MARIA BAMFORD: PROVIDE THE JOKES
Maria Bamford has the unique gift of being able to make you laugh, cringe, and cry all at the same time. Before her breakout role as lawyer/actress/methadone addict DeBrie Bardeaux on Arrested Development, Maria Bamford had already produced her own web series, released an acclaimed Christmas special, was the first woman to perform in two half-hour Comedy Central Presents specials, and recorded two albums. Her work is funny, uncomfortable, and political, and she interrogates topics such as mental health care, poverty, capitalism, depression, sexism, and religion by quickly inventing and then discarding a small army of characters and voices. In her latest CD, Ask Me About My New God, she is a snotty waitress, Paula Deen, her sister Sarah, a disillusioned millennial, a child in need of mentorship, a hipster named Dave, and a candidate for her neighborhood council. She performs at Festival Supreme on Saturday, Oct. 25, and she joined L.A. RECORD to talk about gas station cuisine, the best place to get a coffee in Highland Park, and a shadowy man known only as ‘The Wolf.’ This interview by Kristina Benson.
On your last album Ask Me About My New God, you have a bit about living off gas station food—since you’re a local, what’s the most gourmet gas station in Eagle Rock?
There’s a laziness factor that comes in, so it’s whatever is on the right side of the street so I can pull in. I don’t even know the names of the gas stations. On the 2 entrance going north … I wanna say it’s a Mobile? What they have in there that I’ve used are the potato chips that are artsinal potato chips. They’re fancy. Not the crap ones. Like kettle-cooked but the first ones that were kettle-cooked, like blue cheese and sea salt. I really should give you the actual brand name.
I think the fact that you’re an artisinal potato chip person is revelatory.
I appreciate what they’re doing. I try to eat healthier. I could eat a Pringle but I understand that that’s not food. So I eat actual food. For protein, you can get a cheese and peanut butter cracker. The fluorescent orange crackers. Or the ones with fresh cheese inside. I’ve never tried heating those but … the great thing about gas station food is there’s no cooking involved. It’s just pure—straight-to-table! Gas-station-to-table! A Slim Jim is also a good source of protein, and now you’re saying, ‘What’s your vegetable or fruit?’ And that of course is Spicy V8. What I use as roughage … I’m not sure what category it is, but it works as well as kale. Which is Red Vines.
Red is a fruit.
Yes—it’s red for sure. Do you ever have the sesame seed snacks—the impulse buy at the gas stations? I always feel kinda proud of myself when I eat those. And that’s the extent of my cooking. Or if I do get an actual sandwich, I try to get one from the bottom back of the pile cuz that’s gonna be the freshest. But sometimes I don’t even have time to look at the date and I’m just grateful for whatever gets in the mouth.
What kind of culture shock did you have to shake off when you moved to L.A.? And why did you settle down in Eagle Rock?
I was surprised L.A.seemed so beautiful! I guess I had a fear of it. I thought it’d be really dark. Like Batman’s Gotham City or something. But it’s beautiful and green and the freeways—which also painted a scary picture—were much better designed than ones in some of the Midwest. It felt very safe. And so many flowers! It was just very pretty. I still feel that way. I lived in Los Feliz and I loved it and loved walking around, but I had the opportunity to perhaps buy a house? I looked in Los Feliz and couldn’t afford anything, so I looked in Eagle Rock. I did not make a wise financial decision in that I took a second mortgage and I was underwater a bit, but now I’m over the water and everything is fine in retrospect. Though I have to say when I thought of Eagle Rock, I felt disgusted.
Cuz it just felt too far! And people weren’t hip enough or something? There wasn’t enough gelato. There still isn’t, frankly. But now that I moved here, I have friends in the neighborhood. I have my coffee shop where I know at least five baristas. I dunno if they know my name but I know theirs! I enjoy it a lot more than Los Feliz. There was a lot of turnover with baristas there. Here, less turnover.
Is it Swork?
It’s Café De Leche. [whispers:] it is a great café. Gerardo is my favorite friend there and he’s so nice. He’s not only brought meals for potlucks to my house but he helped my boyfriend move.
You have a bit about putting chalk out for people to draw in front of your house, and you said they drew a bunch of dicks. Did you continue putting chalk out after that?
