This interview first appeared online on Gothamist.com on August, 21 2006
Maria Bamford is in town to tape her second Comedy Central Presents special. She discusses her years doing mall openings as a Star Trek character, her forthcoming CD and DVD, and putting on comedy shows in her house.
What sort of place is Duluth, Minnesota?
It’s like Canada, but without the metric system.
What sort of role did comedy play in your life growing up?
My dad, sister, and I used to listen to Steve Martin albums. We’d listen to Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.
What were you like in school?
I was a quiet child.
What sort of creative outlets did you have?
When I was a kid, I made my own paper dolls and I made hippopotamus paper dolls. I’d make the hippopotamuses swimsuits and gowns. As I got older, I liked to run for school offices. I liked to tell the speeches, but I didn’t really like the job where you had to organize things and have school dances. I was in a lot of plays. We had a weird drama teacher in that he was incredibly enthusiastic about a high school drama program and would talk to all the kids for hours. He ended up marrying one of the kids, but that’s neither here nor there.
Which positions did you end up winning on student council?
I always wanted to be the top one: the king, the president. The only year I didn’t win was when I had the chicken pox because I wasn’t able to give the speech. A funny speech always wins, it seems to me.
What sort of slogans or posters did you use?
Senior year, I put a picture of myself when I was in kindergarten. The school I went to was seventh grade through twelfth grade. My slogan was, “She’s been here.”
Was school something you enjoyed?
I liked school. I had some problems. I was a bit of a depressed kid. Sometimes I would sleep in class. I’d have notes sent home that I had a poor attitude. I was sort of sassy back, but quietly sassy.
What sort of aspirations did you have growing up?
My dad was a doctor and my mom was a housewife. I wanted to be a doctor, but I wasn’t very good at science. Then I thought, “Well, I can try to be an actor,” but I didn’t really like the theater program when I went to college. I didn’t understand the people or acting. There was a talent show where we could do stand up or comedy, so I thought I could be a comedian. I didn’t think of that when I was a kid. Specifically, I remember wanting to be a doctor in South America that played the violin. I liked the drama of my family never seeing again and that they’d have to admire me afar from my individuality.
You did creative writing in college?
I did English Literature. I was brought to Edinburgh, Scotland. I came back to the University of Minnesota and did thinly veiled autobiographical pieces.
What was the final project that you did?
I did a short story. It was something about a depressed kid growing up in the Midwest.
How did going to Scotland come about?
I choose to go because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I went to the state college of Maine for two years because I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was an early admissions school and they had a good selection of cereal so I decided to go there, unfortunately for my parents because it cost a whole bunch of money. I went to Edinburgh thinking, “I can speak English, but I’ll be different.” It was cold and rainy, but they had an Improv group and taught Theater Sports there and I did that the whole year I was there. It was all guys, which happens sometimes. I was going to try to do stand up, but the stand up I saw then when I was nineteen was rougher. People would yell stuff and I was too nervous. I decided to do it in Minnesota where crowds are more docile.
When was the first time that you performed stand up?
There was a student union night where they said, “It’s talent show where you can do comedy or music.” I did it there. It was about being from Minnesota. When I went to school in the East, kids thought I was retarded and would make fun of me because I talked really slow. I’d say, “Where are you guys going?” and they’d say, “We’re going somewhere where we don’t have to be with you.”
How’d that first performance go?
It went great for me. It was fun and I had a really good time. I knew there were some kids in school that went to Boston for open mics, but I didn’t do that. I did things like talent shows instead. I was nervous about going to Boston. I thought, “They’re going to kill me.” I felt more comfortable doing in Minneapolis. I think, in retrospect, it was because I was worried about heckling. In the East Coast and Scotland you’re more likely to be heckled, it seemed. In Minnesota it’s more like, “We’re just going to sit here until someone turns on the lights.”
What sort of comedy scene did Minneapolis have when you started performing?
