Comedian Maria Bamford Copes With Her Mental Illness by Performing Comedy

Comedian Maria Bamford will perform at the Majestic Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday.EXPAND
Comedian Maria Bamford will perform at the Majestic Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Photo by Natalie Brasington

Maria Bamford, the stand-up comedian who stars in the critically acclaimed Netflix series Lady Dynamite, is very open about her struggles and triumphs with maintaining her mental health. According to a New York Times profile published in 2014, she's wrestled with obsessive compulsive disorder, binge-eating, anxiety and type-II bipolar disorder. She's spent time in inpatient psychiatric units, taken years to find the right medication to treat her condition and even contemplated suicide.

Bamford isn't afraid to talk about these dark moments in her life through her stand-up or the fictionalized version of herself on her Netflix show, but her comedy isn't what anyone would characterize as black humor. She's a sympathetic and vulnerable figure on stage, but she's funny because she can also pinpoint the absurdity of fighting with one's own brain.

"I think I've been inspired by public figures and people whose books I've read and therapists who've told me to be more open about it," Bamford says from her home in Los Angeles, California. "I definitely feel there's a movement because there's so much more acceptance about it than there was originally. I feel very lucky to live in this day and age."

Aside from her TV show, Bamford has recently embarked on a stand-up tour that will stop at The Majestic Theatre on Saturday. She says that bringing her struggles and experiences into her comedy has also helped her.

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"If it just makes people laugh, that's positive and generally helpful to me," Bamford says. "I feel better. I feel like when people laugh, it's familiar or it must relate to them on some level because they laugh."

Bamford started doing stand-up in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, before making a move to Los Angeles. She gained a following in LA's growing alternative comedy wave, which also launched the careers of comedians such as Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Eugene Mirman and Brian Posehn, with whom Bamford toured as The Comedians of Comedy. Bamford became one of the first breakout stars on the web comedy channel Super Deluxe with her one-woman web series The Maria Bamford Show.

Bamford says she owes a lot of her success to the internet, which has created new avenues for up-and-coming comedians such as web series and online comedy specials. In 2012 she self-released a comedy concert, The Special Special Special, in which she performs comedy in her Los Angeles home with her parents as the only audience.

"That is the only reason I've got fans and interested audiences from the internet," Bamford says. "I couldn't seem to get a job on TV shows. I auditioned for 10 years. I did what I could do with what I had. I had this one person sitcom that I pitched to an internet company to turn it into a series for Super Deluxe. That turned out to not only be a good source of income but on the Internet, everything lasts forever, fortunately and unfortunately. I'm very proud of that work. It's part of the reason people still come out to see what I do now."

The Maria Bamford Show feels like a smaller incarnation of her Netflix series Lady Dynamite. Bamford plays herself as a struggling comedian trying to find fame in LA's already surreal show business industry. She's torn between a weak but loyal agent (Bruce Ben-Bacharach) and his fierce and unapologetic rival agent (Ana Gastayer). The series occasionally jumps back to Bamford's earlier days in Duluth when she lived with her parents (played by Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) and was under the control of an overbearing childhood friend (Mo Collins) who exacerbated her crippling mental insecurities.

The first season — created and produced by Bamford, former South Park writer Pam Brady and Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz — became one of Netflix's most widely acclaimed original series. Bamford says writing for the second season has already started and shooting will commence in February.

"I'm extremely proud that I showed up sober and stayed every day as long as they said I should stay," Bamford says about the first season of her Netflix show. "It's surprising how when your dream comes true how hard it is. It's tiring. I worked with others and I've never done that before and I had a lot of people trying to translate what they thought was funny about my material."

Bamford will also record a new comedy special in LA on Nov. 17, but then she'll try not to put too much else on her plate. She says she's found a work/life balance that keeps her motivated and the creative juices flowing without making her feel like the world is caving in on her.

"With the medications I've been on now, I've felt great for the past four years, but I think I've got to be careful to not overwhelm myself," Bamford says. "So that's why I'm not writing a book. I am reading a book. Does that count?"

Maria Bamford will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St. Tickets are $29.75 at Ticketmaster.com.


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