"I'm not very good at talking to people after shows and I feel like, 'Oh God, this is part of the job.' I didn't realize that was part of the job. And I love the people but I just feel awkward. I just feel kinda weird about it. Even though they're super nice people and it seems like it should be fun because I've seen people have fun doing it. And I enjoy doing it when I go see a performer. I like it when they stand out there. And somehow when I'm doing it I feel like, 'I gotta go.'"
– Maria Bamford
Maria Bamford: Hang on one second. I'm just going to get to a place where I can talk. I'm here at my local art class place.
Guy MacPherson: You're in the middle of a class?
MB: Oh, no, no, no. I'm not at a class. My friend teaches here at the Wizard of Art. I've taken many classes here. I'm just coming for a visit.
GM: What city are you in?
MB: I'm in Los Angeles.
GM: Is that where you live?
GM: Everyone lives there.
MB: Well, I don't know. There are certainly a lot of people. Yeah. I think it's where most of the work is. That's what they say, anyway. I haven't tried anywhere else so I don't know if there's work other places.
GM: You travel around a lot. So what do you mean? Are you doing acting work in L.A.?
MB: I get some voice-over work and I hate to say this, maybe this is totally fear-based, but it seems like if you don't live in L.A. or in New York, and you aren't on the scene in one of those cities, or a major city, you're less available.
GM: Your face isn't out there so people don't think to call you for work, is that it?
MB: Certainly. I think that's the theory. I don't know. I'm completely basing my life and lifestyle on something I haven't experimented with.
GM: You're from Minnesota?
MB: Yes, from Duluth, which is about three hours north of Minneapolis.
GM: A lot of good comics come from Minnesota.
MB: Yes! I think so. Yeah, there's um... uh... okay.
GM: Diane Ford?
MB: Yes. Garrison Keillor, uh, there's um... okay now... There's so many wonderful people... Mitch Hedberg...
GM: That's right. Al Franken.
MB: Al Franken, yes!
GM: Did you quit standup at some point and go back to Minnesota?
MB: No. That was a fantasy that I had. And I acted out my fantasy in a one-person sitcom. Because you know sitcoms always have something like [sing-songy] a fish out of water! So I have thought of that extensively, moving back to Duluth, Minnesota. And I may, in fact, buy a house there because I can't seem to buy one here. But that's my fantasy, so I acted out how I thought that would go. And of course it doesn't go... Well, I mean, I don't know. But yes, I didn't actually do that. That's just this thing that I did.
GM: It was a sitcom or a one-woman show?
MB: One-woman show/sitcom-type thing. I made a DVD of it that isn't out yet. And I just did it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the month and I got some really great reviews from the UK Guardian and the Herald.
GM: This is all separate from your standup?
MB: Yes. Although those same characters occur in my standup so it's all mixed together.
GM: How long have you been doing standup?
MB: Like, 14 years.
GM: Obviously you've evolved over the years. How different was your act in your first few years?
MB: Let me see... When I was doing it the first few years, I was bald and I had a violin.
MB: Yeah. I shaved my head. I had just gotten out of a depression treatment centre-type thing. Like, an out-patient treatment centre for depression, eating disorders, etc. So I said to myself, "I think I'm gonna take back the night or something." And then I shaved my head. I would play my violin and then do what I perceived to be a joke. A lot of comics when they start out, not all of them, but some people start out and they do sort of more shocking material because they want to get people to pay attention. Maybe I did that. Now it's different. At least right now I'm kind of in a sort of a blank period. I don't know what to do next. I'd like to grow as a comedian and try new things. I'm hoping to start a couple of shows in my neighbourhood so I can get used to going up at regular places where people aren't paying so I can try different things. I mean, I can try things at comedy clubs and things like that, and I think I've become a better comedian definitely doing that. But I'm not sure what the plan is.
GM: You do character-based comedy. I'm trying to picture somebody (you) starting out doing that. Was it as character-based, or more jokey?
MB: It was more like, "Here are some jokes." I did some material like, "This is a musical interpretation of my relationship history in the past." I was only 22, and didn't have much of one. And then I'd do like a beautiful piece and then scratch it all up at the end. That type of joke. I never liked playing the violin but people always said, "Oh, that's so nice!"
GM: Do you play clubs often? Because your style isn't what a lot of people associate with a comedy club.
MB: I do Minneapolis at the comedy club there. I've done that several times. The Acme Comedy Club, the main club there. And I do Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. And that's been it so far. I haven't done Chicago or New York or Boston or anything like that. So I don't know. I always think what I do is funny but when you go to something generic, it might be a rude disappointment for audience members. For them and possibly for me. I don't know what the answer is.
