Interview With The Bampire
Maria Bamford is an absolute, unmitigated delight: a comic with a unique voice, both figuratively and literally. Her material is dexterous, flitting from one perfectly vocalised character to another, her words and face creating patchwork tableaux of neurosis. She is able to wring humour – and a lot of it – out of anxiety and depression, and is that rarest of things: a truly original comedic voice.
She has released the albums How to Win and Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, appeared in the documentary and HBO television series The Comedians of Comedy and has pretty much collected the set of appearances on US late-night talk shows. Maria is appearing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival until 17 April.
The Enthusiast: There seems to be a low level of awareness of the US alternative comedy scene here. Is it easier for you, having been here before?
Maria Bamford: I’ve been here twice for the MICF so I seem to have much more exposure here than some. The festival’s vision seems to be to take people who are relatively unknown and then introduce them to Australia. Also people from Australia, though I’ve heard because the internationals need so much promotion, and they spend so much money getting us over here, it sometimes hurts the local acts, which really sucks. I’ve heard there’s some great people who aren’t going to get as much audiences as they should. Why am I kicking myself? I just want to say… I shouldn’t be here, is what I’m trying to say.
Of course you should. Do you anticipate your podcast appearances and internet presence will affect your audiences?
I don’t know. One thing about the internet is, because of the viral nature of it, something that somebody loves is passed on to someone they love, so it’s much more powerful of a connection. Like, I’ll watch something my sister sends me or if three friends go, “That was awesome,” I’ll go, “Oh my God, I’ve got to check that out.”
Like, I just started listening to Marc Maron’s podcast even though I’ve been on it, and I was like, “This is super helpful to me” – as a comedian, to listen to in-depth interviews with other comedians. I get worried about his own mental health doing it. But he says – everyone says – that, and I’m sure people could say the same thing about me. And, you know, everyone’s worried about everyone else. I’ll just keep my eyes on my own paper. The test is not over.
Are you comfortable being labelled an alternative comic? Are you happy with that descriptor?
It’s nice to be included in any group. Or to be thought of at all. I mean, that’s kind of amazing. To be thought of at all.
You don’t think it’s a positive term?
I think it’s there to help describe and group something together for the audience. I think people just group things together and it really doesn’t have anything to do with artists at all. The artists are just doing what they’re doing and some people go, “That’s a movement.” It’s somebody else’s responsibility to decide what it is.
At any given time I could also be described as a hack, because human expression is limited. I’m not going to have any more ideas than anybody else. I talk about relationships, I talk about travel. There’s nothing new, you know? Even talking about religion and philosophy, those topics can be hack too. It’s in the eyes of the beholder. I could understand if somebody said, “Um, you’re not that insightful.” Fair point.
You can always see somebody’s perspective on a comic. I’ve heard that philosophy of saying, “I’m here to entertain, I don’t want to hear somebody’s sob story about their life, these are the jokes.” I can respect that philosophy; if that’s truly your philosophy then that’s awesome. We may disagree but I get it.
I don’t believe in ‘hack’ to some extent. Even if somebody is telling street jokes, expressing yourself in any way, I think, is unique and interesting and courageous. I think it’s just so easy to say something is bad rather than to say, “I don’t agree with that” or “That makes me feel uncomfortable” or “That’s a cultural thing I don’t get.” But that’s totally judgmental of me. In order to have any sort of opinion you have to insult someone, I guess.
How do you find the audiences for ‘alternative’ comedy?
If I were going to stereotype what the audience for alternative comedy is it would be…
A bunch of nerds?
Yeah, kind of obsessive-type people who are artists, who are creative. That also feeds it, because if they are obsessive-type people who really appreciate something or get excited about something and are into social media, that’s also super powerful. So, perhaps, it seems like college-educated, mostly white or people who are ‘thought people’. People who are interested in the life of the mind. Or just anxious ninnies. The anxious ninny market.
Do you enjoy playing to that market?
Do you find it hard not playing to a market like that?
Sure. “Why doesn’t she just tell us what she thinks about something for real?” I can’t do that. It’s too clear.
Was that out of a kind of sense of guilt?
Sure. “I’ve sold out to the man.” Here’s the thing: in anything I do, I have a very active brain. Whether that’s helpful or not, or whether that’s intelligent or not, to have that brain going, “Negative, negative, positive, negative, positive,” it’s probably not a very good survival skill. I would not be helpful on a wagon train. You know, if you were out in the desert you wouldn’t pick me to be on your team. It was confusing because I felt that to be in a commercial, part of that says to me, “I believe in everything.” Like somehow I represent the company. That felt worrisome. But they didn’t ask me my opinion and I do need health benefits. So it’s humbling to realise that I am living in shades of grey.
How do you find Australian audiences?
I’m scared for the shows this year, because I feel like I haven’t been here in a while and my material has changed. A lot of it is about depression and mental health. My first year here was all about secretarial work. Kind of silly, goofy stuff. The second year was a whole thing about my family, which is inherently likeable because everybody has one of those.
I think it’s so inspiring how people do a new show every year. UK and Australian comics always do a new hour every year, right? It’s really spectacular – it’s also very brave. In the US it’s all about ‘killing’ or something. There’s no way you could do that, doing a new hour every year. It’s very risky. I’m sure there’s downsides to each structure.
What was the first spark that drove you to performing?
I think liking the feeling of being on stage. I don’t know why, I’m sure it’s childhood. Neglect.
It seems like anybody who does anything interesting or creative had some sort of fucked-up childhood.
Or super sensitive people, so that it seemed like a fucked-up childhood – it may have been completely loving and healthy. I’m not clear on whether I had a great childhood and I just perceived it as a dark hole. That could genuinely be true. The weird thing about comedy is that you can wind up kind of isolated. It is an isolating profession. It’s also safe. It’s super safe up there [on stage]. Because you’re the loudest, you are perceived as the one who is most powerful. Everything is lit, if somebody talks over you they’ll probably be removed.
How are you with hecklers?
I’m trying to genuinely listen to them, because I think they need to be heard. Their desire is so strong. I always try to put them down, but maybe I’m wrong. I mean, I’ve had the desire to heckle and it’s been out of joy or participation and wanting to be heard and be a part of something. I’m trying to listen. I’m not always good at it – sometimes I do the defensive tiny animal thing. Though some people like when you get mad and really take somebody down, it doesn’t fit with my personality. It’s not my favorite.
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