Maria Bamford’s Purple Vans, Vision Boards, and Park Benches All Add Up to Fabulous

This week, Toronto is exploding with comedy for the 10 day JFL42 festival. One of the highlights of the fest is the finale of a year long search for Canada’s Top Comic. Eight finalists will compete for a $25,000 prize, Canadian comedian Ben Miner will host once again, and this year, the headliner is a killer! Maria Bamford! It’s going to be one of the most exciting Top Comic Finales yet. Our own Sara Dahms is a long time Maria Bamford fan, and caught up with her for a phone interview.  Get tickets to the SiriusXM Top Comic finale, taking place this Thursday September 27 at at the Winter Garden Theatre at 189 Yonge Street. Get tickets at jfl42.com.


The Interrobang: I write about comedy and comedians and am also a middle school counselor so I love you and your work on many different levels. Not only are you hilarious but you are also completely open and honest about your struggles with mental health. I love that you have the courage to do this because not only will it make you stronger, it will also make everyone who is listening, who is facing similar experiences stronger as well. So, please don’t stop!

Maria Bamford: I find so much help in that too. Also, the education of learning to read about different peoples’ experiences has really helped me in life. There is a memoir about a woman who is schizophrenic and also a law professor at the University of Southern California called, “The Center Cannot Hold” and it was so educational to me because I didn’t know anything about the disease and she writes about it so beautifully and now I’ve had the chance to speak with her on the phone. It’s really great.

The Interrobang: What you did with your, “Special Special Special” was really great too. I’ve never seen anything else like it! You allowed your audience to get to know you on a deeper level than just your jokes.  This was a very special special! You allowed us into your family and into your life and it even felt like it could have almost been a pre-pilot to “Lady Dynamite.” How soon after this special was your Netflix series, “Lady Dynamite” conceived? 

Maria Bamford: It was conceived about 2 or 3 years later. My belief is that you do everything you can with exactly what you have. The only reason I made the special in my own home, in front of my parents, was because I was exhausted. I was so tired and thought that the only way that I could do it was if I was so close to my bedroom that I could fall over. I just want to acknowledge that it was really done this way out of necessity and that I’m always so inspired by what people can do with what they have and I think that is sometimes lost in our consumer society. There are also economic disadvantages that are unfair and that skew the results of everything and they are real. I cannot speak to those of which I have not had the experience but I do really admire when people are able to do everything they can with what they have. For me, speaking as a white, upper middle class, fully educated, fully supported with my mental health issues since I was 10 years old, I didn’t do well in comedy clubs. I wrote one person shows and I would perform them in other spaces, even if it was a coffee shop and no one was there, I would perform for an hour and I continued to do that. I believe that one person listening is better than a thousand people who are booing. You don’t need to have a shit ton of cash to make something and to make something beautiful. I say that because I also need to keep reminding myself of that. I learned in school that who I am is what is best and that was really helpful to me. What I perceive as my greatest weakness, which for me has always been mental illness, can in fact be transformed. I don’t mean to underplay other people’s hardships or suffering nor am I saying, “Oh it’s so great that that awful thing happened to you” but I have seen it happen for me in my own experience.

The Interrobang: It’s just like what you said about the setting of your special. Do everything you can with what you have been given in your toolbox; only now you’re applying it to more than just material things. You’re extending it onto the other types of things we’ve been “given” such as hardships, struggles, and even mental illness. I think that is a beautiful message.

Maria Bamford: I do want to acknowledge that I’ve been given a bajillion tools and all of that said… I have no idea what I’m talking about! I think I should shut up! (laughing)

The Interrobang: (Laughing) Ok, back to your parents then. Your father is a doctor and your mother is a mental health professional! Was that a blessing or a curse? Did what they do for a living help or hurt your relationship with them when you were going through your mental health struggles as a child?

Maria Bamford: I think the mental health thing was always a separate entity from everything. My childhood was an unbelievable fantasy. I grew up in beautiful, northern Minnesota, with great public schools and some of the best mental health care at the time. Maybe there was some sexist things like girls were taught to be quiet.

The Interrobang: I get it. As kids, we were treated with nothing but love but my mom is very old school Italian. The girls were given baby dolls and a toy kitchen and my brother played football.

Maria Bamford: Yes. Serve the cake in church, but beyond that idyllic circumstance, the mental health issue was outside of that. The symptoms started to show themselves when I was 9 or 10 years old and I realize in retrospect, now that I am on medications that are very good for me, that the meds have been an enormous help and I just cannot think that it’s almost all meds really. The medication I’m on now, I did not get on until I was 42 and it’s been like night and day. Just the stability and my husband doesn’t know me as someone who doesn’t weep all of the time. (laughing) He’s like, “WHAT?!” It has definitely helped me to keep it together and be relatively successful at earning money and keeping a few friends AND I’m not wanting to die all of the time.

The Interrobang: Those intrusive thoughts have subsided for the moment?

Maria Bamford: Yes! I don’t have those thoughts at all anymore!  It’s been pretty spectacular. I now understand more when people say, “I really enjoyed that” or “I love doing this” or hobbies. I was always looking for a relief and being on stage did give me some relief from depression and obsessive thinking. I don’t know if it’s the chemicals involved in performing but it helped.

The Interrobang: In your comedy special, “Old Baby” I really love how you show us the progression of the writing progress. You start out telling jokes in front of the mirror and slowly build up to an audience of a few people and slowly build to bigger and bigger venues/audiences until you end up in a theater. Does this art imitate your actual process?