There were a couple comedy clubs. I mostly did coffee shops and performance arts venues. There’s a place that’s still there called Balls, midnight on Saturdays. It’s at a theater and it’s run by this lovely lady named Leslie Ball, who’s supper supportive. It’s a very long show that goes as long as four AM. A couple comedy clubs had open mics. I would just do my own shows at coffee shops. I did a one-person show at a bowling alley theater that they still have. I was there for three years and then I auditioned for a job doing Star Trek characters. I did that for a month at the Mall of America and then they said they were hiring to the same thing in Los Angeles, so I moved there, and worked on that for about year. I was traveling to mall openings and such with a boom box, a Vulcon, a Klingon, and then we’d do Improv games as our Star Trek character. LA had tons of open mics.
Star Trek work sounds like a comedy goldmine.
It didn’t pay super well, or at least not enough for people to get their uniforms dry cleaned. I had a couple of diet Coke and nacho stains on my uniform. We didn’t have make up artists on the touring shows, so we did our own make up. Kids would come up and say, “I can see your make up! You’re not from space, you’re wearing make up!” The Vulcans were generally alcoholics and the Klingons generally had a sex addiction, where they’d sleep around. I’m not sure about the Bajorans. Well, I slept around too, so maybe that was the problem. I was a Bajoran, which is supposed to be the hot lady role. They wore platform boots and their cultured involved wearing padded bras.
Did the different races get along well with one another?
Once, when a bunch of Klingons and a bunch of Vulcans were staying together at a vagabond executive suit. There was a confrontation because one of the Vulcans was gay. I don’t remember what the confrontation was, exactly, but I think the Vulcan was a cross dresser in his real life. There weren’t any physical fights, but there were cut downs, which is also what happens on Star Trek where the different cultures don’t get along. I was a Bajoran, so I was asleep at the time.
My roommate was a Klingon and he had to drive in his Klingon outfit. He was about six five and with his platform boots he was about six eight. He had to drive his car El Monte, which is a less affluent suburb of Los Angeles, to do an opening for Jack in the Box. He had an older car and had to pull up in his total gear because he couldn’t get dressed on site, and I thought that was funny. A space alien showing up in a 1986 Honda.
How does your early material compare to what you’re doing now?
I wasn’t as good as being conversational or social as a comedian. I used to play the violin in my act. I’d say what I’d perceive to be a joke, play a violin solo, and then go into something else. When I think about it now, it was a bit passive aggressive. And I was bald too. I shaved my head and wore long floral dresses. It was a, “Why are you looking at me?” kind of thing. “Because you’re bald playing a violin and telling jokes.” I did some sexual stuff. “Attention getting.” Now I’d like to say that I’m more myself onstage. I still do characters and get the same type of reviews where it says, “She’s crazy. She’s Cybill. She’s schizophrenic.” My joke in response to that is, “The actual diagnosis is clinical depression.”
I got a slightly negative review that said that I don’t talk to the audience or hit hard with political stuff. When I believe that I’m saying something, I say it through a character. If I’m saying, “The consumerist culture is selfish and wrong,” I say it through other means. That’s something that I’m lacking, I guess. I’m maybe more accessible now, but maybe not. I got a review at the Montreal Festival that said almost all the same things as when I was starting.
Were you doing bringer shows as well?
I must have done at least one, but I didn’t want to do them because I didn’t have that many friends and I couldn’t stand asking people to come. That’s when I’d do my own shows at a coffee shop for one person.
How long were you doing stand up before you noticed some sort of difference?
I’ve been doing TV the last few years and I sometimes thought that people would laugh because they knew it was supposed to be funny. As though people were thinking, “Well, it’s been on TV,” but that might be my own paranoia. I don’t know if this is because of American culture, but I find something comforting about being the underdog. It worries me when people start cheering in a wild, “We’re winning,” sort of way for the arts.
What are some things that you know about stand up now that you would have liked to have known when you were starting out?
I’m glad that I didn’t know some things because I might not have done them. I did Vegas and had I known how poorly that was going to go I wouldn’t have done it. But I did it and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I didn’t know how bad the bad gigs would be. Sometimes it’s good to fail miserable so you can have compassion for other people. I don’t think I agree with the, “You’ve got to kill in every room. If you’re a great comedian you can make anybody laugh,” attitude. I think I’m good at what I do, but I don’t find that to be true.
What do you think of comedians that start out very early, like sixteen?
If you like doing something you’re always going to like it. I started playing the violin at three and I never really liked the violin or violin music. I kept doing it because it was a freakish skill that’d make people go, “That’s neat.” I stopped when I was twenty-one. I’ve seen some kids, six years old or so, pushed to do things. That seems a bit wrong, but I have a hard time taking a moral stance on anything.
What would you say to someone that’s planning on moving to LA to do comedy?
It’s fun. There’s tons of open mics here, but it’s harder to get around or to be poor here. When I moved here, I hadn’t ever made more than six thousand dollars per year, but I was living in a hippy co-operative. Los Angeles only has a couple of those. I don’t have any family here, so it felt scary. If you get sick and don’t have any health insurance you have to go to the county hospital, which is a huge bummer. There’s not as much of a safety net or and there’s not a lot of things that you can do with not much money. You can go places, like comedy nights, but you have to drive. I finally got the self-esteem to get a job as a secretary, which was great. I know some comics that moved to LA and got into credit card debt. They had the idea of, “I’m going to make it at some point.” I was talking to a friend of mine before going to the Montreal Comedy Festival and I asked, “Did you ever get a deal there?” She said, “No, I never got one. Oh, wait, I did! I did get a deal.” And it was a six-figure deal that she totally forgot about. The money’s all gone. It’s never been super funny or aspiring to me to be desperately poor, in debt, and with no health insurance. Anything you can do to support yourself is good. I don’t know what it’s like in New York, but it seems like there’s great public transportation and you could do a lot of shows in one night. It’s like a comedy oasis.
I read that, a year ago around this time, you were working on adapting your one-person pilot to a book. How’d that turn out?
It’s all written and it’s sitting on my desktop. I’m not sure what to do with it.
What was the pilot that turned into the book?
Plan B. I thought that I wanted to be on a sitcom for a long time. I had been able to audition, but I never got the parts I wanted or a major development deal. So I decided I’d get it out of my system and do it myself. The premise is that a thirty-five year old, slightly built, comedian suffers a nervous breakdown onstage at the Detroit Comedy Castle and is forced to move back in with her parents, which is something that sort of happened. I had somebody heckle me at the comedy club. A woman stood up and said, “I am so fucking bored. I am so sick of you and your voices? Is anyone else here bored? Why don’t you bring the other guy on?” I prepared at all, so my knees started shaking, I got a bit teary eyed, and then I was fired. So, what happens is that I move home and play all of the characters. It’s my worst fear of what would happen. My mom’s like, “Honey, you can’t live here. We love you, but it’s hard to be around you.” It’s not a story of triumph by any means.
When should people expect your second CD available?
It’s an hour’s more worth of material. It’s called How to Win. The American lifestyle’s all about winning. People often compare themselves to others, or at least I compare myself to how others are doing. It seems like nobody’s ever doing enough and there are moments of brief glory. It’s about that. About success, trying to succeed, failing, and failing some more. It’s jokes and stories. I did a DVD of Plan B that should be out this fall. My actual parents are in that as well. The CD and DVD are being put out by Stand Up Records.
So the new Comedy Central Presents, How to Win, and Plan B will be coming out around the same time?
That’s the plan.
How often do you have comedy shows inside your house?
I was doing them once a week in the summer for a while, but I have to go out of town again. I’d like to do it up in the fall once a week. My neighbors come over and I let comedians do twenty minutes. It’s hard to get a longer set in Los Angeles. It’s potluck, so people bring food. We’ve had some rough rooms. Once, someone had their cell phone go off, but that was a friend of a neighbor, not an actual neighbor. Although, I did announce before the show, “Please turn your cell phones off.” I got the idea from this Irish comedian, David O’Doherty , who did a DVD in his home. He’s wonderful. In Los Angeles, you don’t get as much social time with people. It seems like people have to get something done, either work or career wise, and then go home. It’s nice to be at my house where people can hang out afterward and have a party.
Are you planning on doing any shows other than your Comedy Central Presents taping while you’re in New York?
I talked to Eugene Mirman and he said that I could do his show, Invite Them Up.
What do you like to do after a performance?
I like to watch the rest of the show. Then I’ll talk with someone at the show about how our material was, and then go home, have some gram crackers and milk, and fall asleep reading comforting books like Train Spotting. But heroin abuse isn’t very comforting. I’m reading a book called The Confident Performer by Dr. David Roland. I found it in Australia. There are lots of graphs and pictures of what it’s like to be a confident performer.