and she called my sister in a panic. 'Maria has disappeared and I'm worried she's killed herself, and I have a hair appointment in town.' And that is so hilarious."

On envying her mother's worry-free attitude

"I just think it must be so dreamy. My mom is very structured. She gets up, she does her prayers, and she eats her oatmeal with blueberries and Greek yogurt, and she has her prayer list, and she doesn't worry too much about things. 'So-and-so came down with Alzheimer's, so they're having a hard time, and we're just, you know, gonna take her for frozen yogurt at Scoops and teach her how to upload all of her Weight Watchers points into the Cloud.' I'm taken out by a gas-station muffin. I have the wrong muffin, and I'm out for a week! You know, [I] fall asleep, fall into despair and tears, and you know, [my mom] just pops up. She bobs. She's buoyed."

On the results of using Dale Carnegie's approach to social interaction in high school

"I got my first boyfriend. I was nominated [and] I won the Winter Frolic Queen crown. And I think genuinely, because I started doing all these weird techniques, and because everyone was in high school, I think nobody picked up on the BS factor of it. And I think it was sincere. I was so desperately sincere.

"I tried to use the same tactics when I went to school out East, and I did not go over at all. I remember my roommates — I was going to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine — and they were from New York. They're like, 'Why do you keep saying our name?' They were totally on to me, immediately, and they were completely weirded out by the whole thing."

On anxiety before her stand-up routine

"I go down some sort of rabbit hole of doubt and genuine terror. ... You know, I thought that when you have more success that you'd feel more buoyed or feel more confident. But in fact my brain has the gift of switching it around and saying, 'Now people are expecting something. Now you're really going to let people down.'

"I'm trying to ... write more reasonable thoughts: 'I can stand on stage for an hour, and do work that I've prepared, and it's OK if there's a variety of responses.' They teach you [that] in outpatient treatment — how to have more reasonable thoughts rather than catastrophic or hyperbolic thoughts. Which — that's what Los Angeles runs on: 'I am an angel!' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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