Interview: Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford calls me en route to a gig last weekend at the
Punchline in San Francisco. Don’t
worry. She’s not driving during the course of this interview. That would be
dangerous and illegal.

Bamford couldn’t talk earlier because she was on a film set.
Film set? Do tell. It’s a film made by some friends of hers. "They asked if I
could be in it, and said they’d pay me Screen Actors Guild money," she told me.
"I play a crazy old lady. And I’m 38, so to play 72 seems pushing my, what is
that called, my range! My range. But it was fun to be with a bunch of people
and get free bananas, and trail mix. And then they gave us Chinese food."

Ah. A big budget, I see.

"It’s just a short film," she said. "I could say it’s for archival
footage. But I don’t know. It could be anything. It could be for IMAX theaters
and it just hasn’t been sold and distributed yet. Anything could possibly be on

Do you think you’d be a big star, so to speak, on IMAX?
"I think it’d be great if while I was a crazy old lady there’d be a tiny camera
going through my intestines and then there’d be sound effects while you go through
my esophagus and gullet," Bamford says, before launching into a pitch for an
IMAX sitcom. "OK, it’s a sitcom, but it’s an IMAX sitcom, and you can hear all
of the characters, and they’re spelunking, and suddenly they’re diving from an
airplane, and then they’re wakeboarding across the Pacific."

Sounds like the first IMAX-sorta movie I ever saw when I
went to DisneyWorld, which was a lot of fun as a kid.
But when are we going to see more of your special MySpace commentaries on your
Super Deluxe series, The Maria Bamford Show? It has been almost a month since
you posted insight on episode three of 20…

"I know, I gotta do some more. Tomorrow. No, no, it’s only
people like you who make a difference. Yeah, I forget that I’ve started it, but
suddenly I’m reminded, oh I was doing that and it was good," she said. "I’m so
glad you’re enjoying it. I didn’t know people were reading it. I was talking to
Hal Sparks and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m sending out
bulletins,’ so I figured I should send out bulletins….well, the thing is, now
that I’ve made it in show business, I’ve started phoning it in. I forget what
I’m doing. I try to have a personal life. Once you realize you can’t fill the
hole inside, then you realize, oh, I’ve got to get friends. But they don’t care
about my long list of credits."

If you need brushing up on her Web series, start from the beginning:

Bamford mentions a book that helped her early on in her career.

"I think it was 1998, and it was ‘Zen and the Art of
Stand-up Comedy,’ and yeah, I’m totally myself onstage," Bamford said. "I’m
sort of a version of myself but not really. If I was really myself I don’t know
if I’d be really entertaining. I woke up and I worried about some stuff, and
then I took a nap. But the Zen book was saying you have a character that you
play. My sister says I’m telling a story and in every story I am the victim…The
emotional truth is there. Which, of course, is completely subjective. It felt
like some of those things happened even though they didn’t happen at all. That
whole series was my biggest fear of what would happen if I went mad? I could
just live with my parents and make stuff. I could have friends and have a job.
It’s sort of a greatest wish, too, to just let go and live with my parents.
Just give up! I think that’s called clinical depression."

It’s a feeling a lot of people might relate to during the
global economic crisis.

But fear not for Bamford.

"I’m still doing OK financially, but it is pretty
terrifying," she said. "I have room if people needed a place to stay. I only
have one roommate…I have three couches, and then I’ve got a garage. So there’s
plenty of housing available. You know, I know it’s not perfect. But it’s
temporary housing. I don’t know how I’m going to answer all the requests for
housing after this interview comes out. I’ll set up an organization that fairly
distributes the housing requests and then I’ll only let my friends stay with

Phew. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk
about your uncanny array of character voices. Which was the first voice you
mastered? "Probably my mom," Bamford told me. "I don’t know. Everyone in my family gets
mad when I do impersonations of them now. It’s become more of an issue, because
I’ve gotten better, and people see things. Maybe I’ll have to do other
impersonations of local dogs, or shop owners."

