Brow Beat

Stand-up Comedy and Mental Illness: A Conversation with Maria Bamford

Over the last several years Maria Bamford has become one of the most acclaimed and original stand-up comics in the country. Along with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn, Bamford was part of the Comedians of Comedy tour; she’s also released three solo albums and done two Comedy Central specials. Bamford’s voice (or rather, voices) can be heard regularly on Nickelodeon, Adult Swim, PBS, and elsewhere.

But her signature work may be The Maria Bamford Show, a brilliant web series from 2009 that was screened last year at the Museum of Art + Design in New York. The premise of the series was that Bamford had had a nervous breakdown on stage and ended up back in Minnesota living with her parents. Bamford played every role in the series: her mother, father, sister, coworkers, and old high school acquaintances.

This week, Bamford was in New York to participate in Arts in Mind, a series of conversations about the arts and mental health. Brow Beat spoke with her at a coffee shop on Wednesday.

Slate: You started doing stand-up in college, right?

Maria Bamford: Well, I did a version of stand-up. I brought up some props on stage and did what I deemed to be a funny speech. Have you read Moshe Kasher’s new book, Kasher in the Rye? It’s so lovely—and very funny. And I didn’t go through rehab at 16, like he did, but my first couple years of college, I was kind of a screw-up. I was just really depressed and didn’t know what I was doing.

Slate: Was that impulse to get on stage connected at all to how you were feeling then?

Bamford: I don’t think so. I played the violin from the age of three to 21 and that was on stage, but I didn’t get the same feeling I got from stand-up—just that creative flow that I got into. It was a relief to be on stage. People ask, “How can you do that?” I’m like, “How are you here 12 hours a day?” But I don’t know if the arts are special that way. I think you can lose yourself in any creative activity—if you enjoy your job or enjoy a task, you can lose yourself in that.

Slate: You told Marc Maron that when you first got started, you played violin as part of your stand-up act.

Bamford: Yeah. I’d tell a joke, or say something slightly shocking, and then go into a little “ba-dump-bump-a-buh-boo-boo” on the violin. Or I did a musical interpretation of my relationships. But I didn’t enjoy it that much, so I was grateful when I went to LA and there were two other violin comics. It was taken! That was a relief.

Slate: One of the striking things about your more recent material is how you engage with questions of mental health in a way that’s serious and thoughtful as well as really funny. There’s so much misunderstanding and ignorance about mental illness, so it strikes me as a really difficult topic to handle in a thoughtful way that still makes people laugh.

Bamford: Hopefully I’m going to do a new album soon, and there’s a bit about being on a radio show. The DJ says, “Apparently this woman, she’s supposed to be funny. Whoa, I don’t get it. Uh, frankly, I just think she’s schizophrenic.” I tell him that schizophrenia is hearing voices, not doing voices, and then get into this long diatribe about how it takes tenacity and courage to create something. “Hey, coward, if you sing out your Batman poetry to a largely hostile Barnes & Noble crowd; or if you crank out a raw, unedited skull of a granny smith apple, pop that on a Bratz doll torso, upload that to Etsy; if you think of doing a nude clown opera, and then fucking do it? That doesn’t show you’re insane. It shows the symptoms of being hard-working—and a huge, American success.”

Slate: Is that bit based on experience? Did a DJ say that to you?

Bamford: Yeah. It happened probably 10 years ago now. It was a Howard Stern-type show, and it was 7 a.m., and the guy was a lot older than me. And I actually had to get up and leave, because I started getting verklempt. I could probably never say that in person.

Slate: People misuse “schizophrenic” that way all the time. It seems typical of that persistent ignorance about mental illness.

Bamford: People get really irritated by mental illness. “Just fucking get it together! Suck it up, man!” I had a breakdown, and a spiritual friend came to visit me in the psych ward. And they said, “You need to get out of here. Because this is the story you’re telling yourself. You know, Patch Adams has this great work-group camp where you can learn how to really celebrate life.”

It’s something people are so powerless over, and so often they want to make it your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. I started thinking of suicide when I was 10 years old—I can’t believe that that’s somebody’s fault. Like, “Oh, you’re just an attention getter.” Mental illness isn’t seen as an illness, it’s seen as a choice.

Slate: Or a weakness.

Bamford: Yeah. I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental illness the way they do other regular illnesses. “Well, apparently Jeff has cancer. Uh, I have cancer. We all have cancer. You go to chemotherapy you get it taken care of, am I right? You get back to work.” Or: “I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic. You know?”

Slate: Right. And then people who suffer from mental illness feel ashamed, making it even harder for them to talk about it with other people—where if you had a “regular” illness, people would speak much more openly about it.

Bamford: Yeah, it’d be like, “Let’s pink-ribbon it up!”

Slate: By talking about these things in your act, you’re countering some of the silence that otherwise clouds them. Is that something you’re conscious of as you work on your material?

Bamford: Well, a lot of it is selfish, I think. If I talk about it, then maybe somebody will talk about it to me. I don’t know if there’s as much much nobility in it as I would hope.

Slate: Maybe it’s not intentional nobility. Maybe it’s accidental nobility.

Bamford: Maybe. But at the same time, I remember this joke Dwayne Kennedy told about how comedy doesn’t change anything. He talked about how during slavery, slaves would have to tell jokes to their masters, and the master would say, “Rastus, that’s funny! Not ‘get your freedom’ funny, but…”

But at least I can try to change it for myself. Because I feel super insecure and embarassed and ashamed about mental health issues. That’s why I want to talk about it. There’s sort of a hostility even, where you go, “I’m just gonna say what I am and then see if you can’t handle it.” And I think it’s more talked about now. Catherine Zeta-Jones saying she’s bipolar on the cover of People, for instance. Or Marya Hornbacher’s book Madness, this really beautifully written book about being bipolar.

Slate: You talk a lot about your family in your act—and you once had your dad open for you. Was that his idea?

Bamford: No, no, it was my idea. I was terrified, because it was this motorcycle club in Duluth—a pretty low-key motorcycle club, because Minnesotans aren’t too rowdy, but I was scared. So I was like, “Dad, would you please open for me?” And my dad loves me, and so he worked out his bits.

Slate: It was all his own material.

Bamford: Yeah. I think it was about six to seven minutes. He bombed and then I bombed. It was a family affair.

Slate: Did he have more sympathy for what you do afterwards?

Bamford: No. My dad has some depressive issues, and he’s really tough on himself. So sometimes he can say things that are not super supportive. Like once I did a set, and he says, “Sheesh, no wonder you’re still single.” I was like, “Eight ball, corner pocket, dad.”

We did pitch a reality show. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but it’s a fun idea of us bringing health services to comics. My dad’s a physician, my mom’s a licensed family therapist, and my sister’s a physician as well—but she also is now a life coach/shaman. And I thought, well, the only way we can get health care as comics is by getting on television. So we could bring health services to comedians on the road. We’d be the ambulance.

Slate: That would be amazing. It would be like The Maria Bamford Show, except your family members would all play themselves. And there’d be other comics.

Bamford: Yeah, yeah. Because that’s a disadvantage of doing comedy: You’re by yourself all the time and you have no insurance. Which is actually all of America: We’re all by ourselves too much and have no insurance.

Interview has been condensed and edited.