I caught the Maria Bamford bug later than most comedy lovers.
Honestly, it wasn't until 2009, when I saw the cover of her comedy album, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, that I knew this love was for real. The album cover features the serious-faced comedian posing on a leather chaise with her two pugs at the time, Bert and Blossom, wearing matching blonde wigs.
I was instantly smitten. Pugs. Wigs. And a hysterical comedian with a clear, original voice that doesn't objectify or demean. And I could not ask for more.
Upon devouring her entire recorded collection, (which I am typically hesitant to do out of a strong preference for live performance), I found the exact type of creative, character-based comedian I want to listen to all day every day. I found myself listening to tracks on repeat and laughing every single time.
I started asking friends if they knew who this lady was. And of course they did. She was already a pretty major comic. '"She was one of the Comedians of Comedy with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn," they said. "She did The Maria Bamford Show on Super Deluxe," they added. "She's been doing outstanding comedy for years. Where have you been?"
Well, it turns out that everyone who loves comedy knows who she is, thankfully. She's busy touring the country headlining shows and, because of her incredible vocal precision, she's now one of the most utilized voice actors working in cartoon land today. And there's a reason for it: she's a genius.
Listening to one of her albums, you might imagine the stage is packed with unbalanced voice actors taking turns being hysterically neurotic and empowered. You have to remind yourself that it's the same person launching into these gold-medal vocal gymnastics, expressing life in vivid details that would make even the toughest pessimist giggle.
Having finished up the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, OR, Bamford is once again returning to Austin during the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest at the end of the month. She'll be performing two nights at Cap City Comedy Club as one of the primary headliners in a festival packed full of headliners.
We talked over the phone with Bamford at her home in California between stints on the road. In a conversation that ran the gamut from pugs to nachos to Moontowers, she proved that the kindness and humor of her act comes from a truly organic place — she really is that nice and funny.
CultureMap: Hi, Maria. How's California right now?
Maria Bamford: Oh, it’s lovely here. I do like it here. There are new flowers blooming. People are creating a lot of stuff, they’re dreaming, they’re having a lot of feelings and talking about them. I’m gonna stick with those two reasons. I do like it.
CM: Flowers and dreams sound alright. Well, we’re excited to have you come back here again soon, too. You're going to be a part of the very first Moontower Comedy Fest...
MB: That is where I’ll be. I don’t know everything about it, but I will be there. I am excited. But what is a Moontower?
CM: Well, it's kind of a dark history. Back in the 1800s, there was a serial killer on the loose in Austin who may or may not have been Jack the Ripper, who was killing people. So they installed these light-up towers to keep people safe when they walked home at night.
MB: Oh, geez. That’s scary.
CM: Yeah, welcome to Austin! Let's do comedy!
MB: Are any of the Moontowers still in operation? Like, can you see them?
CM: There are several still standing but you would likely never notice them. They just look like cell phone towers. But you can take a tour of them when you're here since they're relatively close by one another.
MB: That’s good that everyone is safe now. Right… Right…
CM: Are you bringing your two dogs with you on this trip?
MB: No, unfortunately. It’s pretty pricey to put a dog in the cabin with you. Plus, my two dogs I have now are too fat to fly. (Pause.) Well, I don’t want to say they’re fat. Let’s just say they just don’t meet the weight limits put on them by the airline. And that makes me think the airlines should start thinking about those customers — the larger dog customer — who needs a chair to be a little higher and a little wider for fat dogs.
CM: They could use a seatbelt extension.
MB: There’s no reason these customers should have to suffer just because they sometimes break into an entire bag of dog food. It’s beyond their control. They don’t have that mechanism in their brain that tells them to stop eating.
CM: That’s maybe the best part about dogs, I think. You have a new canine friend at home now, too, yes?
MB: Yes. My new dog, Blueberry, is a half Chihuahua, half pug, so she’s a shaky pug. She’s really a better picture of who I am. I’m shaky AND I like to eat things.
CM: Is there a reason you've named all of your dogs with names that start with the letter ‘B’?
MB: No, I just like that sound. (Laughs.) Does that make me sound more like a child? (Laughs. Repeating in one of her voices:) “I like the way it sounds.”
CM: With all the characters you do, you've definitely got a childlike wonder about you. How old do you feel inside?
MB: Oh, I don't feel like a 10 year old or anything. I definitely feel how old I really am. That being said, I feel good about where I’m at. I’m excited about whatever is going to happen next.
CM: You have maybe the most fun collection of jobs in show business. What is going on right now that you’re most excited about?
MB: I’m doing a bunch of different cartoon series right now. I’m on Adventure Time on Cartoon Network and then Kick Buttkowksi, which is a Disney show. I’m working on different things, but nothing specifically to promote. I’m in a baking phase right now. I’m baking.
CM: You're becoming so multimedia. You’re on stage, you’re in cartoons, you were in those great Target commercials…
MB: Yeah, I didn’t expect those either. But it was a really neat experience. And that’s what’s neat about showbiz: You never know what’s going to happen next. That’s true for life, too, I guess.
CM: Is stand up still your favorite, though?
MB: Yeah, stand up is still my main thing.
CM: I’m curious about your earliest memories from stand up. When did you decide this would be your profession?
