In the opening scene of the first episode of Maria Bamford’s upcoming Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, she’s woken from a daydream (a surrealist shampoo commercial; it’s great) to discover that she’s been given her own show. “I have a show?” she asks. A production assistant confirms. Then Bamford addresses the camera: “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged. My skin is getting softer but my bones are jutting out, so I’m half soft, half sharp! And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”
During our meeting at her home in Eagle Rock, I didn’t notice the sun damage or the protruding bones, but to her last point, it’s fair to observe that the entertainment industry isn’t exactly known for scouring the Earth to find middle-aged women to hand television shows to.
Bamford, a Minnesota native who moved to L.A. in the mid-’90s, might be best known as one of the titular comedians — along with Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis — from the tour-turned–Comedy Central series Comedians of Comedy. As an actress, she’s lent her signature manic energy to a number of other people’s characters: the Christmas-crazy, over-achieving blond in a series of 2010 Target commercials, Tobias Funke’s junkie girlfriend Debrie on the fourth season of Arrested Development and psychotically homophobic mayoral candidate May Kadoody on the (sadly) defunct The Sarah Silverman Program. In 2012, Bamford released the hourlong stand-up masterpiece The Special Special Special!, during which she performs her act in her living room in front of her parents. If you’re familiar with the deeply personal nature of her material, you’ll appreciate how deliciously uncomfortable it is to watch.
In person, she’s much more subdued. She speaks deliberately and is extremely funny, and a little shy. Since undergoing a breakdown and being diagnosed five years ago with bipolar II disorder, Bamford has been on mood stabilizers, which she says have slowed her speech somewhat and caused a subtle tremor. The idea of visibly shaking onstage concerned her at first, and she was even more worried that it might dull her creative energy. “You go, ‘This is my one superpower, that I’m energized and have a lot of awesome ideas when I’m not thinking about killing myself.’”
She also says that during the grimmest point of her breakdown, she was mentally — and therefore physically — unable to take the stage for a show in Chicago and had fly home for help.
She’s since adjusted to the tremor — a small trade-off for a person who has spent most of her life dealing with fits of mania and suicidal thoughts. She even went through a phase during her childhood when she was crippled by the fear that she’d harm her family or do something sexually inappropriate.
Bamford has built a career on brilliantly weaving unflinching honesty about her mental illness with a performance style and sensibility that borders on avant-garde. Her illnesses made certain social interactions unpleasant, but the performer-audience relationship was never one of them. “Everyone has different anxieties. Performing wasn’t [one of mine],” she says. “I felt excited to perform. I am much more afraid talking one-on-one with somebody without a structure. For example, talking to my neighbors. I just go, ‘God, when is this going to end? They’re going to say something, and I’m going to say something. It could go anywhere.’ I love a format.”
Bamford has inadvertently become an advocate for people struggling with mental illness and for the people around them (she recently received a signed copy of a new book by Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold). And when Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz approached her about developing a show for Netflix, Bamford knew she wanted to make the show about the struggle for mental health.
Lady Dynamite is autobiographical but, ironically, it’s about a version of Maria Bamford who’s returned from a mental-health hiatus and has decided to not strive as hard. She explains the premise: “What if what I thought was going to make me happy isn’t going to make me happy? That’s the idea with the TV show, that I stopped working as much. Why don’t I just sit around? There’s one episode where I get a loaf coach, where it’s just for non-action. The power of non-action.”
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Creating and starring in a television show obviously aren’t the actions of a person who’s decided to be less ambitious, but the show is smattered with little details from her real life, from the purple bus she rides to outpatient counseling to the park bench she installs in front of her house in the first episode to “foster community.” We happen to be sitting on a similar park bench in front of her house for our interview. She calls hello to her neighbor and comments on his pet cat; he responds that its name is Bill Purry.
On the show, Maria also falls in love. In real life, Bamford got married last year to artist Scott Marvel Cassidy. The two met on OKCupid; her screen name was “Hog Book,” because she likes the way the two words sound together, and he appreciated that. You can tell he’s brought a lot of comfort to her life.
“When I was in the psych ward, I was seeing people who were visited by husbands and wives who were out of their minds and not doing well, and they’re still experiencing love,” she says. “At least my husband and I, we know how imperfect each other is. All my imperfections and secrets are downloadable on iTunes.”