“Quirky” doesn’t even begin to explain Bamford’s approach to stand-up comedy. She’s so much more than that. Just ask one of her personalities.
By John Delery
If Maria Bamford ever needs extra cash fast — say, to help gas up the Comedians of Comedy tour van — she could charge rent to the multiple personas inhabiting her impressive imagination. Without magic or makeup, Bamford, with just a change of pitch, transforms herself into a lifetime supply of characters, including a condescending “lady boss,” a creepy cult leader, and her supportive, amusing but often fretting mother, Marilyn.
“I prefer theatrical environments to comedy clubs,” she says by phone while heading to Louisville, Ky., the destination at the time for the van transporting Bamford and the other Comedians of Comedy (Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Eugene Mirman) on their tour of the laugh track encircling the nation. “I like it when people come to see something more rehearsed. My strength — or what I feel is my strength — is the stuff I rehearse in front of the hotel mirror Maybe I have other strengths, I don’t know, I don’t know,” she adds, changing the subject and voices.
One of the alternative voices of comedy sounds rather girlie instead of womanly (“My voice,” she self-deprecatingly declares in her act, “does not get the respect and attention I believe I deserve”). No need to shout onstage, though, since Bamford differs greatly from so many younger comedians, who, judging from the volume of comedy specials these days, consider themselves products to promote loudly in an attempt to accelerate their careers.
Instead of color-by-numbers comedy (premise, punch line, premise punch line, premise punch line, pause for applause), Bamford paints hilarious word pictures through the various characters she introduces to the audience. With points, not barbs, Bamford deflates people with airs, like the demeaning superior who pretends to be her subordinate’s “girrrrrrrrlfriend” so she can boss her around in and out of work, or the severe “Christian teen from Christ camp,” who sounds as if she needs couples counseling to help take her personal relationship with Jesus to the next level.
Onstage, in her Comedy Central Presents special and on her CD, The Burning Bridges Tour, Bamford, more of a comic actor than a traditional stand-up comedian, performs what amounts to a 10-woman show starring a cast of one. Entertaining at concert venues — as she’s doing on this tour — gives Bamford the space she needs to perform her broader jokes. Her sardonic style, neither in-your-face
nor out of place, also fits the room better.
“At comedy clubs,” she explains, “the headliner is someone who’s been doing stand-up a long time and is supposed to blow the show out of the water — presumably make everybody stand and scream and sing the national anthem or whatever. That doesn’t really work for me. I don’t have an explosive act.
I can’t make people go crazy.”
Besides, she grew up in the theater, well, more like the all-purpose room of her elementary school in Duluth, Minn., her childhood hometown. Her acting career began there in the Western How the West
Was Really Won (technically a spaghetti Western since the performance did take place during a school-sponsored spaghetti dinner).
“Few people know this,” she says, “but the West was won through a series of bad jokes,” all written by sixth-graders.
About 10 years ago, Bamford, now 35, packed her adult sense of humor and comic aspirations and moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles. Like all professional comedians, she kept performing until the right people saw her, which is “the key to comedy,” Bamford says comedian Emo Phillips once told her. “Now I realize what Emo told me is true — not exciting, but true.”
That she sounds sort of like Lisa Simpson probably explains the cartoon work on her resume, including the voice of Shriek Dubois on the Nickelodeon series CatDog and the voice of Mrs. Beady in July’s animated movie Barnyard, also starring Kevin James and Courteney Cox. In addition, Bamford is currently prepping a new CD called How to Win! and a DVD recording of her one-woman show, Plan B.
A family vacation, that’s what the Comedians of Comedy tour sounds like, though maybe an Addams Family vacation.
“I love seeing new places, traveling with the guys,” Bamford says. “I never had brothers when I was growing up, so it’s like having brothers, super-funny brothers. But they still don’t want to play with my stuffed animals or Barbies — unless they’re gonna take the heads off of them. Anyway, that’s a joke.”
That’s what all comedians say.
For more info, visit www.mariabamford.com.