Maria Bamford is overly apologetic. When we talk, the 47-year-old is driving to the airport to pick up her niece, who’s visiting her for a few days, and she worries that she’s unprofessional for not answering my phone call right away. “This is why I’m not more famous,” she jokes.
But with a comedy career spanning 20 years, a Netflix show, and several specials under her belt, you can’t say that Bamford—who’s known for talking openly about her struggles with mental illness and doing hilarious impressions of her family and friends in her stand-up—isn’t at least a little bit famous. And she's visiting Houston next week.
Houstonia talked to Bamford before her Tuesday, April 17 show at Improv Houston about her parents, her comedic voice (literally), and finding love.
Have you ever been to Houston before?
Oh yes, many times. I'm not sure the last time I was there, but I remember walking around a lot. It was 100 degrees—and the interesting thing was that a house will be right next to a skyscraper right next to a gas station next to a fence—there's all sorts of things next to each other.
That’s Houston for you—we don’t really have zoning laws here. You can have a liquor store next to an elementary school, because why not?
Oh, why not? Where else are you going to fall into your life-long addiction? (Laughs.)
Your comedic style is very deadpan and conversational, and relies heavily on impressions of people in your life. How did it develop over time?
Like any career, you kind of do what you're good at or what you enjoy or what you get positive feedback for. I always felt really good performing on stage, but I know that I got some negative feedback about my own voice. So that was part of the impetus—part of that was a defense mechanism, to try to do different voices. But then also part of it has been that I do like that process of losing yourself in this character, literally part of myself, and saying what I think my parents would say, or what I interpret them to be saying when they're probably not saying it.
Like, I once asked my dad what he thought of my TV show and he said, "Well, whatever you need to do for money." And of course that can come off as extremely negative, but at the same time I know when I talked to him about it, he was like, "Oh no, I meant, like, Oh! Well whatever you need to do for money!" in a very positive way, "It's just wonderful that you have a job!"
I do it as a joke on stage—I sell the negative interpretation of it, which I’m not sure what that says about me.
Well, it's funnier that way.
It’s funnier that way, and it's also how I heard it. I was so shocked. That was how I heard it, but I don’t think that’s how he meant it, and definitely when I talked to him later about it, it’s like—that’s not how he feels about it. I don't know if I do less or more characters as I keep going—I just keep trying to write more stuff, and create things that are interesting to me and keep evolving.
I have a fear—or, I don't know, maybe it's a wish—that I'm becoming my mother and my father, in a sort of slow bleed, so I won't even need to do impersonations of them anymore, that I'll just be the perfect combination of Marilyn and Joel.
Isn't that everyone's greatest fear? Becoming both of your parents? I know I'm turning into both my parents.
Ugh, I know I am. I was telling my sister, since my niece is coming to visit, so I was like, "Sharon, can I tell you what I bought as food for my niece? Can I just tell you?" Because my mom will go through that, like, "Here's what I bought for you. So we have eggs…" It's just so weird. I do love my mom so much, I appreciate her. She’s a delightful human being, my mother. She’s really funny. She gets so much joy out of things! Just really appreciating everything and everyone.
Speaking of your parents, how did you get the idea to do the Special Special Special, with just your parents in your living room?
It was pure necessity. I had not been feeling well at the time and I'd had some hospitalizations. I knew I had an hour of material but I just didn't feel like I could get it together to put on a massive show. So I just thought the best possible scenario would be to have a very supportive audience, have it a few feet from my bed where I live, and have people who are completely invested in the show—they have to laugh. I also paid them. (Laughs.) It was a non-union gig. I thought it was great to do and it was a fun way to be with my parents, so it was a win-win. We got paid for it three times over—it's just bizarre what a cash cow weak mental health status is, in retrospect.
What about Old Baby? It was shot in different locations, in front of different groups of people. How did that idea come about?
That was a more creative idea. I just think it’s so funny how dependent I am as a comedian on context—I desperately need the audience to be there for it to be perceived as going well. I have friends who say, "When I first heard you were a comedian, I thought, huh, ok, good for you! I mean you seem funny, but, I don’t know, that’s cool that it’s something you enjoy doing. Then I saw you at a show and I thought, ‘Wait, you have something, and then I saw you on television, and I was like, 'Oh my god, you are very good at this job.'’’ (Laughs.) How people’s perception changes—and with the same exact material—it’s hilarious to me.
Your Netflix show Lady Dynamite is very different from your stand-up. What was it like seeing your life written about by other people, and you performing it?
I've told my story so many times thousands of times, so I thought it would be interesting to see what other people put in it. It was more of a group effort, which was fun—I had never done that before. Sometimes it was a little harrowing, because you just go, "I don’t want people to think that about me." I gave a lot of blowjobs in the first season, and I was like, "Ugh, why does everybody… all right." So that was one of the harder parts, letting go of totally my own voice. But then that was also the great part—of letting go of my own voice and getting to do stuff that I definitely wouldn't have thought of myself, stuff that was more surreal.
I love your New York Times essay that talked openly about your struggles with mental illness and finding love. It was so vulnerable. How did you feel when you were writing that?
That was very easy to write because it’s very true about my husband. That was really something I was very grateful for him about, how accepting he was of that and that he was down for the duration. And that's all you need, is somebody who's on board for the whole thing. And that I had to be that, that I had to be willing to say, I’m down, because I think I had rejected people for so long because of—in retrospect—very small issues. There are plenty of things that I’ll accept in friendship that I would totally reject for a romantic relationship, and it’s like, why is that? My friends can do completely bananas things and I can as well, but somehow the man in my life has to be this clean, perfect person who is a constant beacon of kindness and generosity—and that's like, no, no, no, nobody's like that. My husband is very kind and he has a very loving heart, but nobody's perfect. I think I put very high expectations on somebody. I was very grateful that he was very accepting of me and that I've changed enough as a human being to say that I could accept somebody else.
What other projects do you have in the works?
Just working on a new hour and enjoying the gravy of life. Stand-up is kind of a lonely pursuit that I did for so long, but now as I get older, I have friendships and a community and hobbies and a personal life that are much more important to me than they were when I was younger.
It takes me about three years to write a new hour. So I’m writing a new hour, but I don’t know where it will end up, what it will be—an album or a special. Whatever it becomes it will be ok.
Maria Bamford, on Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m. From $25. Improv Houston, 7620 Katy Fwy.