Oh yeah. Right now there’s … let’s see, three full packs of 16 ready to go. And I think I’ll put another out while we’re talking cuz why not? I really appreciated the dicks. I thought that was perfect. The next thing that happened is it starting being used for ads. People would put their phone number up and down the block for like a personal trainer. My boyfriend tried to call the number to get a personal trainer but couldn’t get a response. It felt very … mysterious. And now there’s a drug user … or I’m not sure if he’s a drug user, but his name is Fernando and he’s almost always drunk and he lives in the woods. They call him the Wolf. He lives in the woods in a house. I guess he has family nearby but chooses to live in the wild. And he comes by and if there is any chalk he will make a million eyeballs. He will make eyeballs until there is no chalk left. I gave him a sketchbook with some drawing stuff so he can have the pleasure of making eyeballs whenever he wanted. I thought that was wonderful he was making things, but he’s also into destroying. He fights the shrubbery in the neighborhood. All these bushes that are smaller than he us. So … he’s kind of a pussy? Why don’t you take on that tree, buddy? See how far you get! My friend and I went to go talk to him, and my friend was like, ‘Do you want to get some help?’ But he’s gotten help many times before and he’s not interested. He’s the Wolf! He’s the Wolf, friend! He can’t be controlled!
You were a lifelong violin player before you were comedian—you even used it in your act at the beginning. What made you retire from the violin?
I did comedy with the violin cuz it’s sort of like a good prop to have. It felt sorta like something to hide behind. When I came to L.A., there were two other women doing violin with their comedy, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the perfect excuse … to stop!’
Wouldn’t it be kind of discouraging to have this little niche and then find out that your niche already has two people in it?
At that point I was just grateful. Playing the violin … I didn’t ever really love it. It was something I could do but it wasn’t a true passion. I tried to pick it back up like ten years ago. I thought, ‘God, I put so much time into this—wouldn’t it be this great thing to do again?’ But I tried and I’m not into it. There’s only so much time in life. You gotta do exactly what you like doing. I like trying things—I’ll go horseback riding three times! But I’m not gonna do it for three years.
What was your act like during your first year here in L.A.?
The same stuff—my family, relationships … it might have been slightly more obtuse cuz I’d take the violin and play it between jokes. I did impersonations of my mom, or people from my high school or my hometown. And then everything fell apart as it tends to sometimes happen. I moved to L.A. and I didn’t know how to support myself financially. I was living in Koreatown and I couldn’t pay rent. I just … didn’t know how to have a job? I had food service, which I was terrible at. I got into this support group and they said, ‘Well why don’t you get a Bachelor’s degree and temp?’ So I did temping and that really helped. And shaped a lot of my material.
I like your stuff about soul-sucking office jobs. It’s relatable.
There’s something I love about an office job. I wasn’t good, but I liked to get a task and complete it. It’s not like waitressing, which at least for my brain was so chaotic and emotional. You see the looks on people’s hungry little faces and … oh God! Just such anguish!
‘DO YOU HAVE MY TOAST!? I JUST WANT SOME TOAST!’
‘No—I don’t know—I can’t!’ I’m a little too introverted to do that well. Maybe now I could do better? I hope I’d be better. It’s hard to say. I haven’t been tested. When I was starting in L.A., it was a much smaller scene than it was now. There just wasn’t as much audience or interest or anything in comedy. There was a boom in the 80s and everyone was into it and there were tons of comedy clubs and I missed that. When I started it had completely fallen apart.
Why did you move here if the comedy scene had fallen apart?
I had a job doing Star Trek characters. A touring show. I’d thought about going to New York City and I realized I didn’t have the personality for it. I couldn’t handle any sort of perceived slights. If someone told me to shut the fuck up, I worried that I would. For years at a time. At least in L.A., even if people are fake, it’s fake friendly. And people aren’t being fake … it’s just a long way to drive. Everybody wants to say yes to things and meet people. So … there was comedy here and I thought my dream was to be on a sitcom but I wasn’t ever able to figure that out. I tried getting into it and it didn’t work out.
Were you a Disney mascot with Spock ears?
Like characters who go to a very low-rent Spinal Tap thing, like a technical support convention in Las Vegas—I’d walk around the convention center with the Klingon and the Vulcan in our own makeup. We did our own makeup, which was not very professional looking. I was a Deep Space Nine character which I guess lends itself to a young lady wearing a tight costume and high boots. The important parts of the character were the high boots, the tight costume and oh yeah … the large stuffed bra. The big bazoombas are also an important part of the Bajoran race. So I did that and it was the highest paying job I’d ever had. ‘Oh my God, this is wonderful!’ I felt like I’d done everything I could do in Minneapolis. I didn’t know what else to do so L.A. seemed like a great idea.
You have so many great voices for your characters—do you have a ‘Maria Bamford’ voice when you want to do … you?
Did you see that movie Lake Bell did about voiceovers?
Where she wants to do like ‘in a world …’ but they won’t let her cuz she’s a woman?
Yeah, and one of the outtakes is a girl asking [in overpowering California accent] ‘Do you know where I can get a smoooothie? Can you just tell me where the smooothies are?’ And Lake Bell turns around like [in ultimate high-pitched California accent] ‘Oh Goooooooood I can tellll youuuuuuu …’ And I’m sure I sound just like that. I know my voice is irritating to some people. I always had a baby voice. Or like that Adam Carolla thing, where he says whatever age you sound, that’s when you were molested—I’ve heard that. My sister has the same voice and she’s a physician for God’s sake!
