Photograph by Piper Ferguson
See comedian Maria Bamford live on August 20 at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis.
Maria Bamford is experiencing one of the most well-deserved career spikes in the history of comedy. Her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, has been greeted with almost universal praise (Rolling Stone declared it the must-see show of 2016); her latest standup comedy tour is almost sold out (it arrives at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis on August 20); and Stephen Colbert recently called her his “favorite comedian in the world.” No one deserves it more, or expected it less.
Back in 2011, Bamford’s life was spinning out of control. After her dog died, she went into a spiral of depression and ended up checking herself into a hospital psych ward three different times. The diagnosis: bipolar II disorder, with a side order of anxiety. She spent 18 months pulling her life back together, during which she had a difficult time working, and an even more difficult time relating to people.
Ironically (or perhaps prophetically), Bamford was living a scenario she acted out in 2007, when she created a web series called The Maria Bamford Show, about herself as a depressed comedian who moves back in with her parents in Duluth. Many people mistakenly thought Bamford had experienced a nervous breakdown then, and that the web series was Bamford’s therapeutic way of turning tragedy into comedy. But the show was an act; only later did it get real. “Sadly, the web series was just based on my fear that something like a psychiatric breakdown might happen,” Bamford says. “I never had it happen, but it runs in my family. Lady Dynamite is based on when it actually happened.”
For those who have yet to discover the binge-worthy pleasures of Lady Dynamite, or who are unfamiliar with Bamford’s surreal brand of comedy, you’re in for a treat. That is, unless you don’t like dark, painfully honest humor, or have a problem with people who talk openly about their mental illness, atheism, or obsessive-compulsive thoughts about chopping up their family members and eating them.
In her standup routine, that last notion is actually more psychologically twisted than is polite to discuss in a family magazine, but Bamford delivers it in such as sweet, child-like voice that it almost seems innocent. In Lady Dynamite, Bamford pulls off the same kind of emotional alchemy by using her real-life experiences in the psych ward as a launching pad for some of the smartest, most humane comedy on TV.
Bamford says she wanted to do a “respectful” show about mental illness, but one that was also funny and true. From her point of view, the world is clearly a crazy place. People say and do absurd things, and if you end up in the psych ward as a result, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re nuts, it just means you couldn’t pretend not to notice anymore. Whirl that inside-out perspective in a blender and you have Lady Dynamite.
The show bounces back and forth between Bamford’s life in L.A. and her life, both past and present, in her hometown of Duluth. No matter where she is, however, pretty much everyone in Bamford’s life is either strange or mean or both, especially when they are pretending not to be. Her agent is incompetent. Her childhood friend is back-stabbing. And her counselor in the psych ward is a sweet-talking sadist. It’s as if all the people in Bamford’s life, especially the ones in L.A., are faking “normalcy,” and she is cursed with the ability to see it.
“Los Angeles is just a city of lots of hopeful dreams, and it has this frantic, violent positivity that makes people seem ‘fake,’” Bamford explains. She actually credits L.A.’s “you can do it!” optimism with helping her as an artist, but that does not spare the city or its inhabitants from her satirical shiv.
Duluth is just as strange in its own way. Bamford’s parents (played by Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place) endure her manic energy with gritted teeth, and her best friend (played by the Twin Cites’ own Mo Collins) is pricelessly passive-aggressive. (Other local actors on the show are Michelle Hutchinson and Sarah Agnew, with whom Bamford went to high school.)
In the end, however, Duluth is home. “I love Minnesota, especially Duluth,” she says. “My husband and I talk frequently about doing an early retirement to Duluth (TV pays well), so in the next 10 years I may be auditioning for the Duluth Playhouse production of Hamilton.”
In the meantime, Bamford describes her current wave of notoriety as “unilaterally awesome.” She may have a mental illness, but Bamford’s career is healthier than ever.