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Maria Bamford is no longer terrified of her TV show

Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

In the two-plus decades Maria Bamford has performed as a stand-up comedian, few have doubted her talent, but whether Hollywood would ever find a way to harness it remained an open question. Her comedy hilariously blends the absurd with the pitch-black, her voice bouncing among a few note-perfect affectations then diving headfirst into uncomfortable honesty: On 2013’s fantastic Ask Me About My New God!, she affects the voice of a nervous airhead consumer in “Buy Stuff” then segues into “Suicide, Anyone?,” where she brightly asks, “Is anyone thinking of suicide? Oh, don’t do it! Not the season for it! Late fall, late fall. People will be so mad at you if you do that!” Bamford’s struggles with depression and mental illness have provided a bounty of material, so much that she named her excellent 2009 album, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, after her diagnosis and even listed the meds she was taking (with dosages) in the liner notes. It’s a style Hollywood types would euphemize as “quirky”—distinctly her own, but difficult to fit into entertainment’s limited options (especially for women over 40). But when Netflix announced Lady Dynamite—co-created by Mitch Hurwitz and TV veteran Pam Brady—it seemed like Bamford had finally found her perfect outlet: a surreal, silly, but sneakily poignant show loosely based on her life and act. Lady Dynamite became one of the best shows of 2016, and Netflix quickly renewed it for a second season, which debuts on November 10. Ahead of the premiere, Bamford spoke to The A.V. Club about season two, writing new stand-up material, and the artfulness of blowjobs.

The A.V. Club: Was there anything you wanted to do differently going into the second season?


Maria Bamford: I was so frightened the first season—I was so terrified. [Laughs.] I’ve just never been on a television show, a whole television show. This season was just probably more relaxing. I was able to tell the producers that I needed a 12-hour turnaround at minimum, which is a normal thing to ask for, but a lot of times productions, because they are trying to save money, they’ll pay you to do overtime. And I don’t really care about getting paid to feel terrible. [Laughs.] That was the… what is that called? The work-environment thing that I’d ask for. But it was great. I had hope for more animals, and my husband got to be in it, and my parents, and I got some friends some jobs. At this point, that’s more what my vision is. “Let’s try to get everybody a job.”

Pam [Brady] listened to me for notes from last season, and I think it’s put into this season. Just because certain things—like the first season where I give blowjobs willy-nilly. That was something that stood out to me. I was like, “Wow, first of all, that’s an art form, and you can’t just say that as a throwaway, like, ‘And then, ba-dum-bum!’ No, that’s a serious amount of effort and artfulness that needs to be explored.” I think, at least for me, it seemed like that translated into some of the funny stuff about the future, where Karen Grisham is taking over my life, and I’m suddenly doing things that I don’t want to do. Anyways, it felt very satisfying to be heard.

AVC: To take a step back, was the first season like, “Hooray, I get to do this show!” and “Holy shit, I have to do this show!”?

MB: Oh, yeah, no, just totally horrifying. I think you probably don’t realize what something’s like until you do it—that was 16-, 17-hour days—what that really feels like, what that really means. I would say the majority of productions are like that. It’s hilarious because [Lady Dynamite] is about mental health and that [I was] kind of putting my mental health in danger in order to do a TV show about mental health. So, whoops. [Laughs.]


For the first season and even for the second season, a lot of times I couldn’t fully be awake for the experience. I’m on pretty heavy psychiatric meds, so I would say for about four hours a day, I was perky and going, “This is interesting!” And genuinely doing the work. But then the other parts were a real struggle. They put a “bat cave” on set for me so anytime that I wasn’t doing something, I could go into this cave. Have you ever seen those? It’s like a tent, a cave you can zip up. I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody, and I could just sit in my cave. I think they put “Bam Cave” on it, and then the teamsters would walk by and go, “What the hell is this?” That was delightful, actually. It was really helpful to have a place where I could just go. I’m introverted, and you’re around hundreds of people all day, and so that was really helpful to have that and to be able to emerge from the chrysalis slightly refreshed.

But, yeah, there’s a reason I’m a stand-up comedian. I think there may be some laziness inherent in that job. It’s the four-hour work week, on some level. I mean, I work at it, but it’s not that kind of… it’s just not the hours at all. So I was extremely grateful for the job. It was super, super fun, and I’m surprised that I made it.


AVC: Did you entertain thoughts of a second season when you were working on the first?

MB: I always just assume nothing’s going to work out, because so many beautiful things haven’t gone forward, so it’s like, “Oh well, it’s okay, and it’s amazing to get one season made.” I mean, that’s just spectacular. It’s like winning the lottery. So to have a second season, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh. We won the lottery again.” It was so much more fun this year, because I think I knew what it was or what it might be, and so that was awesome.

AVC: You mentioned your husband and parents are in this season. The series is fairly autobiographical, so how does that continue in the second season?


MB: Yeah, it goes through how we decide to get married, and how [my husband and I] actually decided to get married a second time for the purposes of my mother having something to do. She loves a giant spectacle, and so that is what we did, and then the writers really took that real story and made it into a ridiculous thing that happens, where I end up insulting an entire Filipino community.

They exploded into a different wonderful, fully realized story line. I just quietly ate a kale salad. They exploded it into a thousand… what are those little cards, notecards? They put all the notecards up… like, issues came up with having a relationship, and then also the financial issues that came up, and, then why I hadn’t had a relationship until I was about 40. And so going back into my childhood of why that may be, and then they sort of exaggerated a lot of elements from my childhood, which is very fun. I hope my parents aren’t going to… Anyways, it’s done now.