And a life coach, isn’t she? Or something spiritual?
She’s a shaman! Which takes pretty big balls as a white woman to say, ‘Guess what? I’m a shaman too!’ But it’s kind of awesome cuz I really admire how brave she is. She lives in a very small town in Minnesota and it’s a hard sell! People are not buying it. And I think, ‘Gosh, that takes a lot of courage.’ She went to India to do the Kumbh Mela—a spiritual thing, where every few years like four million people show up—and she was trying to tell some yoga people there about her beliefs and they were like, ‘Uhhhhhh … that’s crazy.’ But it’s very easy to have courage in L.A. when people are sending each other energy all the time for $100 an hour. I hope I don’t sound like I’m making fun of her cuz I do admire her a lot. She has much more courage than I do.
But you go up on stage in front of thousands of people—millions on TV—
Mmmmmmmm … I don’t think so. That’s very detached. It’s a very controlled environment. Maybe someone will yell out, ‘Shut up! You suck!’ For sure they say that on the Internet. But otherwise it’s very powerful. You are louder than everybody. You’re in a spotlight. You’re just given a lot of legs up from anybody who might criticize it.
Maybe when people say ‘women aren’t funny,’ that’s part of it. Like it’s a position of power, and they’re uncomfortable with that.
Of course I can’t speak for other people—whatever you find funny, you find funny. I don’t care. If you don’t like, turn it off. That’s the great thing. But I wonder about that. I’m a heterosexual white female lady who was raised in the Midwest, and when I’m at a show, I do that thing where I look to my boyfriend to see if he’s laughing. I don’t know if you’ve watched women watch a show. Women kind of look to their boyfriends or can look to men in the room, if it’s a room full of heterosexual men, to see if they’re laughing. And to see like, ‘Oh, is it OK that I’m gonna laugh?’ I was trained to be pleasant and agreeable, so even if I don’t understand what a comic is talking about, like masturbating into a sock, I’m gonna laugh. Everyone else is laughing and he’s laughing, so I’m gonna be a good sport. Where I think men might be more brought up in our culture to be like, ‘Well, I don’t know—I don’t know if I think that’s funny!’ I dunno if I’d call it ‘discerning.’ Maybe ‘judgmental’? And it’s a cultural thing, too.
Now I’ll look for this next time I watch a live show, see if the ladies kind of just check in with the men.
More than the men do. And you know, women aren’t necessarily heard. You think of something and say it and nobody hears it, and then somebody else says the exact same thing and it will be heard. I think they even did studies on that. It’s a decibel and a biology thing, too. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.
Something I noticed about myself when I listen to your comedy is that I’ll laugh and then go, ‘That’s true.’ Like the line about being in the bad area, and you see the sign for a multinational corporation and it’s as comforting as seeing a church—‘Thank god for Bank of America!’ That’s so uncomfortable, but it’s true. Or ‘I’m not rich, but I have a lot of private property that I don’t need and I don’t share with others.’ Why are these these deep uncomfortable truths at the core of so much of your work?
The joke you said about the international conglomerate glowing … I was in Tijuana in this little neighborhood outside the city and I was genuinely feeling kind of like … ‘Oh, I dunno any people there … it’s gonna be OK, right?’ And then I did see some crazy American corporate logo and somehow I felt better, and I was like, ‘Why do I feel that way!?’ That somehow I’m OK, but all these other people living here in horrible conditions are kind of fucked? You know—you’re back in a known area. Like every town has the same thing. Every town has an Applebees. I get awful sad about that.
I’ve also seen a lot about your comedy being negative, but it makes me feel good cuz it’s negative—maybe I’m negative, too!
I’m so glad! That’s good! My brain does go super dark. And there’s mental illness in my family—in everybody’s, I think! There’s a lot of suffering in the world, and for a majority of people on the planet, life looks almost intolerable. Very unbelievably difficult. It’s funny cuz I like to do those jokes but I dunno if I always like to see those jokes! I think of someone like, ‘I just wanna hear about peanut butter and how it sticks to the roof of your mouth …’ And I love jokes like that, too, where it’s genuinely just silly and funny. I don’t know if it’s always so great to be suckerpunching people in the stomach. ‘Get ready, you guys! You thought this was gonna be a fun Friday night? Well, FORGET IT! We’re gonna talk about CHILD LABOR LAWS! But it’s gonna get interspersed with funny things so it gets all WEIRD! And you’re not sure whether or laugh or cry!’ I’m not sure how I feel about that. Or I feel a little bad about that. Like if someone comes to my show and I do 20 minutes on suicide and they’re like, ‘ … but it’s my birthday.’ Oof. I feel terrible! I try to tell people. I always say before the show, ‘If you’re here with a friend or on some recommendation and you suddenly realize you’re in the wrong place, please …’ I use an example. My parents took be to see that movie by Spielberg, War Horse. ‘Oh, it’ll be so great! We saw the play, it was so wonderful!’ And at least when I saw it, it felt like 14 hours of a beautiful gentle horse struggling through barbed wire. And so I tell people, ‘This may be your War Horse.’ And if that’s the case, do what I did. Take yourself to the lobby and buy yourself a treat.
