Maria Bamford’s comedy is a combination of storytelling and wait-for-it, perfectly aligned punchlines, all with the ability to transport viewers through a completely surreal experience. Bamford is on everyone’s mind because of the release of her new episodic sitcom, Lady Dynamite, on Netflix, created with Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Pam Brady (South Park).
On a not-broiling-hot Thursday morning, I drove my golden station wagon over to her house in L.A. Alongside her and her husband's three elderly dogs, Bamford talked about all the different comedic formats she's tried, the horrors of auditioning and the questions she always wanted to ask comedian (and her friend) Kate Berlant, who recently came out with her own Netflix special, The Characters. (I wanted to include her in the conversation, but technology had other ideas.)
The surreal nature of that morning felt very much like an experience from Maria’s show.
Alicia Eler: The Maria Bamford Show was a web series and then the stand-up special was shot here at your house. Lady Dynamite is an episodic sitcom on Netflix. I was wondering, as a creative person, what is it like to work in those different media spaces in the last five to six years?
Maria Bamford: Definitely there’s a lot more with just doing a web series. There was only one other person, Damon Jones, who did the editing with me and he did a wonderful job. With the Netflix special at the house, I could do all my own material, aside from someone editing it later. I don’t enjoy the editing process, or I don’t have a strong opinion about it, so I feel like once I performed something I’m like “Eh, you have at it, you take it.”
For a television show, I had no experience in editing and very little in writing scripts, and so to me that was much more supporting the process of other people. They ask me questions, like “What would you say?” or “What would you do?” They were very good at reflecting back to me because they wanted it to be me. I wanted it to be a group vision. I hope that the writers and fellow creators Mitch and Pam feel that they were also expressing their sense of humor and creativity because that was meaningful to me.
AE: Lady Dynamite sounds like such a collaborative experience, unlike standup. Do you feel like that solitary nature drew you to stand-up?
MB: Yes, I love it. At the time, too, when I was younger, I loved being by myself. It felt very safe. I don’t know if this is a woman thing, but it was great in that you could just do your set and leave, you didn’t have to take any notes from someone, or some dude saying: “You know what I really think?” or “I think it needed this.” You didn’t have to wait for someone to cast you. Stand-up is very self-motivated and empowering in that way–it’s just wonderful. You can create whatever story or situation you want.
I didn’t like that about theater. It was like, “Oh, I gotta wait for them” or “Oh they’re gonna do that play” and “What can I play in that?” It felt that way with auditioning, too. Auditions were interesting to me partially because it wasn’t my own writing. But I do like to hear the sound of my own words.
AE: That’s interesting because in the show there were elements of you auditioning. Is that true to experiences you’d had, or were those faked?
MB: Some of those were faked for jokes, like I was auditioning for the part of a Wire character. That’s obviously not true. But I auditioned for 10 years and only booked two things and both of them were because I was in a bad mood. In one of them, I played the part of a bride in a Bud Light commercial and they just thought it was funny that I wasn’t the only person who wore all white to the audition. I wore all black for the audition.
The other one was for the California Lottery and I was very irritable that day and so they thought that was funny. I turned up for the job and I was super-cheerful and they were like “where’d that sassy lady go, that sassy sassafras?” I stopped auditioning probably like six or seven years ago because it was counterproductive just earning-wise, and I wasn’t enjoying it.
AE: Since we can't make it work with Kate Berlant, any questions you want me to ask her?
MB: Could you ask her, how does she stay inspired even though there’s so much content out there? I have guilt about taking someone’s time from calling their congressmen or their senator. Maybe someone could be doing something else besides watching this video, like staring into the eyes of a loved one. And is it being of service to entertain? I tried, as we were looking out on the bushes that are in my backyard, I love these bushes and they are useless except for the fact that they are blooming and beautiful, and I appreciate them, but they aren’t building roads.
AE: But they’re emitting CO2!
MB: But how does Kate get inspired to feel like she’s serving a purpose? There are so many incredible comedians, including her, and I feel like I should tap out. Do you have to be inspired to do something, or do you just do it?
😂 😂 😂
From there, I wandered outside to sit down on the community bench that’s in front of Maria’s house to call Kate. I felt very useful at this moment, because I could be that person giving Bamford’s message to Berlant. Phones are magical like that.
AE: Maria wanted to know: How does Kate get inspired to feel like she’s serving a purpose? Do you have to be inspired to do something, or do you just do it?
Kate Berlant: It sounds pretentious but I like the idea that inspiration is for amateurs. I think it's about just trying to work and trying to entertain people.
AE: As a comedian, what does Maria mean to you? How has she influenced you or been like a role model of sorts?
KB: Maria is such a hero of mine in every way. I met her when I came to LA to do comedy for the first time since moving to New York a few years ago. I was in my early 20s. I’m now in my late 20s. I’d seen her live but never met her, and they put me on right after her. I initially interpreted that as a gesture of hostility from the booker. But I couldn’t believe it. That alone was a dream, just to be on the same show as her.
Alicia Eler is a writer, art critic and comedian based in Los Angeles whose work appears often in New Inquiry, The Guardian, Artsy, Art21, Hyperallergic and the Daily Dot. She's currently working on a book about the selfie generation. @aliciaeler