This stuff is very subtle. Like, my mom every once in a while [would] say something not really homophobic, but say something about my dad spending time with a friend. It would only happen maybe, like, every two years, but I remember it. Telling [the writers] that, that became a storyline of my mom tells me to hunt down my dad’s friend, this guy he says he’s spending time with, that he’s having a gay affair—which did not happen, but it does reflect the level of suspicion that I always felt in my family. Like, “Well, I don’t know if I can trust you.” Everyone’s kind of looking at each other like, “Well, are you a serial killer? I mean…” “Did you move my purse? Where’d you put my purse?” I just felt as a child a deep feeling of like, “Maybe I did hurt someone, and I don’t know about it. Did I?” I don’t know—it’s that constant feeling of guilt, misplaced guilt.

I guess the thing that’s different is I’d probably be more passive-aggressive in [real life] or create a very small story about that. But then the writers really exploded it into a massive—what do you call that?—a caper.


AVC: Do you think the show will always stay fairly close to your life, or could you see it drifting into its own world if it continues for more seasons?

MB: I mean, it would be fun. You know what I’d love? I’d love to grow the story lines of other people like Karen Grisham and Bruce Ben-Bacharach, and I’d love other characters to take over. I would love if Mo Collins would just take over the entire show. I just think Mo Collins should take the entire show, play everything. Yeah, so, I’d be interested in whatever it could become. I don’t know if there will be a third season.


I did tell them that I would need children’s hours, which is 10-hour days. There’s a 10-hour limit for kids, and so that’s what I would need. I don’t really care about the salary at this point as much as sleep. Who knows if that’s a possibility? It seems like it’s not. Just in television, I’ve talked to so many different people and they’ve said, “Oh, no, that’s not possible. That would make the production too expensive.”

Children’s hours. Oh, man. That is a sweet spot. You look at those kids, and they go on set and they’re fresh as daisies. They are fresh as daisies throughout the day. They’ve got it good! [Laughs.]


AVC: You’re not writing the episodes, so how does working on the show affect your ability to write new stand-up material?

MB: Well, it’s pretty separate. I’m always under the assumption that people haven’t seen the TV show who come to see me do stand-up, so I’m not really doing anything from the show. The stuff I’m working on now, I’m not even sure what it’s about. There’s content, I tell you. There’s 40 minutes of new verbiage, that’s coming out of me!


AVC: Is it more of a mental space thing—like, if you’re working 17-hour days and you don’t have time to do anything else?

MB: Oh my god, oh, yeah! I’m not doing stand-up during the times that the show’s shooting. For me, they can’t co-exist. I know other people do, and I applaud and delight in their joie and their energy levels. That is wonderful, but yeah, I’m not doing that.


AVC: Your mind isn’t thinking in terms of stand-up when you’re in production?

MB: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no. Somebody was like, “You should be keeping notes for a book!” And I’m like, “What?!” You know, I know that’s possible, but it was everything I could to do to get there and to stay on the set. To not slowly roll in a blanket outside the studio. “Where’d she go? There’s a blanket rolling down San Fernando Boulevard.”


AVC: Now that you’re out of the fog of war, so to speak, how does your relative stability—you’re married, you’ve got this show, and I know that the mental stuff can feel like a moving target, but from the outside it seems like you’ve got it together. How has that affected your material?

MB: Well, I was a little worried about that because I don’t have any mental-health stuff this time, this batch [of stand-up material]. I think that’s just what happens in the arts—you move on to the blue period, and they’re like, “But I liked it when you painted in yellow! Oh, no! None of this matches my couch.” It’s okay if I’m less, whatever, marketable or interesting as a comedian because I’m feeling better. That’s okay. That’s all right. Or that I’m not having harrowing mental-health experiences—there’s no need. There’s no need. It’s okay. I can open for my friend Jackie Kashian. She’s promised me.


AVC: Have you found your process of coming up with new material has changed? Is it easier or harder?

MB: It’s still just as painful and embarrassing as it always has been. Like, “Oh god, I’m so sorry. That was confidently said, but poorly worded. Let me try again someplace else, maybe a half-hour from now in another area of Los Angeles. I’m so sorry.” But yeah, I’m excited. My favorite joke is that I’m an atheist, but that does not mean I am not ethically competitive. My husband and I were reading about the religions. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians all seem to give about 10 percent, something called tithing. Everybody calls it something different. We’re giving 11. We don’t believe in heaven, but we’re going. [Laughs.]


AVC: Were you ever a subscriber to the belief that your material’s better when you’re unhappy?

MB: I hope not. I hope I wasn’t a subscriber to that belief, but I get worried because I just go, “Oh, well, people like this stuff when I felt terrible.” Well, number one, there’s no way I would’ve been able to write anything about mental-health crises had I not felt good. So, there’s that to be said. Stability is interesting. I know comedians who seem very mentally stable and consistent and relatively happy. Brian Regan seems like a happy dude. I don’t know Jerry Seinfeld, but I did have breakfast with him once, and he enjoys a nice shoe. It was he and Tom Papa, and we discussed whether it was important to wear a hard shoe in front of a crowd, or if a soft tennis shoe was okay. The consensus was no, hard shoe. I guess I followed their advice in that I always seem to be wearing a clog.


We’ll find out. Well, I’ll find out. Who knew that mental illness was such a cash cow?

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About the author

Kyle Ryan

Kyle Ryan is a writer/editor/producer who worked for The A.V. Club in various capacities from 2005-2018.