A "nice lady" comic builds a community one joke (and park bench) at a time.
Wed Dec 1 2010
During my phone conversation with comedian Maria Bamford, we discuss moving to San Francisco at age 22, interning for a self-help author named SARK, doing a brief stint on a CBS show called Evening Magazine and working in comedy. This isn’t Bamford’s résumé. It’s mine. The L.A.-based comic has Googled me ahead of our interview, and she’s got plenty of questions: How do I feel about getting older? What was it like covering the Just for Laughs Chicago festival in June? Have I always been a “writer person”?
“I have a hard time with interviews,” Bamford says, “because I’d rather hear about the interviewer.”
Yet, while Bamford speaks circuitously and occasionally turns my questions into her own, she’s not guarded or evasive. With an autobiographical onstage style she’s polished over more than ten years and three live albums (The Burning Bridges Tour, How to Win! and Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome), Bamford relishes self-effacing jokes (usually in a variety of voices) that reveal insight into her Minnesota upbringing, struggles with depression and OCD, and fondness for personal growth. “Some of my friends and family have tried to challenge me to do jokes that aren’t as self-deprecating, where I genuinely express my own opinion in my own voice,” Bamford says. “I express things through characters because I have a fear that my own voice is irritating because that’s been said to me.” On 2009’s Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, the self-described “nice lady” comic leaves phone messages to her deacon mother in the voice of the baby Jesus; imitates her overachieving, decoupaging sister; and pokes fun at romantic relationships via a spot-on channeling of love-song radio guru Delilah.
Bamford has appeared regularly with the Comedians of Comedy tour featuring Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis; became a 2009 spokesperson for a series of Target ads; and routinely sells out comedy clubs across the country (including a night of alt comedy with Oswalt, Hannibal Buress, Kyle Kinane and Chris Hardwick at Just for Laughs in June). “I have received more fulfillment and adulation than I would ever know what to do with in terms of show business,” she says. But Bamford, who recently turned 40, considers her life and career still a work in progress. She’s purchased a house in Eagle Rock, a cozy neighborhood sandwiched between downtown L.A. and Pasadena. “It’s not the answer,” says the relationship-free Bamford, who lives with her two adopted pugs. “Houses are lonely.” She’s considering a roommate and in the meantime has shot a semi-autobiographical pilot featuring actor James Urbaniak as her fictional housemate. She recently laid to rest a night of sing-along stand-up comedy. “Sometimes you put stuff out there and it does not resonate with the zeitgeist,” she says. And although she’s a self-dubbed atheist and self-help junkie, Bamford recently joined her neighborhood Unitarian church. “I wanted to be part of a community in my neighborhood that can take action with social justice causes,” she says. “Religions get shit done.”
That desire for community led Bamford to install a park bench in her front yard, complete with sidewalk chalk. “Somebody left a half-eaten pie on it,” Bamford says. “People smoked on it, which I felt very good about. The problem is the bench faces my house, which makes people more self-conscious.” Finally, she says, once again turning the conversation back to me, “Please come and sit on it. I don’t have a community bulletin board or poop bags out yet, but they’re coming.”
Bamford plays Mayne Stage Friday 3 and Saturday 4.