How old were you when you started with the voices? "Like
maybe 7 or 8," she said. "I watched a ton of TV, so you know, just trying to do
commercials. There wasn’t anything conscious. It was just for fun. And then
when I started doing stand-up, I played my violin. And to make people pay
attention, I thought, if people don’t like my jokes, at least they’ll listen to
me play my violin, at least they’ll be respectful of that. But then I didn’t
like playing the violin. And then I thought if I did a deep voice, they’d pay
more attention." Bamford starts playing around with her voice. "So there’s
that. I realize, yeah, attention getting, it gets people to focus a little.
Sometimes people have a hard time focusing on a high squeaky voice. Myself
included. Fortunately it sounds different from in here. In here it sounds real
nice. I mean some people like it. But not everybody likes it. From what I’ve
heard….people say that however high your voice is, that’s when you were
molested. That was on the Adam Carolla program…Anyway, so sometimes I feel like
self-conscious, but everybody has their own self-conscious thing, like being
short, or being tall, or being fat, or slim."

Can you find some perspective now on the impact The
Comedians of Comedy tours had on your career?

"Yeah, it totally saved me," Bamford said. "I cannot stop
writing thank-you notes to Patton Oswalt. It was just so great. It really made
all the difference in the world. There’s just no way I could do as well. Now I
can just do a couple of days at a comedy club during the week and not do the
whole week…that’s so amazing. I couldn’t do that before…I feel very lucky. That
was my big break. And now I just sail toward the harbor with the wind beneath
my wings. That’s right, right?"

How big is she now?

"I’m right now on my MySpace page trying to see how many
MySpace friends I have," she said. "I want to downsize my technology so it’s
just my hands around my mouth and that’s how I contact people."

Her MySpace friends learned in September that she got fired
from her job as a lead voice on the upcoming FOX animated series, Sit Down,
Shut Up
. And yet, she’s still working. Sort of.

"They decided to go in another direction. I guess that’s
pretty common. It was the loveliest firing I ever could have asked for, really.
I get a Screen Actors Guild contract which means I still get paid out for all
13 episodes," she said. People on the show fought for her, had her try
different voices for the character. "Mitch (Hurwitz) told me there was one executive who
just wasn’t on board…I could tell when I went in there there was one person who
was just, ‘Oh, that girl.’ I’m still
working there, but just doing side voices. But I get paid extra for them because
I was fired. It really couldn’t be any better. It’s just mad. I’m not going to
argue against their logic. The insanity of show business. When you get paid, it’s
really ridiculous how well you get paid. But then when you don’t get paid, it’s
very bad — the 12 years that you don’t get paid."

So she is putting it all in perspective.

"I’m taking the month of December off and always looking at
these graduate school programs. What else could I do? Because I’d like to have
kids, foster or adopt or bio, if I still can," she said. "I did the Tonight Show
and the next day I worked at the Tonight Show as a secretary."

That is perspective, isn’t it.

How can we all share such insight?
"Have you done a vision board and cut out pictures and posted them on the wall to
see where you’d like your life to go? If you can make a posterboard from
pictures that are cut out from magazines…I pasted a picture of a microwave, and
my sister said, ‘All you want is a microwave? I’ll give you a microwave.’ Boom.
Your wishes can come true."

Does that include headlining this weekend’s Hysterical
celebrating women in comedy? She’ll be at Comix on Saturday night.

Do people still wonder if women are funny? Bamford asks.

"There is the issue of ghettoizing whatever minority you’re
talking about in comedy," she told me. "I don’t know. I haven’t done the
scientific study. They do tend to ask that question in interviews for magazines
or whatever…They keep asking that issue so someone cares. Let me go on the
record as not caring. But I do like being on shows that are women, because I am
a woman, and it makes me cozy to be in shows with people who look like me."

"I don’t know what to say to you except make puppets, and
act out your aggression toward them. I say that."

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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