Maria Bamford takes a sip and contemplates the night ahead.
As we sit in the lobby of her hotel a few hours before a headlining set at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival in Austin, Texas, the 45-year-old comedian gulps down an iced coffee and explains that before the show, she might prepare her “bits” by climbing on the Stairmaster and rehearsing the set. This isn’t her getting into a Zen state, though. It’s more an act of will.
“Did you read the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic?” she asks, her short, platinum blonde hair twisted in a series of random curls, pale blue eyes wide. A large purse sits at her feet, filled with books. “It’s so freaking inspiring. She’s so awesome because she’s like, don’t wait to be inspired. Don’t wait until it’s comfortable. I think the saying was, ‘Creation is excruciating and you have to do it.’”
Bamford has been creating for nearly 30 years now, appearing on Louie, Arrested Development, BoJack Horseman, and the Comedians of Comedy tour. She has a handful of comedy specials and albums to her name; in 2012, she released the Netflix special The Special Special Special, which was performed in her small living room to an audience of her mom and dad.
Now she has a Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, which tells the story of what happened to Bamford before and after a mental breakdown. It’s one of the most original comedy shows in recent memory. She partnered with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz and South Park writer/producer Pam Brady to shape the pitch and feel, and in the first episode we get a cheerful, on-brand introduction from Bamford:
“I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged. My skin is getting softer yet my bones are jutting out. So I’m half-soft, half-sharp. And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”
Lady Dynamite is a layered representation of Bamford’s Hollywood: Fred Melamed (In a World, New Girl) plays her soft-spoken manager/therapist Bruce Ben-Bacharach, who tries everything in his power to get her roles. Ana Gasteyer plays her agent, and her comically oversized glasses and manic obscenity are the perfect compliment to Bruce’s people-pleasing. Bamford blunders her way through discussions of race and is talked into hosting a show called Lock Up a Broad. The show mirrors Arrested Development in the way it breaks fourth walls, but when it happens, Bamford addresses us more like a friend asking for advice.
Broad City writer Jen Statsky had just finished writing for Parks and Recreation when she joined the team, and according to Bamford, Brady, and Hurwitz had already laid a lot of the groundwork. Bamford came into the writers’ room and pitched ideas, so they had a sense of her voice, but Statsky relates they’d all listened to so much of her standup that it was second nature.
There was also the issue of writing jokes about mental health from an honest place. “We definitely talked about that a lot,” Statsky says. “Everybody wanted to handle that in a way that was delicate but realistic and ultimately funny, which is a difficult tightrope to walk.”
“I wanted it to be a real representation of a mental breakdown while being funny in the way that I find things funny,” Bamford explains. “But at the same time, I wanted to collaborate and share a vision with others and so it's been a dream come true—one part me and then 200 parts other creatives putting in their vision on the story.”
Bamford’s been crafting her vision for a while. Her 2004 webseries, The Maria Bamford Show, which was picked up in 2007 by Super Deluxe, is a bridge to Lady Dynamite. Across 20 short episodes, she plays her herself, as well as her mom, dad, sister, and various friends and acquaintances. The series was a projection, created years before a 2011 breakdown and “based on a real fear of what could happen if I lost my marbles.”
In the series, Bamford addresses depression by way of a story about a climber who fell into a crevasse and is now a motivational speaker. In the episode “Dark,” which consists of an upbeat song about fighting anxiety, her chorus shouts out its own quirks, secrets, and fears.
In another episode, Bamford tries to get back into standup by performing as an opener for the band Bread. She does a hack set about how men and women are different, but also the same, complete with a talk-radio voice and “Am I right?”s. The crowd (played by Bamford) eats it up.
“Don’t you guys get it?” she frowns. “That wasn’t me.”
“I wanted it to be a real representation of a mental breakdown while being funny in the way that I find things funny.”
It’s a powerful and pure vision of Bamford’s struggle with mental health, which she’s explored onstage for years. As an extension, Lady Dynamite feels right at home on Netflix, where original shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Jessica Jones have explored trauma and mental health from a woman’s point of view.
While Lady Dynamite is a group reconstruction of Bamford’s worst fear, her comedy style is wholly hers. She does impressions, but not of celebrities: They’re exaggerated parts of herself or her family. She does jokes about suicide and depression. She does fart noises. She’s done an impression of her mother for years; Bamford calls it the “slow bleed.”
“I’ve got her suit, I’ve got her little diamond necklace,” she says. “I’m ready to just be her.”
At one point in our interview, Bamford gazes across the hotel lobby.
“Is that my sister? ...Sarah!”
In her webseries, Bamford plays her older sister, Sarah Seidelmann, as a high-strung, nail-biting presence. In person, she and her husband are perfectly warm and Midwestern-friendly as we exchange quick hellos in the lobby and discuss the very recent death of fellow Minnesotan Prince.