GM: That's okay, I forgot what the question was. Since starting out 14 years ago, have you noticed a palpable change in the way women comics have been perceived or treated in the business? Is it that much different now, do you think?
MB: I don't think so. I know when Phyllis Diller was coming out, there were no women comedians. So that changed. If it's changed a lot then it's been so gradual that I haven't noticed. I think in every interview most women comedians get asked, "Is it hard being a woman? How is it different?" So maybe it hasn't changed. But I don't know.
GM: Some female comics say it's awful and they're treated awful, whereas others say it's fine. So I wonder.
MB: Here's an example: Most clubs will not book two women on one show.
MB: Yes. It's a classic three... opener, middle and a headliner, which is what they do in U.S. clubs, anyway. I'm not sure how it is in the U.K. or Australia. I think Austin and Minneapolis and the Punchline in San Francisco are less likely to do that. But if you look at comedy club lineups, I would be surprised, unless it's a women's night, unless it's like, "Ladies are funny!"... And it's the same thing with ethnic groups. I don't think they say it, but usually there's only one black person or one Asian person unless it's a theme show for the chosen minority. So I think that's odd.
GM: Is it a numbers game, though? Are there more white males out there doing standup than any females or ethnic comics?
MB: Well, that could be. That's a good point as well. It's hard to say. I think there usually are a lot of women comics. Maybe it is a numbers thing. One thing, and maybe is in any male-dominated workplace that occurs in a bar, is... One thing is I didn't have brothers so I wasn't very good at dealing with guys and how to make boundaries around work and dating and stuff like that. That can be confusing. Especially when you start out pretty young. And in Hollywood, sometimes women who are perceived as being more conventionally attractive are given opportunities. Not that I'm a hot, hot superstar, but I feel like I've gotten enough comments where people have said, "Oh, it's so great that you're both funny and pretty." Or you've heard an executive say, "That comic is great but she doesn't have the sex appeal" or something. But I think white men have the same issue because there are so many of them so it's hard for them to make themselves known. They just have a different issue. I think everybody has their own level of suffering. (laughs)
GM: And that factor of good-looking women getting ahead is probably true in every walk of life.
MB: And good-looking people.
GM: Tell me about it. I know.
MB: Yeah! So it turns out things aren't fair, and that's uncomfortable.
GM: Have you ever felt any exclusion from either the business side or fellow comics, who are male?
MB: Not at all, really. The only thing is - but I think guys have experienced this, too - is you just want somebody to like you because they think you're funny. For example, my voice, as well as lots of women's voices... One of the descriptatory words used about my voice is that it's squeaky and high and irritating. I think, well, women's voices are higher. But I think guys who have unique voices probably get the same thing. I don't know. I guess people just pick out whatever they notice.
GM: Any kind of difference.
MB: Yeah. Any kind of difference. That's the criticism that bothers me, whereas I'm sure somebody else can go, "They always pick out my neck and how my neck is short." So I think it's hard for everybody. In every job. (laughs)
GM: In the last few years, you've started to make a real name for yourself in comedy.
MB: I feel really grateful and happy. I've been invited to be a part of things that I didn't... Like the Comedians of Comedy thing, that's totally made my career. It's got me a lot more fans and stuff. And that's through none of my own doing - except for showing up for the thing. So that was really lovely. But I haven't been a marketing genius, that's for sure. So if that gives any hope to people who are not marketing geniuses, if you wait long enough, somebody will notice you! (laughs)
GM: I don't know if it's true across the board, but often the marketing geniuses in comedy are not often the best comics.
MB: I don't know. That's hard to say, too. Whenever somebody becomes super, ultra-popular then it's like, "Hmm. Bandwagon." One person I've heard criticism of is Dane Cook. I saw his special and I thought that guy is working his butt off. Just physically. He's running around. Even if his material or art form, whether or not I was into it, there's just no denying that he's worked really hard.
GM: And he's entertaining a lot of people.
MB: Exactly. Entertaining a whole lot of people and that's wonderful. That's the job, making people laugh. It's wonderful. But I guess that's the thing is that you then open yourself up to be criticized when you really have a giant fan base.
GM: It's like when I was in university at the college radio station. When all the hip alternative bands hit it big, they were suddenly hated. With a passion.
MB: I guess that's the human experience. Like, I'm sure if I met Paris Hilton on the street, maybe I'd be like, "Oh, she seems all right" or "I like her hair." But when it feels pushed upon you or when you start seeing the person over and over you get your back up. I have people write me and they get mad if I don't write them back right away. And I'm like, "I'm going as fast as I can." I'm sure part of it's that, where either they're working so much they can't keep in contact with the people who were diehard fans. I mean, I don't know.
GM: And then, of course, they say, "Oh, her head's too big now. She's changed."