MB: I don’t think it was a big moment or anything. It was fun and it felt good; there was no epiphany or anything. When I was little, I always liked to be on stage, and, luckily, I continue to like it. Which is nice. (Laughs.) I never had a moment where I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s happening!’ I still don’t feel that way. I can definitely still not be the right comedian for the room at any given time. But the good nights far outweigh the bad nights, which I think is the key. Of course, you have to go where the love is. Some people say you have to go to tough rooms and fight it out, but that’s never been my choice. (Laughs.)
CM: Is that advice you would give to new comedians?
MB: I think it depends on what you’re in to. Some people really enjoy the back and forth with an audience that yells back or heckles them. I think whatever feels good will make you want to do it more. If you do something you love, you’ll keep going back to it. But if you try it and it doesn’t feel good, it’s okay to stop doing it.
CM: Some comedians characterize the stand-up world as harsh and cutthroat. And you come across as a kind, sensitive soul. Do you find the stand up comedy circuit to be harsh or mean-spirited sometimes?
MB: Oh no. I feel like comedians are some of the most loving, thoughtful, sensitive people. I might be projecting what I want the world to be like, but I do love comedians. On that note, I don't think there's anything tougher than not doing what you want to do. It always feels better to try than to not, I think.
CM: You got a big push early on with the Comedians of Comedy tour. How did you get involved with that crew?
MB: I actually didn’t know [Patton Oswalt] very well at all at the time. I’d only done a couple shows with him, and we were friendly. He bankrolled the whole thing and he really gave everyone the opportunity to do that tour. And it was really quite generous and lovely. It was so great for me. He has a billion fans and some people liked my stuff and I’ve been able to work ever since then.
CM: Do you stay in touch with any of those guys?
MB: I’m not known for being super social. (Laughs.) I’m not the best at staying in touch with anyone. And they’re all super busy. But we’re all on great terms. I’ll see one of them every six months, and we’ve all now got our own wonderful lives to share with one another.
CM: Is it true that Brian Posehn wanted to call the tour The Martin Luther Kings of Comedy?
MB: I don’t know! It sounds possible. But you’d have to ask him.
CM: Your name is regularly included now on a lot of Best Female Comedians lists in addition to Best General Comedians lists. Do you feel there should be a separation?
MB: Well, it’s nice to be included anywhere, to be thought of. But, as human beings, we like to create categories; I know that. Sexism is like racism in that I’m not going to convince anyone who believes women aren’t funny. So it’s useless to argue it on some level. The only thing you can do is just keep being awesome. Therefire, I don’t really care too much about those labels.
CM: I imagine you have more and more female fans and fellow comics coming up to tell you how much you've influenced them. What's that like?
MB: There are so many great women comics coming up, and that’s really exciting. It’s a real boom right now. There are so many shows happening that are finally equalizing the numbers of male and female comedians. I think it’s great. The more the better! I’m always glad to see that good people are doing it, and I want to show as much support as possible, whether they are men or ladies.
CM: …or anywhere in between!
MB: That’s right! Although you don't see that very often. Or they're doing a great job blending in, which is, I suppose, the goal if you're transgendered.
CM: When can we see you as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race? That’s what I want to see.
MB: Oh, I love RuPaul’s Drag Race! I especially loved Drag U, where they made over women to look like drag queens. It was lovely and I loved that transformational story line. I could probably use some draaaaaaaaag advice. I should wear dresses! But I can just never get myself to do it. Because, in pants you can move your legs around!
CM: We just have to get you a good drag stylist.
CM: What else are you obsessed with these days? Do you ever have time for pop culture?
MB: I’m totally into Downton Abbey right now, but I’m only in the first season. Oh, and I’m also really excited because I made the front lawn of my house into a public park. I put a picnic bench out there, and a campfire circle, and I’m hoping to get a sign to post community events. I try to encourage people to sit there. But so far I’ve only seen a couple of drunk teens on the bench, I was so glad to have them there, but I made them nervous when I came home. I tried to encourage them to stay. (Laughs.) So that’s my current obsession.
CM: Do you have an ordinance from the city to make it a park?
MB: I mean, it’s just me saying it’s a park. It’s just my front lawn.
CM: So you love being at home. Would you classify yourself as a home body?
I guess so. I like being at home and when I’m home, I’m home a lot. But traveling’s fun too.
CM:What do you like best about traveling?
MB: I do love hotel rooms. Everything seems so manageable when you’re away because you only have so many choices of clothes and things to do. And I like that. And I like that I can go to a comedy club and have free food. How can you not love free nachos? There are not many jobs where you can get a boat of nachos and it’s not big deal. If there’s one thing I’m in this business for, it’s the FREE GODDAMN NACHOS! (Laughs.) And I like meeting new people after the show.
CM: Do you like having fans come up after shows to talk with you?
MB: Oh, yes. I always feel like, after a show, I’ve been talking the whole time. And they know so much about me now, and I don’t know anything about them. So I always enjoy it.
CM: So you would like people to come up and talk about themselves for a while, show you pictures of their grandkids?
MB: Yes, that. I would really love that. Please come up and talk to me about yourself.
You can share your life story with Maria Bamford after either of her two shows at Cap City Comedy Club during the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest April 24 and 25.