Comedian Maria Bamford Headlines The Funny Bone February 12-14
Of those plucky enough to get up on a stage and perform, the bravest souls are perhaps stand-up comedians, who spend half their lives on the road, telling jokes for a room full of strangers each night.
And it’s not just constantly being in the hot seat that makes it a risky career choice. Achieving some level of fame or even making enough to pay the bills as a comic can be a process that takes years, or even decades.
Maria Bamford started her career as a comedian in 1989, but the Duluth, Minnesota native has seen her star rise only in the past 8 or so years, during which time she has starred in two half-hour specials on Comedy Central, and appeared on the highly successful Comedians of Comedy tour and DVD.
Bamford has released several CDs of her material, starred in Target’s 2009’s holiday campaign, and has been voted one of the U.S.’s “Best 10 Comics” by numerous publications.
She spent the leaner years of her career honing her craft, while working various secretarial and temp jobs.
WFIU: What kind of qualities does one need to be able to make a living doing standup comedy? It seems to be a brutal way to live when you’re starting out.
BAMFORD: Yeah, I did not do the road or traveling until about 8 years in of doing stand up. I was very theatrical and artsy, so all I did was open mics and theatrical event, performed in theaters that were pretty supportive, and you can be sort of odd and you aren’t threatened by people who are drunk to get off stage. I mean, for the arts in general it seems like tenacity and creating some sort of meaning about it, and community.. those have been important to me.
“If You Don’t Like My Voice, I’ve Got More”
With a performance style that couples the surrealist humor of Mitch Hedberg with the charmingly deadpan emotional dysfunction of David Sedaris, Bamford brings to the stage a unique view of everyday things.
Her often bizarre takes on sibling rivalry, therapy, and relationships are complemented by the skill she is perhaps best known for – the impersonations.
Bamford has an impressive resume based on her vocal chops alone – she voices main characters on the animated programs Word Girl on PBS and CatDog on Nickelodeon, and has appeared on A Prairie Home Companion with fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor.
In her own act, Bamford plays the role of everyone from the stereotypical female comedian, to the childhood arch enemy she encounters while visiting her hometown, and members of her own family, like her well-meaning but slightly critical mother.
W: The impressions that you do of people you know, have you done them in front of your family? Have they come to your show and see them?
B: For sure, they’ve all seen them a million times. My mom was irritated at first, but once they’ve seen it done, and people laughing, they seem to enjoy it more. And they do impersonations of my impersonations of them.
My dad opened for me once, in my hometown of Duluth. I was really scared because I was hired to do a motorcycle rally and I just thought – oh, this is a poor choice. And my dad opened for me and he did an impersonation of me, which was like (high pitched noise) – which is pretty dead on. And it hurts, it does hurt to see an impersonation of yourself, so that is something that I am grateful for is that they’ve been very kind in allowing me to do versions of them on stage.
The Therapy of Comedy
Many stand-up comics use self-deprecating humor as a way to make a connection with the audience, and Bamford is no exception. But her candidness about her own struggles is more self-help guru than universal pessimist.
The title of Bamford’s latest comedy album, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome is a nod to the form of obsessive compulsive disorder she has suffered from throughout her life.
But this honesty has helped cultivate a persona Bamford says is not necessarily accurate.
W: What’s a misconception that people have about you, or what would someone be surprised to learn about you?
B: This is probably unhealthy, but I decided to look at my Wikipedia entry, and the first sentence said that I was depressed and lonely. And I will totally take the depressed, but lonely is not one of my qualities. I have a ton of people in my life, I actually have quite a few parties in my house, and you know, have some good pals, but I do give off the sad sack personality.
W: Are you sick of people focusing on the part of your act that has to do with your issues with anxiety and depression?
B: No, and also it’s nice because sometimes I get people coming to shows who have problems with mental illness and that’s a good crowd, my friend. And it’s really nice for me, because I feel like it’s a circle of life, and that I’m not alone in having some of those symptoms with stuff.
And in fact, Bamford has an entirely healthy and positive attitude about the one thing that seems most daunting about doing stand-up comedy – bombing in front of the audience.
W: How do you deal with hecklers?
B: I don’t get a lot, I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I already seem frightened and defeated on stage. I have gotten some, and sometimes I just have been honest and said ‘Oh, gosh, that hurts my feelings. I’m sorry you’re not having fun, but I gotta keep going but best of luck.. with.. whatever you’re doing.’ I mean, I think that is the excitement of standup is that it is unpredictable. Sometimes you get a wonderful response, and sometimes you get a terrible response.