MB: Yeah, yeah! And you're just like, "Listen, I gotta write jokes every once in a while." Maybe that's why a person got into comedy. Maybe they're not as good at talking to people. Like, they love performing but... I'm not very good at talking to people after shows and I feel like, "Oh God, this is part of the job." I didn't realize that was part of the job. And I love the people but I just feel awkward. I just feel kinda weird about it. Even though they're super nice people and it seems like it should be fun because I've seen people have fun doing it. And I enjoy doing it when I go see a performer. I like it when they stand out there. And somehow when I'm doing it I feel like, "I gotta go." I mean, not always. But I always get anxious that they're going to say something weird.
Like one guy, what did he say? He said, "I really like you. My wife hates you." But anyways, that's just like any job. People come up and tell you things you didn't necessarily need to know about. A public service job. What do you like about your job? How's your job? Is it fun interviewing people?
GM: Oh, you're talking to me?
MB: Yeah, yeah, I'm talking to you!
GM: Yeah, it's fun. The worst part is sitting down and transcribing.
MB: Right. Is it best if I keep it to sound bites? Like if I don't use any connective words? (laughs)
GM: That's just the grunt work that goes along with it, that's gotta be done. How long have you been with the Comedians of Comedy?
MB: I've only done it since they did the film, which is two years ago now. I'm going to actually take a year off from travelling so I think they're looking for new Comedians of Comedy. I think that was the idea, just to always rotate new comedians in and give people a chance to see comedians they wouldn't necessarily see in their town or wouldn't necessarily get booked at their comedy club. So I'm coming to Vancouver but then I'm going to be out for the next year. But then there'll be new people coming in, which is exciting. One of those people is Morgan Murphy. I think she's coming to Vancouver. She is fantastic. She's very funny. And then Jen Kirkman. For the last tour they had Eugene Mirman. And there's a new tour that's going to be started by Demetri Martin. He won the Perrier award [in Edinburgh]. He's doing it with an Irish comic, David O'Doherty, who was at Montreal this last year. As well as one other person. I can't remember who it is. But it sounds really great. They're actually going to go on a road tour across the U.S. I don't know if they're going to hit Canada. I would think that they would.
GM: Is the Comedians of Comedy still filming?
MB: No. They did six episodes of a series and Comedy Central was not interested in more, apparently. So that's too bad. So onward and upward.
GM: Why are you taking a year off of travelling?
MB: Because I've travelled a lot, a lot, a lot the past five years. And I just want to try to create a community within Los Angeles because otherwise it's like you have nothing to come home to. So I want to give that a shot and see if I can get work in town. And then if I can't, there's always performing live. And that's fun. I like doing that. But I'm an older lady. I just turned 36. So I'm more interested now in creating some version of a family and stuff like that. I think that involves staying in town more than a week. (laughs) All my friends are having little ones and I've missed most of the births because I'm just out of town so much.
GM: By creating a community in L.A., you're talking about opening up the workout room?
MB: Yeah. I have two ideas. One I tried to pitch to UCB, the Upright Citizens Brigade. I'm hoping that they'll be interested. It would be all crowd rap, where the comedians could only talk to the crowd. They couldn't do any material. (laughs) So that's the one show idea I had. If I don't do it there maybe I'll be able to do it someplace else. And then another one is to have comedians go up and do a one-minute, one-person show. (laughs) Like, hopefully that would be slightly ridiculous. There'd be maybe some dance then a sad part or a happy part, and then the moment of revelation and then change and then a happy ending. Or a sad ending. And I did a show that I may start again that's just in my living room where I just invite my neighbours over and book four comics every week. But the problem is I end up doing too many dishes. Actually, it's not very hard, but we'll see. Sometimes my living room can become kind of a rough crowd. My neighbours will be like, "I heard that one."
GM: That would be a good idea for a TV show, in Maria's living room.
MB: Yeah, but you know what's so funny? I told my agent I was doing a show on Friday night and he was like, "Where?" Anyways, the idea is basically just to get to know my neighbours. But perhaps, if we recast my neighbours with more attractive people...!
GM: Yes! Now I like it!
MB: Dave, the agoraphobic gay man, for a bit of a different twist. Yeah, we'll see what happens.
GM: If you stay at home for a year, you could always fly out for a weekend to a club if you need to, couldn't you?
MB: Yeah. I told my booking agent that if somebody wants to fly me out for one night, then I'll do it (laughs). It's fun to do festivals. But comedy clubs, unless you know people in the area, it just can be a bit... sometimes I just feel sad.
MB: Yeah, it just feels a bit sad. Because usually the opening acts are a bit younger. You don't really know how to party with them. And I don't know how to party anyway, so that's problematic right there.