Maria Bamford may seem an unlikely figure to work at the very forefront of contemporary comedy. Fresh off two seasons of her critically acclaimed Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, Bamford has been honored with an American Comedy Award and boasts parts in shows ranging from Arrested Development to Portlandia and several feature films. Stephen Colbert even called Bamford his “favorite comic on planet Earth.” However, the seasoned standup also contends with serious mental illness, which factors significantly into her absurdist, dark, but always funny, act.
For Bamford, who will be bringing her singular brand of off-kilter humor to the Tarrytown Music Hall on December 7, standup wasn’t always a way to address personal issues. “When I started in comedy, I didn’t talk about mental health stuff. It wasn’t until it became problematic for me. Now, seven years after I had a breakdown, I’m on good meds,” explains Bamford. “I still think it’s a personal issue, because there are other people in my life [it impacts]. So, it’s still very meaningful to me.”
Her current act pulls from this experience, touching on both family life and career. “It has more stuff about being in a relationship and marriage, and things like religion,” says Bamford. “I’ve had an ongoing obsession with religion and about being a business owner. I’m just fascinated by personal finances. I think that income and accounting are such emotional topics; they are very taboo to talk about.”
For Bamford, the treatment of women in comedy is another emotional topic, and one she wishes were discussed more. “Things in the comedy industry have been very disappointing,” she says. “Clubs mostly book men. If you look at many comedy lineups, it’s still usually two women per lineup of 12 dudes, with six women for a year at some clubs. There are no pictures of women on the walls — maybe a picture of Joan Rivers — and these are at major clubs. Things are getting better though, and I think there’s a lot more empowerment for women comics now, especially on the Internet.”
Louis C.K.’s impromptu Manhattan performances this fall brought these issues into focus for Bamford, who once worked with C.K. on his show Louie before the comic was accused of sexual misconduct. “The fact that Louis C.K. is encouraged to perform by The Comedy Cellar in New York is just sickening,” says Bamford. “What are you saying to any woman who performs there? You’re saying, ‘You’re on your own.’”
Bamford has much fonder memories of Lady Dynamite, which received critical acclaim for both its seasons. During filming, though, Bamford had not yet discovered an effective medication regimen. “What’s slightly sad is that TV production often consists of 12- to 14-hour days, and I wasn’t awake for a lot of it. But I’m grateful that it all worked out,” she says. “The weird thing is that a lot of the time, I tried to spit out the words as fast as I could, and I felt kind of terrible because there were such great actors on that set who really nailed it and did such beautiful work. I’m glad that it seemed I was at all proficient at the job.”
Bamford says she eventually had to ask for 10-hour days and declined writing for the comedy, which was based partly on her life. “It was a great run, and I’m just so grateful it happened,” says Bamford. “The second season was so nice because [the producers] gave me a tent and a cot I could lie down on in-between takes. Everyone was understanding and kind, but it is hilarious making a show about mental illness and asking the question: Can a person who has a mental illness actually handle doing the show?”
Beyond her TV work and virtually nonstop touring, Bamford has been staying extremely busy. “I’m working on a project on my own, but quietly, just for fun. It’s a private project. It doesn’t involve knitting, but it could,” she jokes. “The creators of Adventure Time are working on a new show that I get to help out on, and I’m generally enjoying life. Now, I’m here to enjoy and support others.” Such others include colleagues Joyelle Johnson, Lizz Winstead, and Danielle Perez, all of whom Bamford feels deserve more attention.
When asked why she has dedicated her life to comedy, struggling against all odds to become successful in an extremely challenging industry, Bamford is quiet for a moment and then smiles, gearing up for a joke. “I think it’s the hours,” she laughs. “There is no job that has better hours.”