Maria Bamford is one of those comedians whose “real” personality seems mysterious. In her act, she shifts through personas and voices—her parents, bitchy former classmates, airheads, co-workers, monsters, Alicia Keys—so seamlessly and with such pitch-perfect imitation that it’s easy to think Bamford is 100 percent vessel, 0 percent real person. Of course those numbers are way off in real life—it’s 50-50, at least—where Bamford comes across as far happier and more “together” than the obsessive onstage who calls her therapist “the rapist” because she can’t take it seriously. Although her voices tend to get all of the attention, Bamford’s material is what makes her funny—as her stint as one of the core performers on Patton Oswalt’s Comedians Of Comedy tour attests. Just before she returned to Chicago for four performances at the Lakeshore ahead of a new CD out April 7, The A.V. Club spoke to Bamford about her early stand-up and turning bullies into buddies.
The A.V. Club: When you started doing stand-up, you performed with a violin and your head shaved. Would that person recognize you onstage now?
Maria Bamford: Yeah, it’s funny. Somebody said to me recently, “Oh my God, you’re so much better than you used to be.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” I also have this idea of like, “I am freaking rocking right now!” I guess that’s good, there’s sort of an obliviousness. [Laughs.] If I really saw how I was, I would be like, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this anymore.” [Affects New Age-y voice.] But I’m just a channel. It’s not my responsibility, for what the spiritual people tell me, you know? I can’t be held responsible for what I put out there.
AVC: That’s such the backhanded compliment. “You suck way less now!”
MB: Yeah, awesome, thanks! [Laughs.] But there is something beautiful about comedy where it’s like, you’ll see somebody go up, and you’ll be like, “Uh-oh, oookay.” And just a month later, a year later, it’s like, “Oh. My. God.” They just blossomed. I mean, it is sort of a humbling profession. Even when you get really good, because it is personal, it is kind of you up there by yourself. There can still be weird moments where it goes horribly wrong, but hopefully those times are less often.
AVC: Have you had any of those recently?
MB: Well, like in Comedians Of Comedy, I was in Buffalo, and it was one of those shows where it was open to the whole school. They had “free comedy,” and then they had Patton’s name, and then that’s it. It was like, “Oh no.” It was packed out with kids. You just go, “Okay, maybe some of the kids know what they’re coming to see.” Who knows, I don’t know what kind of weird energy I was putting out there, but it was very quiet. Someone was like, “You’re not funny, why don’t you get off?” or, “You’re just not that funny.” I wish I could say I had been like this Zen, calm person, like, “Hey man, that’s cool.” I still, or in the past—that’s what I’m supposed to say, I’m trying to be more positive—in the past, I wasn’t great at dealing with that. I’ll just get kind of sincere, like, “Oh I’m so sorry that you’re not enjoying it.” My mom just got me this book called Bullies Into Buddies. It’s for kids and teens on how to deal with bullies. Because the whole thing with calling somebody a bully or a heckler immediately makes them into eeevil, and they’re not eeevil. I mean I’ve heckled people. Have you ever been onstage before? Have you ever done stand-up?
AVC: Not stand-up, but music.
MB: Have you ever been heckled or yelled at?
MB: Oh, okay. Do you ever have a physical reaction to it? Like, my knees start to shake. I kind of try to start noticing, like okay, what’s happening when this is happening? It’s like this physical-fear thing. But I’m into Bullies Into Buddies, [laughs] and turns out I’m not in physical danger, so there’s really no reason to be afraid. Bullies Into Buddies says you should just ignore it, but I have responses to things.
Here's an old clip of Bamford, showing off some of her signature voices: