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Imagine you want to hash out the singular genius of Breaking Bad with a fellow fan. You mention the show to a friend or co-worker; they stare blankly back. The next person also shrugs. No one has even heard of Breaking Bad.
Now you are sweating a bit and re-thinking reality. How could so many people not know this cultural gem?
Yes, thank you. Now you know what it is to be a Maria Bamford fan.
In case you are of the uninitiated many: Maria Bamford, 43, is a diminutive Minnesotan comic who has been exploding stand-up comedy into surreal directions. With a freakish talent for voices, Bamford creates characters in densely absurd scenarios. One moment, she channels her deceased pug as a world-weary Berlin cabaret singer. The next, she has become her mother re-telling a great joke she heard from a dying paraplegic.
Bamford has been spinning these fantastical visions in broad limelight for decades. She has released four albums, sold out shows cross-country, and become the only female comic with two Comedy Central Presents specials. She provides voices for the cartoons WordGirl and Adventure Time. Again and again, critics hail her as the future of comedy.
Last May – after she gained wide exposure playing Tobias’ love interest, DeBrie Bardeaux, on Arrested Development – Jezebel finally declared, “Let This Be The Year of Maria Bamford!”
Alas, it is safe to say 2013 is not the year America finally discovered its most brilliant comedienne. Despite guest-spots on Louie and Arrested Development, her enthusiastic fan-base remains a niche crowd.
Why? Well, to put it bluntly, Maria Bamford is weird. She is a creature rarely seen in the entertainment wilds: a thoroughly Midwestern radical.
On a Wednesday November night, Bamford took the stage before a sell-out crowd at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District. Bamford is a native of Duluth – a small city two hours north on Lake Superior – and the cozy underground theater was packed with fans and friends.
Despite the hometown warmth, Bamford mumbled into the mic that it was OK if we didn’t like her comedy. If we wanted to leave, we should feel free to go – she understood.
After the show, I sat down to chat with Bamford in the club’s empty bar. As I asked about her unusual disclaimer, she started and finished a Diet Coke in two hard straw-slurps.
She said she’d been thinking about the previous night. “These people came up to me after the show and said, ‘We came to see you because your father was our doctor for many years. We just wanted to say hi and…good job.’ But they looked uncomfortable,” she said, grimacing. “They were just being polite.”
She hated to think they’d felt trapped. A pre-emptive apology, she felt, would release future audiences from any obligation.
“The way I was raised, if somebody doesn’t like you, you just apologize,” she explained, nibbling at her ice. “I don’t want to be unkind to people. Everyone should be free. Go have a drink at the bar and enjoy yourself. Talk to the bartender. He relates, he gets it – he probably doesn’t like this show either.”
And to think, Bamford’s poor publicist had arranged our interview in the interest of promotion.
But Minnesotans possess a legendary capacity for self-effacement. In countless interviews, Bamford downplays her accomplishments, hedges her opinions with empathy for the opposing view, and asks interviewers about their own lives. She is guileless to the point of disclosing how much money she makes and which medications she is taking.
Interviewers routinely sputter at her innocence, as if she were Buddy the Elf. As if she could not possibly be real. When Bamford told Seattle DJ Marty Riemer that she was dating on Match.com, he thought the headlining comic must be kidding. (Nope.)
Her natural voice – a high-pitched Minnesotan tremolo – further complicates matters. She sounds like a petrified Mr. Bill. Or a country mouse being stepped on. To her perpetual embarrassment, she is often asked if she is “doing a character” when she is, in fact, just speaking.
Consequently, the overwhelming first impression of Bamford (aided, she told me, by her Lamictal-induced tremors) is of timidity. Reviewers commonly label her “vulnerable” and “fragile” – a quality one fan, Naomi Oliver, captured in her portrait of Bamford as “Patron Saint of the Fragile.”
She looks, on stage, like she badly needs a hug. Which is convenient. Because just as the audience is caught open-armed, Bamford ambushes white privilege, the American healthcare system, consumerism, pop culture, and conformity.
She often opens bits about religion, for example, with fretful apology – “I hope no one here’s religious. If you are, just rest in the glory that I am wrong.”
Then she may do her god impersonation: “Duuuuuuuuuuuh.”
Or mimic pro-war Christians: “Jesus only turns the other cheek to grab another can of whoop-ass!”
Or call out secular religions ala a Pentecostal preacher: “Turn to page 37 in your People Magazines. In this holy scripture, we read the parable of Miss Kirstie Alley, once on television, then lost to pop culture, now welcomed back into the zeitgeist again!”
The common denominator among these take-downs is what Bamford calls Midwestern passive-aggressiveness – a requisite survival skill in the land of honesty and politeness.
“I say things in different voices rather than say them straight up,” she said. “That makes it OK. Then it’s not me – it’s that other character saying it.”
Bamford’s voices not only deliver her radical content, but also represent a radical departure from stand-up form altogether. She doesn’t tell jokes. She acts them out, snapping in and out of characters with scant narration.
