Don’t let her sweet, Midwestern accent and bits about her pug Bert fool you — Maria Bamford is one of the bravest comedians of our time. The veteran stand-up comic, who openly talks about being bipolar II, tackles mental illness with a hilarious fearlessness that eases the mind like popping Xanax. From her appearances in The Comedians of Comedy alongside Zach Galifianakis to her 2012 special Maria Bamford: the special special special!, Bamford will make you laugh about anxiety, depression and insanity with disarming goofiness and a slew of uncanny voices, including her sniffling Minnesota mother and a wacked-out Paula Dean.
I recently watched Maria Bamford: the special special special! that you released through Chill.com, a similar model to how Louis C.K. did his special. How is that model working for you?
For me it was super-awesome. In my circumstance, I haven’t gotten an offer from a giant television corporation saying “We’d like for you to do an hour of material on our programming.” When Louis C.K. released his own thing, I think everyone thought, “Oh! Awesome!” I genuinely do like smaller things and things that are super-simple. Mentally I had a rough year last year, so I was just like “Let’s just do an hour special in my house with my parents.” [Laughs.] Then Chill [a website where filmmakers and comedians can self-distribute videos online] funded it, and they took a chance on their part, but it’s worked out; just in the first quarter of sales, I earned two-and-a-half times what I ever made on a special, for a half-hour special on Comedy Central. Besides the money part, which is nice, the great thing is the creative freedom; that you can do exactly what you want to do if you release it yourself.
Filming in front of an audience of two — your parents — after doing The Maria Bamford Show, it seemed like a natural progression for you.
Right. [Laughs.] The crowd is growing.
It seems pretty bold.
For me, it’s not that bold. I love my parents so much. They see me a bajillion times and are super-supportive. I was more worried about the crew’s reaction than I was my parents. That’s meaningful to me; as I get older, I want to spend as much time as I can with my parents. I’m not planning to hurt them. [Laughs.] But you just want to keep a hand on one of them all the time and make sure they’re still here ... The more frightening thing was the crew, just feeling like them going [lowers to male voice] “What the hell is this? Jeez.”
You do give them pizza and cookies.
I do! And they got a beer. You didn’t see that part. I shared a couple beers — that was right before the suicide chunk. I paid my parents.
Oh, yeah! Listen, most of my career is talking about them so the least I could do was throw them a couple of bones. [Laughs.] It’s mostly just Starbucks cards. They each received $600 for their services. It’s not union. They’re not going to get pension benefits from it, and I’ll probably forget my wallet enough that I’ll take all the money back in meals.
You recently released a Comedy Central DVD special called Ask Me About My New God. So I thought I’d ask you about your new god.
What it is today is this new type of Beanie Baby that’s out. It’s at all the airports. It’s spherical and it’s very soft and it has these little eyeballs that are just so loving, and it comes in any sort of sports team that you want. That’s leading me. Anyway, it changes on a daily basis.
You talk in your act about how you worship celebrity culture, like the line in your special when you say that their “moods create weather.” Have you ever considered becoming a Scientologist?
When I first moved to LA, they hand out this giant quiz for Scientology. It was like hundreds of these questions that they give out. I love self-help and interpersonal quizzes, things where it’s like Cosmo [lowers to Delilah-esque voice] “Are you a fruit salad or are you a spicy gazpacho?” It’s fun. So when I started to answer the [Scientology] questions — I’ve taken a lot of psychological tests — I‘ve taken the Meyers Briggs, the Depression Scale, the Anxiety/OCD scales, all those things — and it didn’t make total sense to me. It seemed sort of like, “Sometimes do you feel afraid that you’ve done the wrong thing?” Well, I guess ... But they have classes too that are free.
But then I heard it was with religion, I just can’t ... I grew up in the church ... It also seemed expensive. I had a friend who told me about — a comic who was doing her act about it — she was like $60 grand in the hole. Each level costs a lot of money. Which I think, great, go for it. I did have another friend who did it who didn’t have the money so then you work for them and that seems less on the up-and-up, where people are living in poverty. But that’s Catholicism too; you’re supposed to take a vow of poverty.
Is that what you were raised in?
No, I was raised Episcopalian. No one takes a vow of poverty. Everyone was like “There will be plenty of pancakes for everyone,” and “Let’s shop at Nordstrom because God would have wanted that for us.”
You talk a lot about the stigma of mental illness in your act. What has the response been?
Maybe it’s because I wait until everybody has left the showroom except the people who really want to say hello but it’s all positive. [Laughs.] ... The people who really want to talk have spent some time in psych wards, like myself, and they’ve brought gifts! I got a weird sound thing from a lady with schizophrenia in Arizona. It was a sound with a spring on it and it goes “Wauhwauhwauhwauhwauhwauhwah.” That was super great. I’ve gotten handmade T-shirts with different exclamations on them that are all so meaningful and creative, creative bursts of energy that people have. Portraits of pugs.
You’re going to be starring in the upcoming season of Arrested Development?
Yes! I play a methamphetamine addict. [Laughs.] Let’s just say I didn’t do any research for it. If people are watching for the Breaking Bad, Emmy Award-winning performance, I may be lackluster.
Maria Bamford performs 8 pm Friday, April 5, at McDonald Theater; $24.