By Erin Peterson
Maria Bamford (B.A. ’93) was at a difficult point in her life when she first started performing at the Minneapolis comedy club Stevie Ray’s. She’d recently transferred from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to the University of Minnesota. She was experiencing anxiety and depression. She was being treated for an eating disorder. For some, comedy might have been a way to escape those problems, even if only for a few minutes. Bamford took another tack: She leaned in.
In her first performances, she brought a violin on stage and used it to portray her relationship history by playing a distorted, crunching sound. She showed pictures of her family and explained how successful and wonderful they were—then threw the photos behind her. “At the time, I had shaved my head, and I was wearing a floral muumuu,” she recalls. “I was odd-looking.”
The audience may not have known quite what to make of Bamford’s sense of humor, but Bamford didn’t seem to mind. “I mean, nobody said I couldn’t come back,” she says.
In an era when many try to project the perfect life with carefully worded Facebook posts and heavily filtered Instagram photos, Bamford makes a living revealing her flaws. She shares her negativity, passive aggression, and brushes with mental illness in funny and deeply truthful ways.
Her recent special, called Special Special Special!, is a stand-up shtick filmed entirely in her living room with a live audience of two: her parents. In one bit, she imagines sparring with her sister, Sarah Seidelmann (M.D. ’93), trying to foil Sarah’s relentless positivity. Bamford frets aloud, “I’m worried I’ll lose everything, including my mind, except the part of my mind that knows I’ve lost everything. Suddenly I’m out on the streets of Manila walking in a bunch of itchy sweater remnants, plucking a one-string banjo,” she says. Then, morphing into her look-on-the-bright-side sister, she says, as Sarah, “No baggage! You’ve gotten to the bottom, and there’s the jumping off point! What a gift.”
It’s an approach that resonates with audiences. In recent years, Bamford has appeared in shows ranging from Arrested Development to Louie. In 2010, she mined that anxious, high-energy persona for a series of holiday commercials for Target, playing a delightfully unhinged shopper eager to take advantage of Black Friday deals.
Bamford knows she walks a fine line with her humor. In today’s easy-to-outrage world, tackling a tripwire topic like mental illness requires serious finesse. An audience member with a cell phone camera can capture one clunky move on stage, upload it to the world, and send an entire career off-kilter. But Bamford’s carefully constructed jokes often have the effect of pulling people closer. She frequently speaks with people at her shows who have experienced mental illness in their own lives or families, and they are grateful for her perspective. “I think it makes people feel less alone and less secretive,” she says. “And in a selfish way, if I were having a bad time again, there are a bunch of people I could tell, because everything is so public.”
Though her work is deeply personal, it is informed by a vast curiosity about the world and the human condition. An English major, she has a voracious appetite for books and ideas. During an hour-long conversation, she casually drops in a reference to Socrates’ ideas about the meaning of life and weaves in a point from a recent article in the New Yorker. She says she’s been reading Book of Ages, a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane. “She was so smart, but she had 12 kids—so much of her time was spent in having and taking care of her children. People then believed women shouldn’t learn to read, because it might take away from their housework,” she marvels. “You can see her start to realize that the game is rigged.”
Bamford as the delightfully unhinged Target Lady
That unfair playing field is something she thinks about today. She realizes that, as someone who wants to be noticed on the biggest stage of all, Hollywood, she hit the genetic jackpot: She’s blonde, thin, and attractive. Still, she’s noticed that people seem uncomfortable with her age. “There are tons of pictures of me as a 45-year-old woman, but in promotional materials, people almost always use a young picture of me,” she says.
Bamford will take her work to an even higher level this spring, when she stars in Lady Dynamite, a 13-episode Netflix series produced by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz. Though Netflix contracts demand Bamford stay mum about the particulars until closer to air date, she says it’s “an extremely semi-autobiographical show, with heavy emphasis on the extreme.”
Though Bamford is happy for the opportunity that Lady Dynamite presents, she’s not interested in continuing to seek ever-larger platforms. Instead, she wants to find the most authentic ones: those that let her build real relationships with the fans who recognize themselves in her stories. “When you work smaller venues, you can find connection and meaning with the audience; it’s easy to lose that in larger place,” she says. “What I really want is to find my way back there.”