To audiences weaned on setups and punchlines, this style can seem bizarre. “Schizophrenic,” one DJ called her. Or as one of her characters – a composite of years of dismissal – says, “You’re not funny, you’re just weird.”
I’m ashamed to admit I shared that initial reaction. This time last year, a friend sent me a clip of Bamford’s comedy. I only watched a few minutes. “Meh,” I thought, convinced she was doing a deliberately “crazy” schtick.
This summer, I chanced to hear Bamford on WTF with Marc Maron and was surprised to hear that her mumbly Minnesotan voice was real. Intrigued, I gave her comedy a second chance. This time, I could hardly believe the complexity of what I was hearing. Her comic scenarios hit me first as absurdly hilarious, then – in a delayed after-shock of understanding – as devastating social commentary.
This is risky comedy. By disguising her intelligence in goofy voices, she risks looking like a nutcase. She doesn’t bother to slow down or explain herself. She uses words like “pugilism” and “prehensile,” the audience be damned.
Where does that fearlessness come from? How do you survive two decades in stand-up without acquiescing to audience expectations or the critique of respected comedians? Especially without the tough exterior of a Margaret Cho or Sarah Silverman?
Her radical bent, I learned, isn’t just camouflaged by her mild-mannered Midwesternness. The two identities are closely intertwined.
While the Midwest is no hotbed of radical politics, it has nevertheless nurtured many independent-thinkers. Flat-land culture fosters a tradition of independence, tolerance for one’s neighbors, and (especially in the northern climes) progressiveness – fertile conditions for many artists.
Bamford came of age in the Minneapolis-St.Paul of the 1990s, which was then, as now, a nest of progressive creativity. As a young adult, she lived in co-ops, embraced feminist culture, and shaved her head a shiny bald.
“I think it was a protective thing,” she told me. “People don’t bother you if you’re bald. If I had hair, guy comics would say, ‘What are you doing later today? Maybe I’ll tell you what you should do with your act. Maybe we could make out.’ I love making out, but I don’t want to hear how I should do my act.”
The few times she performed at comedy clubs, the audiences – bewildered by her theatrical style – didn’t laugh.
Instead, Bamford blossomed in Minneapolis’ thriving performance art scene. She performed regularly at “Balls,” an all-genre, no-judgment midnight cabaret. The show’s creator, Leslie Ball, encouraged experimentation from performers and openness from audiences. Here, people laughed.
Encouraged, Bamford decided to mount her own one-woman shows. Long-time Minnesotan artist Heidi Arneson, who was performing her own shows at the time, recalls briefly tutoring her.
“There was this tremulous, tender femininity to her, but underneath was this tenaciousness. She’s like a dog that won’t let go of a bone,” she said. “I have other friends from Duluth. There’s a grit there, a grit from the northern folks.”
Bamford staged her shows in coffee shops, black box theaters – “any place that seemed warm and loving,” she said. She posted flyers, sent out postcards, compiled mailing lists. People came to her homemade shows, and again, they laughed.
Having barely attempted comedy clubs, Bamford moved to Los Angeles in 1994. There, she found secretarial work through a temp agency and performed at open mics by night. She lived this way for the next ten years.
Bamford scored a number of successes, but her big break came in 2004 when Patton Oswalt invited her onto the Comedians of Comedy tour with Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis. A behind-the-scenes documentary captures Bamford holding her own amidst the guys’ torrent of dick, poop, and fart jokes. At tour’s end, the guys gave one-upping, ball-busting toasts. On her turn, Bamford deftly subverted the machismo: “Everybody’s been so wonderful and this has really been a dream come true for me. It seriously has been, but I can’t say it in a nice way, otherwise everyone will think I’m a pussy.”
While the three guys went on to continued success in television (The King of Queens, The Sarah Silverman Program) and major feature films (Ratatouille, The Hangover), Bamford returned to making homemade performance art, this time for the internet.
In 2007, she created The Maria Bamford Show, a fictional series in which she suffers a nervous breakdown and returns to Minnesota to live with her parents. She hoped the show would be picked up for television. Instead, it captures Bamford’s weirdness in all its not-made-for-TV glory.
The show feels as if it were created by a kid left home alone with a camcorder. It’s shot on lo-fi, stationary video and Bamford plays all dozen characters herself. They wear bag clips as barrettes and use kitchen knives as nail files. They speak to the camera mid-headstand, perched atop armoires, or lying flat on the floor – apropos of nothing.
This Duluth is strange, comic Narnia. But it is also a deeply personal archeological dig into her roots, making The Maria Bamford Show a culmination of the artistic movement of her youth.
Heidi Arenson recalls the confessional quality in Minneapolis at that time.
“The culture is very Scandinavian and Germanic – don’t call attention to yourself, don’t air secrets,” Arneson said. “But there was such a strong wave of emotional support. A lot of us were speaking out, sharing scary autobiographical stuff.”