You’re so considerate.
Well, it’s all self-serving! Also with comedy clubs, the reason I feel there’s heckling is cuz the way it’s set up. Like it can be really fun to have audience interaction—I’m no good at it, but … the audience is lit and you’re lit as well, so they can’t leave without feeling self-conscious. It’s an awkward situation and I understand why people react with hostility. And they’re also forced to have a couple drinks. Or not forced, but … encouraged. So like you had a weird talk with your spouse and you’re like, ‘I’m stuck here for 60 minutes wasted in a chair feeling uncomfortable while they’re going on about their opinions about Palestine?’ There’s no reason to suffer in a comedy club. Why must they suffer?
What happens if you go too far?
There’s no way to know! I just did Bumbershoot up in Seattle and I felt bad cuz that was a more generalized audience. A super-liberal artistic goofy artistic crowd, but they didn’t know exactly what they were gonna see on the show and my stuff … might not be everybody’s thing. Like everything might not be everybody’s thing. So I felt like there’s nothing you can do at some point to save it. If it’s uncomfortable and going poorly, you can call it out but sometimes people are still pissed! And for good reason—it’s OK to have whatever feeling you have at an event. I dunno how to … fix anything! I really don’t. I felt some sad moments that weekend and I was like, ‘OK—well, OK. Just provide the service. Provide the jokes. Put it out there.’ I was gonna try new material and I’d been walking around the city trying new things to myself, and I totally chickened out and just stuck to more familiar jokes. And I went, ‘Boy, I wish I were better!’ Or at least a stronger, different person. I’d like to become a better comedian who could make ANYONE laugh!
You make a lot of people laugh!
With the internet. The internet helps you find your people. I’m so grateful for that. That’s the only reason I have a career—cuz of the net. People find out exactly what they wanna see. It’s just wonderful.
When you did DeBrie for Arrested Development, how did they explain her to you?
They just said, ‘You’re a methamphetamine addict!’ She was trying to get clean. There wasn’t too much explanation. I didn’t feel like I did much of a character. A lot of it was myself. Turns out I’m not that far off from a recovering methamphetamine addict!
Or a lawyer?
Yes—she’s also a lawyer. And former actress. That was so fun! I’ve had the chance to work with Mitchell Hurwitz, trying to develop something. He’s such an uber-creative, organized and lovely person. It’s amazing! For the few days I worked on Arrested Development, like 16-hour days, he was cheerful and knew people’s names and … yeah! When someone has to improv at like hour 12 he’s open to anybody’s ideas. Really wonderful. He’s an excellent boss!
You’ve got a lot going on now, too, don’t you? You’re just back from a table read.
A voice over for Golan The Insatiable, which may or may not end up on TV but they got the OK from Fox for more episodes, and I like doing those. It’s all earning—as a small business owner, it’s so important to have a healthy cash flow! I went to an event for Cards Against Humanity at a gaming convention in Seattle and they have a pretty beautiful business model. They’re giving so much back to the world and the community. I wish I knew more about that! It’s very shocking, a lot of fun—like Apples to Apples but much harsher! You can make your own cards on their site if you don’t have the money to buy the game. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s delightful!’ It makes you think, ‘How can I do that?’ I want something accessible, like ‘Tell Yourself Your Own Maria Bamford Joke.’ I’ll type it out for you and you do it back to me.
Or someone can type it to you and you can say it—like if I’m trying out jokes and I’m not funny enough to deliver it myself.
Even better! Oh my gosh, I will tell your jokes!
I’m not really funny. I’m like office funny.
I would totally like to do that! Would you mind if I stole your idea?
I’d be so excited if you did!
That’d be great. It’s providing a service and it takes the impetus off me of writing something. They already have the concept and whatever they said is funny, and I’d just be seling it to the greater public at large. Oh my God, I love it.
I’ll try and think of a good test joke but it’s a lot of pressure.
If there’s any way I can put more pressure on you, let me know? No, no—no pressure!
MARIA BAMFORD WITH TENACIOUS D, CHEECH AND CHONG, MARGARET CHO, NORM MACDONALD, JANEANE GAROFALO AND MANY MORE ON SAT., OCT. 25, AT FESTIVAL SUPREME AT THE SHRINE AUDITORIUM, 665 W. JEFFERSON BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 2 PM / $99-$250 / 17+. FESTIVALSUPREME.COM. VISIT MARIA BAMFORD AT MARIABAMFORD.COM.