Maria Bamford’s stand-up is as polished as an obsessive grandmother’s wooden coffee table. She has practiced, a lot. The voices? Unfailingly delivered in a prepared tone. The writing? Swift, layered, and prone to kicking you in the pants. And the topic? It’s always balanced somewhere between surprising and inevitable, and somehow capable of feeling—excuse the overused but necessary term—fresh. It would be an understatement to call Bamford merely “sensitive” or “observant.” Her middle name should be the prefix “hyper.”
For the last several years, her career has seemingly been about to blow up in popularity, but her success as a household name has always been tempered. She’s made the run of late night talk shows, appeared in movies, had her own Comedy Central special, and, of course, become known for her role as a militant Target enthusiast in the store’s 2009 and 2010 holiday commercials. But stand-up is clearly where she is most varied and free as a person—or several people. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the Duluth native ahead of a scheduled five-night stand at Acme Comedy Company. (Her appearance was postponed due to a family emergency. No new dates have been announced.)
The A.V. Club: The last time we talked to you, you groaned at the thought of a comedian being serious. Why is that?
Maria Bamford: Well, as far as I can tell, comedians are pretty serious people, and that’s why they make fun of things all of the time. But I guess I should just speak for myself. I have a pretty relatively depressive mindset, and it’s good to laugh. A lot. Yeah, I have a lot of serious ideas, which may or may not be correct.
AVC: That line stood out after reading Tiny Fey’s new book Bossypants, because she talks about never really wanting to be serious or say what she believes. Do you feel similarly?
MB: I can relate to that. There’s something about being sincere that makes you feel super vulnerable. If you say, “This is how I feel about this,”—at least for me, it’s a protective thing. I like all kinds of comedy. I like comedy that doesn’t talk about real beliefs or serious thoughts, but then I also like the stuff that does. I think it just depends. It’s a completely personal choice.
AVC: A comedian who speaks his mind would be someone like Adam Carolla. The tone of an act like that is dramatically different from what you do—
MB: Right, well, Adam Carolla is who he is. It seems like his personality drives who he is. It doesn’t seem like he writes jokes. I am who I am, too. But I have to write and rehearse things for me to feel comfortable saying them. I’m not an extroverted person, nor am I hyper-confident in my point of view. I just don’t have that personality. So I write something and rehearse it over and over again, whereas someone like Kathy Griffin, she’s just awesome at being free and being herself. She writes as well, but it’s more loose, which is partly why I think she’s so awesome in interviews.
AVC: You and Amy Sedaris, for example, both seem to create characters that try to reveal something about situations or people. Is that what you think you do when you make these characters?
MB: [Nervous voice] Oh, I don’t know! [Laughs.] I think that I’m channeling different people, but really it’s just different versions of myself. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing; I just hope that it’s funny. Like anything in life, it’s totally subjective. It’s a constantly humbling enterprise to just be alive and leave your house or your apartment, because everyone is going to have a different opinion on whether you’re worthwhile or funny or good at your job, or whatever else people judge you on.
AVC: Well, why do you think you’re drawn to speaking in these different voices?
MB: I think it’s because my own voice doesn’t command a lot of attention. In fact, I’ve been told that it’s irritating. So if I become something else—well, this is the sad answer, by the way. The uplifting answer is that it’s fun.
I did it when I was a kid. I remember mimicking different commercials and stuff. I guess my aunt, my dad’s sister, who I never really knew—she does voices, sort of just part of who she is. She’ll do different characters. She was a children’s librarian, now retired. I think it was just something that felt good or fun. [Low, husky voice] You just do it because it’s fun. [New, lower voice] It’s fun. I’d love to get better at it. I’d love to have the ability to learn more accents—sit down with a YouTube clip, or something like that.
AVC: Do you use voices with friends?
MB: I don’t think I do, but then sometimes people will say something about it. People will say, “That’s weird. You just went into that whole other thing [character].” So I must. I must do it. To some people it’s disconcerting, and to others, [charming voice] it’s charming! [Laughs.] Those are the people I choose to spend time with.
I am extremely lucky that my family is so open about being, what some might say “mocked,” but what I would call, “given eternal life through homage.” But yeah, I’ve had impersonations done of me, so I realize you have to have a loving detachment, and realize that if someone’s doing an impersonation of you, it means they’ve thought about you long enough to want to do one. So that’s a sort of love.
AVC: In the beginning of your 2009 Christmas special, you say something about selling out.
MB: Oh, yeah, you got that right. I used to know the difference between right and wrong. [Laughs.] I think doing commercials, or really anything on television where people have to change your words, or where there are lawyers involved looking at what you’re going to say, you are making compromises. My new joke is that I’m redecorating my house in shades of gray. I took that big backpack of money. I think the weird thing when you get involved with corporate entities—whether it be Comedy Central, Viacom, whatever—is that you’re working for something that doesn’t seem very human. It’s not clear what it believes in. Well, I guess sometimes it can be.
AVC: The commercial work that stands out for people is likely the stuff you’ve done for Target. Where did that character come from?
MB: They came up with it. The advertising agency came up with two characters. A “Ms. Perfect,” and a “Ms. Convenience.” Then they dropped the Ms. Convenience character, which was basically a variation on my sister. So it was totally their idea. Jason Kreher [of the ad agency] wrote the campaign, so it was really his idea.
AVC: It seemed like you modeled that character after your mother.
MB: Um, [the Target character] is more energetic and, incidentally, less religious than my mom. But yeah, it could be that—or just anyone enthusiastic and slightly hypo-manic. It’s probably part of myself as well. I get excited about things. In my stand-up, I think I try to be less energetic because I feel embarrassed about how much enthusiasm I have. There’s something about acting like I don’t care, or if I act like I haven’t spent enough time on it, it seems to go better. If I act like I’m really trying to sell it, it doesn’t go as well.
AVC: That sounds like a very Minnesotan philosophy.
MB: Totally. Like Garrison Keillor, who’s just like, “Well, I’m putting on a little old radio show every week.” I was on that show, and he is working, typing on his laptop, reworking and writing the show as it goes. He’s working his ass off. It’s unbelievable.
Things aren’t always easy. My pride always wants to say [snooty voice], “Oh yeah, this was easy. Just thought of it a couple of seconds ago.” And not, “I’ve rehearsed this 75 times in my hotel room and bedroom, and then in the car on the way over here. And then, only then, worked up the courage to speak words in front of people.”
AVC: You have said that you have a lot of respect for Garrison Keillor because he just does what he wants to do. What do you want to do?
MB: I’m currently living it. But I do want to work more with others. I haven’t been as good at that. I think that’s a Minnesotan thing. I was raised not to argue with people, or have different opinions than others. So collaborating with others is really still new and exciting for me. With stand-up, no one says what I have to do, and I don’t argue with anyone over jokes or what’s funny, so that [collaboration] is really a new thing I’m interested in. Otherwise, just keep doing work that I’m proud of.
AVC: At some point in your act, you say that your sister is a pathologist.
MB: She was. Well, she’s still a licensed pathologist, but in the last few years she has become a life coach, and she totally quit pathology. She now makes funny videos on the Internet about self-empowerment and joy. She has one out now, that I haven’t watched, where she wears underwear on her head and talks about her elephant chakra. So she’s growing as an artist, definitely finding her voice. My sister has always been the really funny one in the family. She’s always made me laugh. So it’s great. She’s getting into the creativity beeswax, but she’s actually helping people, whereas I am just all about the money.
AVC: So creativity runs in your family?
MB: Yes, my dad has always been very creative. He learned to play the flute. Then he learned to make bread. Then he started a first world congress of trampoline jogging. Did that for a while. He writes poetry. Does plays. He did stand-up for me! He opened for me when I was in Duluth. I did a motorcycle rally, and I was kind of terrified, for good reason. The guy who hired me for it was kind of a fan, so I think he hired me for it despite how inappropriate I was. But my dad opened for me. Did 10 minutes of stand-up, which is where he did an impersonation of me. And [the impersonation] wasn’t even something that had happened. And later I said, “Dad, that wasn’t true!” And he said something like, “Oh! It has to be true? I hadn’t realized.” Fair point.
AVC: One random question that needs to be asked: You have a joke about licking a urinal.
AVC: Were you thinking about licking a urinal at some point?
MB: Well obviously I had to think about it to say it. It had to come to my mind in order to put those words together. But that’s not my OCD; that’s not my fear. Yeah, I don’t have any problems facing that fear. Well, I’m sure I’d have a little problem with it. There’s all these shows now on TV about people facing their unspoken phobias, and it’s awesome.
AVC: Do you mean shows using OCD, like for entertainment?
MB: There’s this show ... that’s just people getting help on television, because that’s the only form of healthcare left in our country. “Hey, we’d really like to help you. But, um, can we roll the tape?”
AVC: Right. “You’re an animal hoarder. Can we fix you?”
MB: Oh, that show [Animal Hoarders] is so sad. It’s just like clockwork. It’s always, “My wife died, then I got a rooster.” “I know where this is going.” Something terrible always happens to [start whatever the problem is]. I love that show. But sometimes it’s like, “Oh, take me away? I wanna be on that show. I want to be taken away to Florida in a van. I’m ready! Intervene! Somebody intervene.”