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Lady Dynamite’s Maria Bamford is the caged bird that sings

After years as a perennial comic’s comic, Bamford finally gets the spotlight to perform her own beautiful tune

Photograph: Piper Ferguson

Most comics are content to wring whatever humor they can from flying, dating or work; the general minutiae of daily life. While the greats go beyond, mining their own secret fears, hushed thoughts and violent insecurities for laughs. But Maria Bamford is no simple miner; she’s more like the canary, whose own deteriorating health warns of the dangers ahead. Which makes Lady Dynamite—her hilarious new comedy TV show chronicling her own mental breakdown—something of a superhero origin story: a surreal, psychotropic ride through the broken, brilliant mind of a bird trying to make her way through a dark and dangerous world. We sat down with her to learn what lies ahead.

Maria? Hello?
Hello! Hi! Sorry, I was just leaving the Apple store and it was so insane.

No worries. You can call me back if you want.
Nonono, it’s fine! I’m ready! I just had so many dreams coming true, and then they said that I couldn’t write a business check so it became one of those things. It was a mix of shame and, oh I don’t know.

OK, well I’m just diving in with the hard-hitting questions.
Excellent, excellent.

You got married last year and you and your husband wore matching hot dog costumes. Now, I need you to tell me, honestly, how did this come about?
Right. Well, the dress was picked out especially by my husband. He found it out online, or at least I assume it was online, because I don’t think it was prêt-à-porter. No one was necessarily asked to make, it but someone definitely did make it…and we are lucky that they did.

Did anyone ask “Who are you wearing?” that day?
Yes. And I’d just say “Hot Dog,” which I think was pretty clear. “I’m wearing Hot Dog” although, I almost feel like “Hot Dog was wearing me.”

That’ll be a great title for your autobiography one day.
[Pause] “Hot Dog Was Wearing Me,” OK.

Don’t worry, I’m taking all of our great ideas down and can shoot them all over to you in an email right after we hang up.
OK, OK, thank God. Somebody should be writing everything down.

You’ve said, “Acting is not my strong suit.” So were you nervous when Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz approached you to do a show about your life in which you would be in almost every single scene?
YES. [Long pause] YESSS!!! It was a lot of, “Just be yourself,” direction, which seemed like a terrible idea. I don’t know if you’ve ever been yourself, but sometimes, people just aren’t interested. They’d rather you be a little more upbeat or lucid.

You said something once I really identified with: “In my stand-up, I think I try to be less energetic because I feel embarrassed about how much enthusiasm I have.” Why do you think it is that people feel that way?
I don’t know. Maybe this is changing, but sincerity—in all of its forms—is a pretty vulnerable state to be in. Whether it’s showing excitement or sorrow or anything, which I think is one of the reasons I’ve always liked comedy, because…I’m probably just joking!

Or am I?
Or ammm I? Whatever works, really.

A lot of the plotlines were ripped from the headlines of your real life, like some sort of Law & Order: Special Comedian’s Unit. Were you concerned about letting other people write this intensely personal show for you?
I was relieved. I do not have the wherewithal or ambition to write my own show. I love the idea of full control over the world, but the effort that it takes is not in my wheelhouse.

At one point, you took a stab at rewriting one of the episodes yourself, which, by your account ballooned into an “awful” 2,000 page draft that you called a “Charles Dickens novel.” Have you ever considered posting that online for a laugh?
Oh God, yeah yeah yeah. I did do that! That was so ridiculous! They even read it aloud at a table read I was like, “I am so sorry!” Everyone was given these long monologues almost like…wait, who’s the New York actor who used to perform all the the really long monologues? Not John Leguizamo…

Spalding Gray?
Perrrhaps? Let’s just say it’s Spalding Gray. (ed. - Eric Bogosian) Well, then I Spalding Gray’d that script! Everyone was really confused.

Well, that’s where you call up your protective non-sincere comedic skin and just go, “You guys, come on! That was obviously a bit! A 2,000 page bit!”
I just said, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. As you were. As you were, making things better.”

You have an amazing—and amazingly weird—cast on the show that actually works really well together How did you assemble this group and who’s the genius that spotted Mark McGrath’s hidden comedic brilliance??
Pam Brady picked Mark. I picked people that I knew like…[Long pause] Oh God, now of course I’m blanking. I’m totally blanking again.

You know, those ‘Geniuses’ are smart but they are dicks. Don’t worry, I have a list of my personal favorites that I can read you from the show: Dean Cain, Ed Begley Jr., Ana Gasteyer, Brandon Routh, Jon Cryer, Bridgett Everett, Mira Sorvino and Judd Apatow.
Ahhh yes! Bridget was someone I had seen before who was just so beautiful to watch, Ed Begley Jr. was somebody I thought would be great to play my father and Mary Kay Place turned out to be just like my mom! They chatted for two hours when they first met and they’re both Episcopalians, so she was just lovely to her, it was really nice.

Was casting your family difficult, since you frequently imitate them in your act?
No. I think because I’ve done it so much, it was actually a joy to have another interpretation. For me, just being a part of a group process was really exciting, instead of being lonely and controlling by myself, ’cause I know how to do that. It was really fun to think that everyone got to put in their ideas, or at least, I hope that that’s what it was like. As an employee of the behemoth that is Netflix, I just hope that everyone had a wonderful time.

In your show The Special Special Special! you performed an entire set at your own house for your parents only. What was their reaction after the cameras stopped rolling?
Oh, they were fine with it. They were actually already in town and I paid them $600 apiece so they were like, “Whaaat? Sounds great!” My mom was excited to get her hair done. My family is very positive. I have a joke about how now that they’re retired, it’s like they’re just high all the time. Every single person they meet is so…fascinating! “Oh the flowers! Did you see all them today??” My mom is always so celebratory of whatever is going on. I’m slowly trying to become her—just a slow-bleed. I’m sure it’s happened more than I know.

That scene when they get home from the Cirque du Soleil show really reminded me of my own parents. They’re so excited and try so hard to explain it to you, but none of it makes any sense whatsoever.
Yes, Q’ontained! “It’s things inside of things! And you think, ‘This isn’t gonna happen’ but it did! It did!!!” I’ve been to many shows with them and let’s just say that they are “appreciators of the arts” so they had no qualms about sitting in a living room with a bunch of cameramen. “This is just wonnnderful! Good for you, kid!! We do have a hard out at 8 o’clock otherwise your father gets night terrors.”

My parents are the same way. My mom drags my dad along to virtually every musical on Broadway and he just falls asleep halfway through. It’s basically the world’s most expensive nap.
Awww, that’s wonderful! Cause it’s time that they have together–

“-ish.”
Yeah true, “-ish.” My husband and my parents and I all went to see Starlight Express and Cats in London together.

Wow. American Cats are so basic. Were British Cats? much more refined?
I gotta say, I did not get it! I didn’t get that that was all it was! I thought it was gonna be something more than just….cats! If somebody had said that it was just people in cat costumes, I would have set the bar a little lower. And it’s sad too. There’s a lot of sad cats out there. There are a lot of cats that are just fat and lie around all day and there weren’t any obese cats in that cast.

The Paunchy-and-Not-So-Magical-Mr.-Mistoffelees? Speaking of pets, you have a wonderful speaking relationship on the show with your pug Bert. Where did that idea come from?
Well, someone decided that he should talk with the voice of Werner Herzog. But Werner wasn’t available, so you get Kyle McCulloch! Those pugs were so much more energized than my actual pugs—who I wanted to be in the series originally, but didn’t get a callback.

Wow that’s cold. Did you consider quitting after that?
I did. I almost said to them, “You know what, I think this is a creative fork in the road,” and then I realized that this could pay for doggie biscuits till the end of time so I said, “Why don’t you guys just suck it up!?”

Do you plan anything different for your NY sets?
I’ve been working with a director for these shows, just so I get more excited about them because in stand-up you just…stand there. So maybe, I don’t know, maybe people might see some acrobatics.

Some Q’ontains?
I’m not saying they’ll actually work, but there are definitely going to be epic trials. There’s also gonna be…wait, not even epic, let’s say…pathetic?

Pathetically epic?
Epically pathetic. I am trying to be a lot more heart-healthy lately, so I wanna be a lot more active onstage walking around and such.

Do you have any favorite NYC spots? Bars/restaurants/comedy clubs/bath houses/so on.
Like everybody, I love just walking around there. It’s so fun just seeing all the people in their outfits. So many different outfits in New York! I always like to go into delis and get myself a little treat. Because you got these treats and they’re just there all night long for better or for worse. And I actually like going to goofy 12-step meetings during the day while I’m in town, that’s probably my favorite thing.

What makes ours so good?
Oh, I don’t know, any of them are good. I’m not really supposed to say because of the whole anonymous thing. If I were to go some though—and we don’t know if I do because I’m not gonna say that I do—I might not. I’ve been to all sorts, let’s just say that and I may or may not be a member.

Have you found the success of the show opens more doors for you?
Mayyybe. We’ve been getting so much positive feedback, and it all feels so wonderful. The thing I think I’m most proud of is that I got the back page of BP Magazine which is for people with bi-polar disorder. I gotta tell ya, there’s a list of heavy hitters who’ve been there. Richard Dreyfuss is on this month’s edition, FYI.

Wait, does the back page of a bi-polar magazine also flip around and become the front page too?
Waaaait a minute….that’s a very good point! No, it’s a wonderful magazine, it’s very hopeful.

You’ve managed to find an honest way to discuss mental illness that’s respectful yet still really funny. What was it like the first time you addressed it onstage?
I was scared, sure, but the gift of experiencing any sort of trauma is that it just does not matter what people think anymore. I’ve heard that over and over in people’s life stories, where they just get to that point of, “Oh right…nobody cares! So I might as well do whatever it is I want to do.” And if they don’t, well, who really wants to spend time with those people anyways?

Maria Bamford is at PlayStation Theater Sat 30 at 8pm.

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