By Amber Harper-Young
VANCOUVER – Funny, fearless comedian Maria Bamford shares her experiences with self perception, relationship dynamic and mental health on stage. She makes people laugh by looking back at her sometimes tragic journey with insightfulness. And by being so open she’s communicated to anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder and/or OCD that they’re not alone! She’s a modern day saint and has been a pioneer in dissolving the stigma surrounding mental illness, through comedy, throughout her career. Bamford masterfully acts out carefully crafted character scenarios with ease. Her stand-up is honest, original, vulnerable and hilarious.
Maria Elizabeth Sheldon Bamford was born to Marilyn and Joel in Port Hueneme, California but was raised in Duluth, Minnesota, alongside her sister Sarah. Before she had her life direction it crossed her mind to do something other than perform. She says, “My dad was a doctor, so I thought about that, you know thinking it’s sort of a monk-like aesthetic, a sad answer to what life could be. I thought (goes into a tired/slow voice) ‘maybe I’ll be a physician and ahhh, and I’ll help people’ in a very depressed vision of the future. But I did think about doing that. I was generally terrified of what life had to offer. I didn’t have any hope for myself beyond just gratitude that I could go to college, so that I could have some place to go.”
During her university years Bamford fought to find her path, she struggled with depression and unwanted thoughts syndrome (a type of OCD) and on top of all that had difficulty finding the right school. Her second school, the University of Edinburgh, however introduced her to performing improv, which she enjoyed, along with being apart of other student productions. In her senior year she also experimented with doing stand-up at some open mics while attending the University of Minnesota, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in creative writing. It wasn’t until she worked through the infamous book, The Artist’s Way, though that she knew what road she would travel. Recommended to her by her then mentor Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank from Mystery Science Theatre 3000), Bamford says, “I did that whole book and I was like ‘oh this is what I want to be. I want to be a comedian.’ Then I started kinda doing one person shows and yeah it really helped me gain more confidence in a direction.”
Bamford then moved to LA and worked as a temp to support herself and her dream. She also got paid minimum wage to be an audience member at shows and went against the grain of her introverted instincts and served tables. She remembers, “Waitressing was a nightmare for me, I did it for three years and I just never got better at it. I always tip over 20 per cent cause I just feel like if you got the food to the table than you have done more than I did. There’s something about the social anxiety of looking into the faces of hungry people, who have specific needs and they’re all different and then being kinda easy going in your service (confident/laid back voice) ‘Oh here’s a glass of water and a basket of chips’… I could never seem to pull it off, I was always shakily theatrical about everything.”
Ten years after figuring out what she wanted to do and dealing with complications of her brain’s predisposition, Bamford was invited to perform on the Tonight Show. And since then she’s been on every late night show you can name. Stephen Colbert has called her one of his favourites. She was the first female ever to lock down not one but two Comedy Central Presents. In 2003 she released her debut album, The Burning Bridges Tour. Then in 2005 she starred alongside Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt in Comedians of Comedy: The Movie. In 2007 she put out a second album, How to Win, in 2009 she released Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, then shortly after that was Maria Bamford’s: Plan B (2010). Then there was The Special Special Special put out unto the universe in 2012 and now on Netflix. And Bamford’s next album, Ask Me About My New God was released in 2013. After all that the American Comedy Awards presented her with the Best Club Comic 2014, she had been honing her craft for about 22 years.
Bamford has also had success in front of the camera and received numerous credits for her skilled voiceover work. She’s done voices for the Emmy Winning series Word Girl, Bojack Horseman, Kung Fu Panda and Bob’s Burgers to name only a few. She’s had recurring acting roles on Arrested Development, ABC’s Fresh off the Boat and USA’s Benched. Most recently though Bamford has blessed us with audio album 20% and her special entitled, Old Baby that’s currently available on Netflix. Additionally this past year Bamford’s show, Lady Dynamite (created by Mitchell Hurwitz and Pam Brady), released its final season. The quirky autobiographical dramedy starred Bamford and is on the same famous binge watching portal. Rolling stone and Variety Magazine dubbed the series a ”Must-See Show” after the first season but unfortunately it was cancelled after its second.
Now at 47 years old, Bamford is looking to blaze a new kind of trail in entertainment. She says “I would like to know about new comics especially from a diversity point of view. I feel like as an older white lady who is relatively lazy, I don’t always meet people who have different experiences than I do. I am really grateful that there’s more space being created. You know I’d love to help somebody else have their voice be heard. That sounds good to me. I’ve had plenty of chance to be seen and heard, so that’s what I would like to do is to be a job creator.”
Bamford is also happily tapped out of mental material and believes that on top of the professional support, talking about her illness in joke form has helped her to heal. “You hear people laugh about it and you go ‘oh, I’m not alone,’ like it feels good. The hilarious part is that I’ve felt so good for the past six years and I’m on such great medication regimens that I don’t have any material. I’ve kinda burned through all my experiences and now I’m just writing jokes about animals,” she says. “If you work through material and get health care then you can move back into the bland, generic material you’ve always wanted to do. No life is very interesting. It felt very meaningful and fun to talk about. It’s awesome and it’s just only been positive. It’s wonderful, you find your audience and it’s great.”
And so it seems she may have become a doctor of sorts in the end, healing others with her candidness and hilarity. While helping to heal herself by bravely reaching out for the support through her material and living her truth, the artist’s way!
Maria Bamford performs at the Vogue Theatre (Vancouver) March 3 as a part of the JFL NorthWest Comedy Festival.Just For Laughs, Maria Bamford, The Vogue Theatre