Bamford’s sister is a life coach and Shamanic healer in Duluth, Minnesota, and has written about being diagnosed with ADHD. Their father is a doctor who has seen depressive episodes in the past, and their mother, a family therapist, had her own struggles with bipolar disorder. Bamford was diagnosed as Bipolar II, and relates that she’s been depressed since she was 10. She also struggled with what would come to be called “unwanted thoughts syndrome,” a form of OCD, which largely caused her to think about harming others and herself. It’s also the title of her 2009 Comedy Central album.
Seidelmann says that while the two are close—as kids, they bonded over Steve Martin albums and SNL—some caricatures Bamford’s done of her or her family have caused internal friction in the past. She played some friends a recording of one of Bamford’s impressions of her, and when she saw them dying with laughter, she knew it’d hit some truth.
“I had to kind of go, ‘Wow, is that me?’” she says. “It’s kind of funny; it’s like you’re coming to terms with one aspect of yourself that’s exploded, blown up. So in a way it’s not really you but in a way it is.”
“I’ll be afraid before a show, and I’ll Google ‘how to deal with stage fright.’”
In Lady Dynamite, Bamford doesn’t have a sister; she has a hometown best friend, played by MadTV’s Mo Collins. Seidelmann relates that a sister was part of the original script, but that role changed after she saw storylines that painted the sister as an unlikable character, and brought it up to Bamford. They’ve since worked through it—Seidelmann says they’re both on their own “hero’s journey”—but it’s another difficult tightrope to walk: Being forced to examine a part of yourself through a comedy bit. Family is a huge part of Bamford’s comedy. Could she even try to make sense of her history without them?
“Maria doesn’t mean it in a mean-spirited fashion whatsoever,” Seidelmann says of the impressions. “I think it’s just that, yeah, our ego can’t stand it, which is why we take it personally. … It’s really not about us. It’s Maria working it out, and also I think she’s such a healing force because it helps us all laugh at our fucking whacked families and relationships.”
Depression is now a storyline in many comedies: You’re the Worst, BoJack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Comedians who use Instagram and Twitter to promote gigs or appearances are using it to share stories about mental health and abuse as well. There’s an openness about it in comedy, but Bamford is still trying to break down the stigma. She says the Internet has helped her connect with people and do “problem-solving.”
“I’ll be afraid before a show, and I’ll Google ‘how to deal with stage fright,’” she says. “Turns out, if you rehearse your material, and you practice thinking it’s going well as you’re performing it, that can really give you confidence. That’s off, I can’t remember if it’s Answers.com.”
But she points to something bigger: “We don’t have to be as alone with our thoughts anymore.”
In the first episode of Lady Dynamite, Bamford installs a park bench in front of her house to foster a sense of community. She did that in real life, too, as a way to help her talk to people and not feel so isolated. For the second potential season, she wants to have different people play her every episode so she can employ as many artists and actors as possible, and because “one part of the show I’d have to be taking a nap.”
She can look back now and see the cycle of down periods in her life, where she was “maybe able to keep it together because of family,” but inevitably felt like she wasn’t going to make it.
“We don’t have to be as alone with our thoughts anymore.”
She’s on a mood stabilizer, “which is great because it means I’m no longer suicidal all the time,” but she doesn’t have the energy she used to. There have been some cognitive changes, likely because of medication. Sometimes she gets lost in an answer and the conversation tip-toes off. It’s something she used to be more embarrassed about.
Onstage at the Paramount Theatre that night, Bamford’s delivery is steady and practiced. She asks fans to forgive her if she does material they’ve already heard: She has a “four-year turnaround on jokes.” Bamford tries out a new bit about being in therapy with her husband, artist Scott Marvel Cassidy, whom she’s been married to for a year. They met on OkCupid in 2013, and were engaged in 2014. Bamford remarks that it hasn’t always been “intuitive to me to be in a loving, committed relationship.”
Coincidentally, Cassidy started doing standup about a year ago, and Bamford’s says it’s helped keep up her excitement.
“He took a heckling class, and this is something I’ve never really thought of, but one of the things was to talk to the audience member, and then really listen to their response,” she says.
That might be Bamford working on a new bit, or it might be her new reality. Either way, it seems being open and letting people tell her story is one way she’s pushing ahead on the Stairmaster of Life. Lady Dynamite is complex; it doesn’t follow traditional sitcom beats or wrap up neatly at the end. Seams are exposed, and sometimes jokes fall flat and truths sneak up and grab you.
It’s half-soft and half-sharp, just like Maria Bamford.
Lady Dynamite debuts Friday, May 20.