“It’s so hard to get an intervention when people don’t think you have any problems,” stand-up comic Maria Bamford complains as she tells me about her love of reality shows like Intervention and Confessions: Animal Hoarding. “Would somebody just please meet me at a Best Western conference room and take me in a van to Florida so I can talk about my feelings for 90 days?”
Bamford is known for manipulating her voice and facial expressions to transform on stage into her family, friends, and other hypothetical or universal types, which often means deftly embodying multiple characters at once in a stream-of-consciousness storytelling style. Rather than simply hide behind gimmicky character voices and impressions, though, Bamford uses her unique skills to primarily show vulnerability and truth about herself, so the object of ridicule is Bamford more often than anyone she impersonates. Unsuspecting audiences may be forgiven, then, for assuming they are watching a schizophrenic woman lose control on stage and be overtaken by the voices in her head.
More accurately, Bamford takes over these characters to assert some control over the people in her life. “I’m saying exactly what I wish they would say. It’s great.” She laughs, adding, “A little education about mental health is that if you have schizophrenia, you’re not just hearing voices.”
But being aware of a family history of mental illness and her own struggles with depression, OCD, and a disorder she calls “unwanted thoughts syndrome,” Bamford dreaded the day when she might have a nervous breakdown of her own. “As I was working through that I was like, ‘Okay, would it be that bad if that happened?,’” Bamford says. “Because I have had real experiences with depression or feeling like I can’t go on like this, even when everything is going great, at least on the external level.”
Bamford decided to face one of her biggest fears in the most natural way for a comic – by making fun of it. She created and performed Plan B, a one-woman show in which the comedian moves back in with her parents in her hometown of Duluth, Minn., following a breakdown on stage as the result of a heckler. In 2006, she adapted the stage show into a web series called The Maria Bamford Show, directed by Damon Jones for the now-defunct website Super Deluxe. She played about a dozen characters – including her mother, her father, her sister, acquaintances from high school, and more – over the course of 20 short Internet videos. (Much of the material seen in the series would also end up in her stand-up act, especially on the 2009 album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome.)
While her family isn’t exactly in on the joke, they do not try to stifle her comedic voice either, even when it includes impressionistic yet deeply personal sketches of their lives.
“It’s me talking,” Bamford says of using her family for material. “I realize that it’s me. All those things, those are the things I think my family is saying to me. Sometimes they actually say it, but all kinds of stuff I’ve made up that I think they said. Sometimes I think it is an homage. My sister said, ‘Did you ever notice that in every story you tell, you’re the victim?’ Well, yeah, and I end up looking great, or the way I want to look. My sister is a life coach, so she’s using that new phrase, ‘Well that’s the story you’re telling yourself. Pretty good story.’”
Years after she exorcised her demons on The Maria Bamford Show, life imitated art. About two months ago, Bamford noticed that she “started talking faster,” she says, and ended up in the hospital for three days. “I had told my friends, ‘Hey, if I start telling you about calling the pope or having a lot of great ideas all at once, could you please drive me somewhere?’”
Bamford reveals that she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. “You don’t necessarily have hallucinations or things that people really notice, like going into the desert and talking to God,” she explains, “but you have moments of really high activity. I’d be very depressed for long periods of time, and then I’d try to get it back together, but kind of in an irritable way.” She emits a nervous laugh and shifts into a manic high-pitched voice. “People want to bother me? Because right now, I’m doing a lot of stuff!”
Bamford admits that she was reluctant at first to try any mood-altering medications, “because I think I felt like that meant I was cuckoo,” but she also realized that she was allowed to be happy, healthy and hilarious at the same time. The image of the comedian as a “sad clown” who shares their own sensitivity, insecurity and neuroses to get a laugh from a roomful of strangers has evolved from the era of Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Lewis. Disaffected and depressed comedians can still sell out the nation’s comedy clubs, but well-adjusted citizens can be funny people too. The Laugh Factory even began offering in-house psychotherapy sessions to comics in L.A. earlier this year.
“I don’t believe that you have to suffer to be an artist,” Bamford says. “In fact, I can be more useful to my artistic community by feeling good, and being able to take care of my teeth, and have a safe place to live where the landlord doesn’t accept sex for rent.”
Maria Bamford is currently performing at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, which runs through July 31. Also this week, The Maria Bamford Show will be paired with the Mayles brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens for a screening at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City on July 28.