Maria Bamford: Yes, but the reason behind why I made “Old Baby” this way and my personal expectation was in regard to the perception of how people see things. You know how when you go to an art museum and something is well lit, even if its just a piece of cardboard, you’re like “Oh, it’s just so beautiful!” and I think that happens in comedy. My dear friend illustrated that for me. She tells a story like, “First I met you and you said you were a comedian and I was like, you’re a little old to start now but ok. Then I saw you at some open mic thing and you seemed ok and I was like good for you for getting out there. Then, I saw you at a show you had done yourself and I thought, ‘she’s getting better!’ Then I saw you at a show where there was like 100 people and I was like, ‘Wow!’ Then, we were in New York City and it was a T.V. show and I saw you and I was like, ‘You’re a star!” My friend told me this story and I thought, it was all the same exact material, jokes and stories each and every time! I just thought that was hilarious.

The Interrobang: Same jokes just different packaging and that made all the difference in her perception.

Maria Bamford: We do that with human beings too. Think of all those before and after pictures. “First they were tired and depressed with no ideas. Now, we’ve dyed their hair a bright red and they’re wearing a sparkling blouse and suddenly they seem more than what they were before!” I just think that is ridiculous.

The Interrobang: You have so much rich material within your body of work and there is so much that you’ve written that I relate to but there is one scene in, “Lady Dynamite” in reference to your love life that I have to ask you about. You were talking about having to share, “your deepest darkest secrets” with the man you were dating and tell him that you suffer from mental illness. I am wondering if after sharing your mental illness with a partner did you ever receive a memorable reaction, either positive or negative that stands out to you?

Maria Bamford: It was with the last man I dated before I met my husband and he was “all-in” from the beginning. It was one of those things where he said, “I love you” very quickly and I met his kids and it was slightly insane. I should have seen it coming but he was kind of like “the perfect guy” in that he was from the Midwest, he was very professional and successful in his field. One thing I did notice was that he had a couple things that he wasn’t on board for and he had told me about them but I just didn’t see that it would affect me…probably because I was feeling so out of it at the time… He had an ex-partner that he had gotten very irritated with because she had some problems relating to sex and I have had that too. I don’t know if it’s related to trauma or what, but I’ve had that problem where there is pain with sex. Then he had also had a family member with mental health issues that he felt very irritated at. He kind of had an attitude of, why don’t they just suck it up and get it together? Then about two months in, the first time we were intimate together, I shared with him that this is a thing I sometimes have and I totally felt him go, “Awwwww!” Thank goodness he backed away because if you can’t handle it and you’re not into it, oh my god, get out! Don’t stay! Then I told him that I was going to need to change my medications and would need to go into the hospital because I get scared when I change them. He was like, yeah, I’ve got to talk to you for a second… I love you but….

The Interrobang: That’s pretty memorable!

Maria Bamford: Never say I love you a month in! We were in our 40’s and in some ways I don’t think this type of thing ever changes. We are always going to have sensitivities to things we can handle or cannot handle. My husband can totally handle mental health stuff. When I told him he was fine and didn’t care.  The joke in that is, then you find out that it is actually something else about you that really bothers them. (Laughing) The thing that actually bothers him is I sometimes leave the keys in the door and I shouldn’t do that.

The Interrobang: It’s always something else!!! (Laughing) Ok, back to your comedy. There are three things that stand out to me that I noticed have been mentioned in more than one of your works and I would like for you to tell me the significance of these three things to you. The first one is a purple van.    

Maria Bamford: The purple van is the van that would drive me home from the outpatient treatment program that I went to twice. It is purple because it was the Glendale Seven Day Adventist Hospital. They are religious Christians and purple is a very powerful color. It was an excellent program in that they had cake and there was a wonderful lady who worked the front desk.

The Interrobang: The next one is a park bench.

Maria Bamford: I put a bench on the front yard of our last house. We recently moved a little farther out of L.A. and I hope to get one for our new house. I read that all people need is a place to sit down and they will sit down. So, it’s kind of like a little bird feeder for people. I hope to put one on the front yard of our new home soon.

The Interrobang: The last one is a vision board

Maria Bamford: Vision boards have been a really big thing for the past 15 years in Los Angeles. I belong to a number of 12 step groups and I can’t say which ones, but let’s just say I could have been at a Debtors Anonymous vision board workshop and let’s just say…. Um….we don’t know if that happened, and I’m not gonna say whether it happened, but let’s say it did happen and it was in the basement of a church in Hollywood and there were hundreds of magazines and everyone was cutting pictures out of them and we ran out of Academy Awards…

The Interrobang: So that scene in “Lady Dynamite” is true?! That really happened?!?! 

Maria Bamford: Yes. People were cutting out Academy Awards and we ran out of them and it became sort of an emotional issue. Which I think is pretty hilarious. The whole idea of a vision board is sooooo….

The Interrobang: What are your thoughts on that? I know you’re Atheist but do you believe in the power of the universe?

Maria Bamford: I don’t know… If people know what your vision is then they can help you to manifest it and that can be freakin powerful. But vision boards are also made from magazines and magazines are made by advertising… so uh-oh. Then we are worshiping material objects, experiences, upscale living… Or you can use them to celebrate the things you already have as well… Take a picture of your 12 year old Prius; post it inside your 12 year old Prius… (Laughing)

The Interrobang: And celebrate that 12-year-old Prius!!! (Laughing) 

Maria Bamford: It’s a god damn miracle!!! (Laughing)

The Interrobang: Can you tell me what’s next for Maria?

Maria Bamford: Well, I’m working on some new stuff and have an hour of new material that I’m honing and it’s becoming something.

The Interrobang: That’s awesome! I can’t wait to check it out! Thank you for your openness and your time!

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Sara Dahms
Sara Dahms
Sarah Dahms is a comedy superfan hails from Chicago and travels all over the country checking out the best comedy everywhere.