The Maria Bamford Show compiles the scariest stuff from Bamford’s gradual coming out process. Bamford is straight; but over the years, she has been coming out with mental illness.
Lest that sound trivial, consider that Bamford has been plagued most of her life by violent and sexual thoughts involving children, animals, and loved ones – a form of OCD called “obsessive thoughts syndrome.” These images replayed in her mind to the point that she withdrew from others, couldn’t sleep, and avoided knives. She feared she was a monster. Some of Bamford’s own therapists suggested she was psychotic.
Yet she disclosed this condition to roomfuls of strangers at comedy clubs. She refuses to call this bravery.
Since being treated for her OCD, Bamford continues to talk about her other persistent torments – anxiety, depression and bipolar II disorder.
Naomi Oliver sees this vulnerability as Bamford’s strength.
“It’s taboo to talk about emotional things. Everyone’s supposed to want to appear confident, put-together,” said Oliver, who suffers anxiety herself. “But Maria talks about things people don’t want to talk about. She’s a spokesperson for people who feel like they’re alone.”
Indeed, Bamford explicitly addresses the fragile ones. In The Maria Bamford Show, she devotes an entire episode to despair. With a black hoodie cinched around her face and candle in hand, she sings, “Don’t be afraid of the dark. There’s nothing to fear because we’re all terrified.”
It’s Bamford’s honesty at its most powerful. The darkness is terrifying; the only consolation is that we are not alone.
It’s remarkable that Bamford has stayed her hybrid self for so long. Imagine Garrison Keillor trying to make it in Vegas. Or George Carlin trying to make it at NPR. She is truly without precedent.
But as she gains popularity, the pressure to conform to a Hollywood career arc increases.
“My manager, not so helpfully, has said, ‘These are your prime years, 40-45! You gotta work as much as you can,’” she said.
Sometimes that work presents murky dilemmas.
A few years ago, Bamford took a job starring in a national television ad campaign for Target. It was unusually high-profile work for her. It was also unusual given her critiques of consumerism: in her act, she had once embodied a Target shopper more obsessed with sale prices than with child labor.
In the ads, she again played a Target shopper – this time a wild-eyed woman training for Black Friday. Ostensibly, she was praising the retailer’s deals, but she improvised the character to creepy levels of psychosis. As the creative director told Adweek, “The campaign comes very close to ridiculing the very shoppers it’s targeting.”
If Bamford found a nimble middle way through the Target ads, she must still navigate the demands of an appearance-driven industry. Traditionally, she’s been ambivalent about make-up, sometimes going without it completely on videos. For her Louie cameo, she did her own make-up sparsely and was surprised at the indignation it inspired.
“This one lady was interviewing me and said, ‘They did no favors on that Louie episode.’ You mean I looked like myself? Oh this is getting awkward.”
Bamford has long joked that if she had plastic surgery, she would elect to remove the part of her brain that cared what other people think. (And get suction cups as hands.) Now, she struggles with her feelings about it.
“It’s easy to be against plastic surgery when you’re in your 20s and 30s,” she said. “I realize now, you disappear as an older person. So I understand more. I hope that doesn’t become…I don’t want to get plastic surgery or Botox or anything like that.”
Amid these pressures, Bamford has returned to her roots, creating rustic shows in intimate spaces. In December 2009, she released a free gift to fans, Maria Bamford’s One-Hour Homemade Christmas Special, which she taped in her living room beside her two snoozing pugs. Last year, she staged the Special Special Special also in her living room, before another supportive audience of two – her parents.
In the special, she tackled her most difficult autobiographical material yet.
Two years ago, Bamford suffered a massive breakdown. She didn’t know why, but she grew disoriented, despondent, and convinced death was the only answer.
She imitated her irrational mindset at the time for me.
“I’m going to kill myself, but I got this. I’ve got a plan, got some pills. Don’t worry, you guys. I’m going to kill myself!”
She dropped the imitation. “It felt too embarrassing to go the hospital. Like, no, that’s weird. Killing myself seems more logical.”
Given the choice between weirdness or death, she did the weird thing. Bamford was institutionalized three times in a six-month period. She had her shoelaces removed. She missed shows. She felt humiliated. And she lived.
Her comedy has since turned more pointed. At the Minneapolis show, she performed her new suicide material.
“I was reading that over 7,000 U.S. veterans die of suicide every year, which is funny because you’d think they’d die over there, but then they come home and die here!” she said, ripping into a shrill laugh. For an eerie moment, her character was the only one in the theater laughing. “It must be funny because nobody is taking it that seriously.”
If her newest honesty is any indication, Maria Bamford may be less palatable for primetime than ever before. That seems fine with her. When her agent pressures her, she said, she reminds herself that it’s OK if the work dries up – she can always get a library science degree or volunteer somewhere. She’s a gritty Duluthian.
“I’ll be all right,” she said. “I was a secretary for a long time. I can survive.”
Photo Credit: Natalie Brasington